Song of the Unsung Midfielders is a series celebrating, well, midfielders who are unsung in the Bundesliga. The fußball laborers in a semi-anonymous state, orchestrating the dance between coordination and chaos that is football. I have a weakness for these players, as they toil away in large heatmap territories in the heart of the pitch. This series will celebrate their work and bring attention to these conductors – these conduits – for the paths of that silly round ball. Expect some data, but mostly expect a tonal treatment.
This is your life. You shuttle from almost one box to almost another. 90 minutes at a time. At times, you are the match’s ambient current of to-and-fro. At other times, you mostly resemble a tennis ball being ecstatically pinged during an agonizing rally. Like said tennis ball, you sometimes collide against hard surfaces, like the shoulder, forehead, or elbow of other midfielders.
Actually, you mostly resemble David Luiz. But you also resemble a being-rallied Tennis ball. And your rally is 90 minutes long. Stillness is impossible in your territory on the pitch – for both you and match itself. Your job is never to be still. You are never still, not that any footballers are still, but your degree of non-stillness is more urgent than theirs. You are bumblebee- or hummingbird- like in your non-stillness. Vibrations, buzzings.
You are a midfielder, technically.
Yours is a game of few highs and few lows.
More than many other player, your game resembles, like, labor. Something like an 8 hour shift of focused work with no time to cruise YouTube or Reddit for distraction. And make no mistake about it, your work is high stakes stuff: one slip up here or there, and you’re the guy who made the assembly line shut down.
You are Mainz 05’s Austrian midfielder, Julian Baumgartlinger.
Are you tired yet?
The thing about Julian Baumgartlinger is that his head is always swiveling.
His midfield labor is predicated on neck and eyes. As a central midfielder (ignore the Startelf diagrams), Baumgartlinger’s territory is large and his role under Martin Schmidt is that of a box-to-box (mostly) defensive midfielder. You know, the kind of role I have a soft spot for in this series. This neck swiveling makes Baumgartlinger’s emerging stardom possible. While he’s not the fastest or tallest player on the pitch, he’s probably the smartest.
Baumgartlinger swivels because he’s constantly circling around, adjusting his position in midfield – sometimes poking a leg in for a challenge, sometimes recovering to get behind or in front of an opponent, sometimes flat-out pocket-picking the ball off an opponent, sometimes winning an aerial challenge when a keeper clears the ball, sometimes (often!) simply shuffling in zonal fashion to maintain proper spacing between himself and teammates.
Through all these activities, Baumgartlinger’s zone of influence is oddly circular with occasional vectors, excursions, or errands to run as dictated by his work. During Mainz 05’s sensational 2-0 win at the Allianz against Bayern (the champ’s only home loss this season) on matchday 24, Baumgartlinger traced a match-long circle around and through Bayern:
In this particular match, Baumgartlinger’s work was very unsexy. It was mostly this circular movement, as Mainz intensely focused on containing Bayern, which required maintaining a complex system of shapes, relays, switches, and synchronization. During the last four seasons, most clubs who attempt this strategy of byzantine containment against die Roten fails. Besides, would be Bayern-containers not only need to play a perfectly disciplined game for 90 minutes, but they also need some luck.
On matchday 24, Mainz pulled off a disciplined 90 minutes and got a bit lucky, as Bayern missed a few close range chances and M05 took back its lead with a late winning goal from Jhon Cordoba (86′).
Throughout the match, Baumgartlinger was the hub connecting the spokes of Mainz’s wheel with his circular movement around the center. The Austrian was the point around which M05’s shape-shifting seemed to reference its own coordinates.
Iroincally, Baumgartlinger’s heatmap from this match is a faint patina on the pitch. Remember that heatmaps mostly register “pitch events,” like challenges, take-ons, passes, interceptions, etc. In this match, Baumgartlinger’s relatively low quantity of “pitch events” belied his influence on the pitch, which was movement in the form “softly” taking on an attacker, doubling-back to center, “softly” taking on another attacker, reinforcing a teammate in a challenge, or simply swiveling his head and telling teammates where to go.
Of course, Baumgartlinger did “stuff” against Bayern, like pass the ball, win challenges, or join in counter attacks. He even assisted Cordoba’s winning goal with a startlingly effective turn on Vidal:
However, my point is that Baumgartlinger’s influence on this match is not registered through count-stats, the stuff you can point at on the match’s stat sheet or Opta data file. Rather it was Baumgartlinger’s unregistered work that anchored Mainz’s success.
But make no mistake, (re)watch a Mainz match this season and you will see Baumgartlinger do concrete things, actually many concrete things. Our midfielder is really quite visible on the pitch – thanks in part to his David Luiz hair – unlike past subjects of this series. That is, you will see Baumgartlinger do his thing – he’s even a bit mesmerizing to track back-and-forth across the pitch. Believe me, I’ve been doing plenty of this tracking in recent weeks.
Okay, you intone, I get it, but show me something – what does this guy actually do? Fair point, reader. I concede. You want stats and “concrete stuff.” I’ll oblige. Eat up.
Get this, Baumgartlinger was M05’s leading passer, volume-wise (at least until this weekend!). He averages 49 passes per match, which, is like doing 80+ if you play for Bayern Munich, which also means that Baumgartlinger is doing Mainz’s main bread and butter passing, getting-the-ball-through-midfield work, given that his passes average 17 meters and are mostly slightly forward in trajectory, i.e. “up the pitch.” Here, take a look a few sample passing chalkboards:
Moreover, for a defensive midfielder, Baumgartlinger creates a happy number of scoring chances for teammates, almost one per match, which, like the assist to Cordoba you can see in the video above, always look slightly miraculous to me, given Baumgartlinger’s usual circular movement around the center. (I mean, how does he get in position for these passes? So Baumi does have some mysterious wrinkles after all.)
Of his 20 key passes, Baumgartlinger is a “top of the key” (in basketball parlance) type creator:
In transitional play, whether its attack-to-defense or vice-versa, Baumgartlinger is the work horse you’d expect for a stellar midfielder, unafraid of sprinting long, often, and hard – compensating for teammates’ mistakes or simply coordinating an attack or hasty defensive formation. In my viewing of Mainz matches, these box-to-sequences are what thrill Baumgartlinger after his cerebrally grinding work of swiveling that head, shift ceaselessly around, and directing teammates in synchronous coordination. Let me run, Baumgartlinger’s sprinting seems to suggest.
Cutting out the psychologizing, Baumgartlinger’s sprinting is joyful because the Austrian plays such a committed and disciplined game in midfield. His runs seems earned, but more significantly in concert with his teammates and the match’s flow. Unlike, say, David Luiz in the 2014 World Cup, especially in that infamous defeat to Germany in the semi-finals.
Let’s just say that watching a good dose of Baumgartlinger commitment helped me finally understand what was so reckless and desperate about Luiz’s World Cup debacle as a defensive midfielder.
Baumgartlinger is a defensive midfielder, which means defensive actions accrue on his stat sheet – make no mistake about it. He does the dirty work very well. In fact, I’d argue he’s one of the Bundesliga’s most effective and cleanest defenders right now. That’s right, his dirty work is done cleanly. When he steps in to win a ball, he does it deftly. Almost stylistically.
In the general picture, Baumgartlinger’s defensive influence looks like this, stats-wise:
Oh, and Baumi’s got streed cred, defensively, in that FIFA 16 kind of way. Get this, he actually leads the Bundesliga in tackles with 3.8 per match, winning 109 of 173 attempted tackles. I mean, not exactly a spot-on tackler each time, but tackling data is mostly meaningless in a vacuum without more information about situation, defensive assignments, coaching, etc., which is why I won’t harp on Baumgartlinger’s apparent tackling prowess, err volume.
Thus far, everyone’s favorite Baumgartlinger moment this season probably occurred on February 2nd when M05 hosted and beat Schalke 04 by a 2-1 score. That second goal? Our boy smashed it in with his damn head – his only Bundesliga goal to date.
This moment matters, in the context of this piece, not so much for determining the match’s results as predicated by our tired sporting cliches, but rather for its confluence of the who, what, when, and how. My point is emphasized by endearing Mainz coach Martin Schmid,’s reaction, as the coach himself explained in the post-match interview: “I said to myself, ‘Baumi … surely not?’ I had my hands on my head, it was unbelievable.” Unglaublich indeed.
In my framework, Schmidt’s reaction underscores Baumgartlinger’s fidelity to his job on the pitch – a job, at the very least, partially scripted and directed by Schmidt. Baumi did/does what he is supposed to so thoroughly that it’s as if his coach couldn’t conceive of the midfielder (who) scoring a goal (what) to win the match (when) with his forehead (how). Perhaps this scoring moment was even more surprising than one featuring Baumgartlinger scoring – an own goal! – last season.
Aside from Schmid’s hands-on-face reaction, the Mainz crowd’s reaction seals the deal for me. There is genuine love for Baumgartlinger in the way those ultras exploded into joy, especially joy for this guy, a seemingly midfielder, who they’ve seemingly been waiting for to someday score a goal. The crowd’s reaction is cathartic. No wonder Baumi leaped up in to the stands to “macht die Humba.”
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