The break for the World Cup Qualifiers, as the panel on the excellent Yellow Wall Podcast suggested, could have been seen as the end of the starting phase of the Bundesliga season and thus is a nice time to look back on what trends have emerged so far. While past history is not a clear indicator of future performance and the sample size is just 6 games, certain conclusions can be drawn from all that we have witnessed so far in the Bundesliga. To make things a bit more fun, we will try a new gimmick: the Bundesliga Doctor – evaluating teams, diagnosing “illnesses” and finally prescribing some treatment. Just like proper hospitals and medical staff, we will loosely follow the triage concept, and divide the victims into several categories:
I.Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive, and/or are completely healthy – they shall take a seat in the lobby – Four teams – Hertha BSC, RB Leipzig, 1.FC Köln and FSV Mainz covered in Part One
II.Those who are unlikely to live, regardless of what care they receive – we will treat them, but they might be beyond saving – two teams – Part Five – Ingolstadt and Darmstadt
III. Those for whom immediate care might make a (positive) difference in outcome – this group will have several subheadings depending on the severity of the situation, such as:
A. Quick check-up and some suggestions – Four teams – Bayern, Dortmund, Augsburg and Eintracht covered in Part Two
B. Prescriptions only – quick fix – two teams – Werder and Freiburg – Part Four
C. We need to run more tests, but in the meantime here is a temporary fix that might not solve things in the long run – four teams – Part Three Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, Gladbach and Hoffenheim
D. SURGERY REQUIRED IMMEDIATELY – two teams – Part Six Schalke and HSV
R to the X! Get ready for some prescriptions! Today’s patients are Werder Bremen and SC Freiburg. We could even call these a couple of two-faced squads in need of a dose of youth. Allow me to explain:
A matchday 34 defeat to Hannover saw die Breisgauer drop down in 2014/15, despite leading the league in Shots on Target Percentage per Statsbomb.
So did they wallow in their misery? Nope, Freiburg demolished the 2. Liga last season and bounced back in emphatic fashion with 75 goals scored! They alternated wins and losses in their 2016/17 campaign so far, with four wins all coming at home and four losses away from Schwarzwald Stadion.
In terms of the eye test and reviewing some of their basic stats, Freiburg played an even match in the opener in which their 92nd minute equalizer was brutally trounced by a 94th minute Julian Schieber winner that barely got across the line after a deflection. The win against Gladbach was one of the weirdest games with SCF putting 18 shots on 34% possession. It was basically the reverse vs Köln, as defensive mistakes put the team in a 3-0 hole in the first half, and the 65% possession and 17 shots mostly came while behind. A long-range Grifo shot resulting in a Nils Petersen rebound won them the game vs HSV 1-0, and a 20 to 7 shot edge was misleading given all the blocks.
Vincenzo Grifo had a breakaway in the fifth minute vs BVB, but his weak shot was well-saved by Roman Bürki and after those scary first 20 minutes, Dortmund put up 24 shots and 3 goals in a drubbing. Eintracht dominated Freiburg in their next game, 63% in possession, and nearly a 3 to 1 edge in total passes, but SCF showed their attacking capabilities (winning the passing battle in the attacking third) as they pounced on a defensive mistake to play Grifo in, who calmly curled the ball into the far post corner for the eventual winner in the third minute. One awful back pass and one dumb foul – both by Caglar Söyüncü decided the otherwise Hoffenheim match, as TSG prevailed 2-1, while it was die Breisgauer’s turn win by that same scoreline on Matchday 8 vs Augsburg.
In short, the answer to the question raised after Matchday Two “Are Freiburg sneaky good under Christian Streich or just a good home team, bad away team?” has been a pretty clear yes. Our research found that Freiburg were the best home team in the 2. Bundesliga last year going 13-2-2 with 47 goals score and 20 conceded in 17 games. They also led the Zweite Liga away from home with an even more impressive 9-4-4 mark with 28 goals for and 19 against. So based on those metrics, they were clearly a dominant side, but their 2014/15 numbers had them go 2-7-8 away and 5-6-6 home, making our MD Two question relevant. In terms of goals scored and conceded, they are 3-10 in their four losses away from home, where they boast a 7-2 goal difference in their four victories, with three of those wins coming by one goal and the 3-1 vs Gladbach representing the outlier. Spot on so far.
Initially, advanced metrics rate them favorably, they average 13.6 shots per game for and concede 12.8 and overall SCF have a + 6 shot difference, with a + 12 shots on target net rating as well – all top 6 in the league. TSR is at 52% and Shots on Target ratio is third in the Bundesliga at 62%. So on surface this team is doing some things right. Here’s how they stood in 11tegen11’s team ratings in early October.
Yet, a deeper look reveals that Freiburg suffer from the common small team disease of long-range efforts, which do boost their shot numbers, but seriously decrease their efficiency. At 7.1 shots per game from outside the box, they are second only to
JR Smith I mean FC Augsburg who subscribe to ‘the easy shots are silly’ mantra of the aforementioned NBA luminary. Moreover, 37%, or 40 of their 108 shots have come from set pieces, which is the third highest rate behind Darmstadt (31 of 73 for 42%) and Ingolstadt (45 of 97 for 46%). In addition, 29 of 108 or 27% of their total shots end up as blocked shots, which also leads the Bundesliga. The two main culprits are their two best players: Vincenzo Grifo and Max Philipp
Grifo and Philipp both have great shooting percentages at 65 and 53% and their conversion rates – 23.5% for the forward and 6% for the midfielder explain some of the discrepancy between the four goals by Phillip and the one by Grifo. Amazingly, the Italian was at 92% shot accuracy after six games, but a run of five shots off target has brought him back to earth. Looking at his shot locations, we can determine that he often shot at the middle of the goal in the first six games, when he did not get blocked that is, while the last couple matches have seen him miss high and wide.
Here is Max Phillipp’s radar, courtesy of https://twitter.com/fussballradars
Max Philipp is riding a conversion high fueled by two long-range goals vs Gladbach in the 3-1 win that should regress, as elite strikers rarely get over 20% (except for that crazy Bas Dost season in 14/15). Compared to Grifo he is a bit less accurate of a shooter, though when he hits the target he seems to go for the corners a lot more than Grifo.
That kind of high accuracy is both remarkable and remarkably insignificant when it comes to scoring consistently. Max Meyer was a great example of how high percentages can be misleading: he led the Bundesliga (among qualified players – min. 16 appearances and 30 shots) last year with 72% of his 45 shots ending up on target. However, getting them on target does not always lead to goals, as despite taking 35 of 45 shots from inside the area and benefiting from a 15.6% conversion rate , the talented midfielder ended up with just FIVE goals, leaving the Schalke faithful frustrated. However, Philipp, who also takes 33% of his shots from set pieces, has already been a revelation for Freiburg and is ranked as the 7th best striker per Squawka, with Kicker rating him as the 14th best and Whoscored putting him ninth. Whether or not he continues his hot streak is hard to say at this point, as at 22, he is still under 2000 Bundesliga minutes for his career.
Vincenzo Grifo is rated as the ninth best midfielder in the Bundesliga by Kicker and the sixth best by Whoscored.com so far, while on Squawka he is actually third! Here is his radar, courtesy of https://twitter.com/fussballradars
You can see on the radar above (which was made October 7th) that when his conversion rate progresses to the mean – he is converting 9% of his shots on target (1 of 11) – he should produce more goals. Perhaps a decent comparison is Christian Eriksen of Spurs, who is a much better passer (82% to 71%) and is thus less reliant on set-pieces to account for his key passes than Grifo, but otherwise looks eerily similar right down to the distance heavy approach.
Eriksen’s shot conversion rate is 11% for his career, and if Grifo who had just 6 shots in 285 minutes with Hoffenheim from 2012/13 can get closer to that, a goal output around ten goals is within reach.
There are two more important components to Freiburg’s attack, Florian Niederlechner and Nils Petersen who are both in the top 20 in Kicker’s forwards rankings. They both have some decent experience at 26 and 27 respectively: Niederlechner’s got 51 goals in 150 matches in the 2nd and 3rd Bundesliga, while the hulking Petersen has even some Bundesliga pedigree with stints at Bayern (15 matches) and Werder (72 appearances): 99 matches and 33 goals in the Bundesliga and an impressive 60 goals in 110 Zweite Liga games. Petersen is more of a super substitute type of guy as his passing ability (12 avg passes per match at 62% career) has mostly prevented him – aside from the 2012/13-14 seasons at Bremen- from nailing down regular starting minutes at the Bundesliga level. He has three goals on ten shots this year, but it’s probably not a great sign if your career highlight real contains TWO penalties in the first minute of a four-minute Youtube video.
Niederlechner couldn’t break into Mainz last year, and had just 177 Bundesliga minutes under his belt prior to this season. Perhaps because of his speed and dribbling, the striker is able to get off a lot of shots – 2.6 per game to be exact -, but so far has been somewhat unlucky with just one goal from 21 shots, despite getting eight on target. Because he and Petersen are virtually the same size, but Niederlechner is much more agile, he should continue to be the preferred strike partner of Philipp in Freiburg’s preferred 4-4-2. It’s precisely that relatively defensive formation that has been so successful in its modern version thanks to teams like Leicester City and Atletico that Freiburg are employing this year. The reason is stability, rooted in their recent history. Despite being an offensive juggernaut in the Zweite Liga last year, fixing the defense that allowed 200 shots on target in 14/15 or 5.88 per match must have been a key priority for Christian Streich. So far it has worked: Freiburg allowed only 28 shots on target or 3.5 per game, a massive improvement. Since SCF can’t really spend enough to bring in quality talent (more on this later), they’ve relied on Christian Streich’s tactics to aid this effort: as my colleague Anas Ali Molla pointed out: “They utilize their press down the wings with Bulut and Grifo having cover shadows similar to Atletico Madrid’s wide midfielders Angel Correa and Yannick Carrasco. The two strikers (Philipp and Niederlechner posses enough speed to be constantly pressing the two central defenders. In addition, with the wingers (Grifo and Bulut) suppressing the fullbacks whilst having the opposition wingers in their cover shadows they are preventing play out from the back”. That sort of high defending by the attacking players results in teams like Gladbach enjoying 65% meaningless possession, as they struggle to create shots
and also eases the pressure on a defense that is quite inexperienced: Outside of 30-year-old former Racing Santander CB Marc Torrejon, they have left back Christian Günter and CB Nicolas Höfler, with roughly 6000 and 2000 Bundesliga minutes in two seasons (2013-15), while Manuel Gulde is 26 and had just 300 Bundesliga minutes prior to this year. They are also starting two complete 20-year-old rookies in former Dortmunder Pascal Stenzel at RB and Caglar Söyüncü, a guy who was plucked from the Turkish second division to play CB. The results are mixed: Stenzel has the best Kicker rating at 3.3, while Gulde has been terrible, with Söyüncü occasionally looking great but committing a couple of serious mistakes. It’s worth notig that those two joined the team this summer, so their chemistry will obviously require some work. At one point they had a stretch of 3 games in 7 days in mid-September, so getting the team to gel was always going to be hard. Christian Streich should get a lot of the credit for incorporating young players into his team and rebuilding it on the fly. Here is their most used XI:
Thanks to Transfermarkt, we can realize that aside from Höfler and Günter the rest of the 8 outfield players all arrived in the last two years! (That list does not include Nils Petersen, Janik Haberer, Aleksandar Ignjovski or Georg Niedermeier who have all started games this year).
On the flip side,Freiburg have sold so many key players in transfers – here is a list of player who have left die Breisgauer since 13/14: Daniel Caligiuri, Max Kruse, Gelson Fernandes, Oliver Baumann, Matthias Ginter, Roman Bürki, Jonathan Schmid, Admir Mehmedi, Vladimir Darida, Felix Klaus Oliver Sorg, Johannes Flum and Fallou Diagne. Those deals ended up netting over 50 million Euros, while spending around 30 million, with Darida and Mehmedi accounting for 10 of those. This team alone could probably get 13th in the league, no?
It’s no wonder that Streich is considered a legend among Bundesliga aficionados and all things considered, Freiburg can be pretty happy with 12 points and their 8th spot in the Bundesliga. They will face off against Werder Bremen on Matchday 9 this weekend.
Werder have the largest squad in the Bundesliga with 36 players, of which an astonishing 27 have already logged Bundesliga minutes. They are practically a UN group with 19 foreigners. The Green and Whites sit currently 15th, mostly due to earning all seven of their points in the last four matches under now no longer interim coach Alexander Nouri. That’s obviously miles better than the three Bundesliga losses and the DFB Pokal exit to Sportfreunde Lotten that were the final nails in Victor Skrypnyk’s coffin. The Ukrainian was probably fortunate to hold on to his job at the cost of that of sporting director Thomas Eichin. In hindsight, the club, as argued by my colleague Niklas Wildhagen and the Futbolgrad blog, made the mistake of putting loyalty ahead of performance. It’s easy to forget now, but last season was a mess. After a horrendous Hinrunde, last year’s squad benefited from the wonders of Pizarro and Zlatko Junuzovic’s brilliant spring, where SVW became the third best attack in the Bundesliga. Their defense was woeful: In conceding 65 goals overall, they needed to score 33 in the Rückrunde to cancel out the 33 that they shipped and it was a Papy Djilobodji goal (from a goalmouth scramble in the 88th minute) that lifted them out of relegation in the last five minutes of the final matchday game vs Eintracht. In the four Skrypnyk games,
- the team lost 6-0 to Bayern, and it really should have been double digits
- lost at home to Augsburg with two defenders scoring for FCA
- got trounced by a Gladbach side 4-1 that has six goals in its seven other games
- got bounced from the Cup by a 3rd division side (which took out Leverkusen since)
Enter Nouri, the 37-year-old who has spent seven years as a player in the Werder system and has been coaching the reserve team since October of 2014, replacing Skrypnyk. The debut began with a red card for the coach, as his team blew a 1-0 lead thanks to conceding twice after the 88th minute at home to Mainz. Yet, already in that match it was evident that Werder under Nouri look like a rejuvenated side – literally, due to all the young players, of which we will single out three:
1.Ousman Manneh started the season at Werder II with coach Nouri, but the 19-year-old has worked his way up to regular center forward in just five matches. (Injuries to Claudio Pizarro and Max Kruse – neither of whom have played a single minute yet, and Aron Johansson stinking have helped). He earned a man of the match performance and some much deserved praise from the Doctor on Talking Fussball, but right now Manneh remains a very raw athletic forward. He barely has more shots than fouls – 14 to 12 – isn’t a good or active passer (58% on 13 attempts), but he has endless energy with back to back top 10 appearances in the most sprints category of Bundesliga.com
2.At just 5 million Euros, Serge Gnabry has arguably been the steal of the summer, as the 21-year-old star of the Olympics kept on trucking along after a move back to Germany from Arsenal. It’s sort of worked out OK, I guess?
The winger has electric pace: just watch as Manneh and Finn Bartels can’t believe that he latches on this rather poor throughball by the Gambian to score against Darmstadt. Gnabry also possesses a ton of creativity, leading the Bundesliga with 12 key passes from non-corners/crosses. Did we mention that he can fire lasers?
3.Izet Hajrovic is a terror on the other wing, as Jonathan Tah and Benjamin Henrichs can attest to, and letting him turn with the ball at midfield is a recipe for disaster as Mainz found out. The 25-year-old has been a Werder player for a couple of years, but played last season with Eibar in Spain before being recalled in the summer. He ranks eighth in the Bundesliga in dribbles per 90 with six, slightly behind Serge Gnabry who is fourth with 6.8 attempts. He could probably improve on the 33% success rate, though, but aside from the Pulisic, Dembele combo in Dortmund Werder might have the most exciting winger duo in the league. Another category for improvement is holding on to possession: all three Werder players lose the ball a bit too often – ranking in the top 40 – but Manneh’s 3.4 bad touches per match is tied with Sandro Wagner for second most! Still, the two wingers, together with Zlatko Junuzovic produce six key passes per match and are sure to cause headaches for opponents in the future.
The defense remains a concern, which is quite the understatement when your team leads the league in goals conceded with 21. As expected, they are dead last in all the relevant statistical categories, with Hoffenheim notably pipping them in shots in the box against. Perhaps it’s more useful to parse those numbers into pre and post Nouri era: With Skrypnyk the team gave up ten goals in three matches, compared to nine in five under Nouri. The 12 shot barrage by Robert Lewandowski didn’t help matters, as SVW conceded 27 shots overall including 14 on target in the opener. Allowing 18 and 5 on target to FCA was far from great, and the 15 and 7 vs Gladbach was the end: 60 shots in 3 matches with 26 on target for averages of 20 and 8.3 respectively. Just for comparison: Werder allowed 5 a game last year, and in the last ten years, no team has allowed more than 6.7, with Cottbus and Nürnberg getting the closest. In terms of shots per game allowed, those two and Wolfsburg topped out at 17-18 per match. In the Nouri era, Werder have thus conceded 68 shots for a 13.6 clip which is a respectably mediocre mark better than Mainz, Hoffenheim or Cologne. That average was skewed by the 22 conceded to Leipzig, but even with that shots on target against remained at 23 total or 4.6 per match – a massive improvement that would rank them in the top half of the league in most recent seasons! Considering that they scored 80% of their goals under Nouri, while grabbing 100% of their 7 points, and all of their injuries – GK Jaroslav Drobny broke his hand, Justin Eilers had groin surgery, Luca Caldirola fractured his ankle, the combined zero minutes from Pizarro and Kruse, the 12 minutes shared by Florian Kainz and Thanos Petsos for 3.5 million combined, there is every reason to be optimistic in and around the Weserstadion!
Stay tuned for part five!