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.
Here’s a first: I sing an unsung midfielder who won’t be playing in the Bundesliga next season. At least he purportedly agreed to terms with newly promoted to the English Premier League, Brighton & Hove Albion. I, for one, will dearly miss the subject of this article next season, as it’s been a pleasure to watch him blossom in the top flight these past two seasons. Of course I’m talking about (now) former FC Ingolstadt midfielder, Pascal Groß.
In 2015-16, when FC Ingolstadt was promoted to the Bundesliga, Pascal Groß entered the Bundesliga as a fully-formed top flight midfielder. Really, he needed no introduction or bedding in time. He was fully-formed. And running. It’s like he’d already been playing in the league for three seasons and had already matured into an under-the-radar star midfielder.
Sometimes this happens.
For example, when a club accustomed to the top flight is relegated to the 2.Bundesliga, then bounces back the next season with a veteran midfield or two in tow. See SC Freiburg these past two seasons with its midfield talent. Yet in the case of Freiburg, its midfielders already had top flight experience prior to returning to the top flight. But this scenario is not the case of one Pascal Groß, who, much like his jejune club, suddenly appeared in the Bundesliga with no prior exposure.
Disclaimer: Groß actually made 5 Bundesliga appearances as a youth player with Hoffenheim from 2008-10. However, this top flight “stint” hardly counts. For instance, Groß played a grand total of 49 minutes during the 2008-09 season in 4 apps — in one of these matches, he played for 45 minutes, the rest? One minute, one minute, two minutes. So yeah, a really impressive “stint.” It gets worse. In the 2009-10 season, Groß only played 11 minutes TOTAL in the Bundesliga, all of which occurred in a sub appearance on MD 34. Whoop. Luckily, he transferred to Karlsruher SC the very next season, where he at least made the bench consistently after transferring in from Hoffenheim’s youth team during die Winterpause. In 2011-12, Groß became a starter for Karlsruher, then transferred to FC Ingolstadt in 2012, where’s been a fixture ever since, anchoring the young club’s midfield. Thus, the Groß narrative.
And of course, we can add an additional non-German segment: after the 2016-17 season ended, Groß transferred from Ingolstadt to Premier League Brighton & Hove Albion.
Backing up to the 2015-16 season, by the time Ingolstadt earned its first ever Bundesliga promotion, Groß was ready for the ride after starting four straight seasons in the cutthroat 2.Bundesliga. However, unlike previous unsuccessful midfielders with seasons of 2.Bundesliga experience, making the jump to the top flight (e.g. read here Andreas “Lumpi” Lampert”), Groß debuted in the Bundesliga as a homunculus of an elite midfielder.
Even before the season began, I was alerted. The likes of our own Niklas Wildhagen or the Talking Fußball crew predicted good things for the midfielder. Heck, even the Bundesliga itself flashed his name in the title of the Ingolstadt season preview video back in the Summer of 2015.
As a footballing homunculus, Groß entered the league conceptually in “miniature”: equipped with the skills, but not the experience. However, by season’s end we would learn that in Groß’s case lacking experience was irrelevant. Somehow, he seemed to already have all the experience a midfielder needs at his career peak. Somehow. From the beginning of the 2015-16 season, he was instantly Ingolstadt’s most valuable player. By season’s end, he led the Bundesliga itself in Key Passes (3 per match); however, his teammates let down him, granting him only 4 assists on all those Key Passes.
Key Pass production stands out as Groß’s most important contribution from his radar diagram for the 2015-16:
Groß’s radar resembles a Pokemon llama-type creature with asymmetrical ears a single large eye. That Key Pass ear is — obviously — within the Bundesliga’s top 100%. The rest? Let me interpret. Hilariously, given Groß’s stunning Key Passes tally, his scoring contribution via assists and goals is super low. And he’s not a dribbling guy, just as he’s not a throughballs guy, which means he’s not a central attacking midfielder. So I tend to ignore these areas of his radar. Groß is a central midfielder, amid all the to and fro chaos attendant of the heart of the pitch. Hence the longball, the relatively higher foul numbers, and the dispossession rates. Stuff happens in this high traffic area, especially when you’re the eye of the hurricane known as Ralph Hasenhüttl-coached pressing. (Of course, the hurricane eye is an eerily quiet place, which confounds my footballing analogy, but whatever, you get the idea.) Recall that he of the rabbit hutch coached Ingolstadt during 2015-16. I know, forgot already, didn’t you?
About those longballs. After reviewing InStat footage of precisely just this pass type, I can report that Groß is a sensationally skilled long ball man. Utterly beautiful. His Long balls, at least the ones he launches during the run of play from somewhere deep in the heart of the midfield, have the lovely aesthetic curve of a proportional parabola, somehow gently terminating on the foot of his teammate. Put another way, more than any other Bundesliga midfielder I’ve seen, Groß’s longballs resemble the “long bomb” throw of an elite NFL quarterback. (Note: I shamelessly went hometown hero in my NFL example on that URL. You’ve been warned.) Something about the heft, arc, and descent of Groß’s long ball. In terms of functionality, the Groß long ball can thus bypass row(s) of defenders and land just perfectly in front of his target man. Much like the vaunted American football pass over the wide receiver’s shoulder that the defender has no chance of intercepting.
In these moments, the Groß long ball is the meeting of (aesthetic) form and (effective) function. The effect of which is a catch of breath in my throat when I see one launched.
After writing these last couple paragraph, I find it strange to call Groß “unsung.” For us who watch the Bundesliga very closely every week and day, Groß is “sung”: we all know him by now. I think. However, outside Bundesliga circles, Groß is terribly “unsung.” A guy with a trippy last name. Or just a guy. But not this guy. He’s this guy:
According to this Spox.com interview, Groß has a counselor (therapist?), is all football all the time, sticks to his holiday fitness plan like a pro, is a total homebody, and likes ice hockey. We also learned that Ingolstadt lived by the following motto for its first Bundesliga season, as Groß reveals: “In der Bundesliga gilt das Motto: Bezwinge den Schweinehund.” Defeat the pig-dogs, or in English idiom, “Beat the bastards.” No wonder FCI survived its first Bundesliga season. And did not survive its second.
Speaking of surviving relegation, the fact that Groß will remain European top flight football next season, and in the Premier League to boot (ugh), offers him the chance to emerge as a darkhorse candidate to make one of Jogi Löw’s Mannschaft roster spots these next few years as a backup central midfielder. After this 2016-17 season, Groß has certainly earned the right to be detect on Löw’s radar at least. Because Groß was even better this season for Ingolstadt.
Again, Groß was a Key Pass god. Only Leipzig’s Emil Forsberg had (just ever so slightly) more Key Passes than Groß in 2016-167. Our unsung hero averaged (again!) 3 Key Passes per match and created 87 scoring chances for his teammates. These are elite numbers, folks. At least simply as a count stat — i.e. I’ll measure my pile against your pile and see who has more. By this count, other than Forsberg, no one has more Key Passes than Groß. But get this: Forsberg had a league-high 19 (!!) assists this season. And Groß? Heh. No better than last season: 4 assists. FOUR ASSISTS. For a man who creates more Key Passes than just about anyone. Sucks to have been on the 2016-17 version of Ingolstadt.
Remember that Pokemonesque llama? Well, it’s got another long Key Passes “ear,” err “horn”, in the 2016-17 radar for Groß:
Again, Groß is better than almost anyone at the Key Passes thing. Yet again, his scoring contribution is low. This time, I’ll venture to say that the low scoring contribution results from the poor cast surrounding Groß. Ingolstadt only scored 36 goals this season (amazingly, four clubs scored fewer). However, FCI took the 4th most shots (!) in the entire league at 13.4 per match and had the 6th most shots on target (4.8) per match. Intriguingly, according to Alex Rathke’s model, Ingolstadt’s expected goals for 2016-16 was 39.02 (remember that FCI scored 36 goals this season), so Groß’s club underperformed by at least 3 goals, offensively. Tellingly, by a couple metrics like PDO and shot conversation rates, Ingolstadt clearly underperformed, which can simply mean that had a some bad luck this season (for example, FCI’s shot conversation rate was a league worst 6.5%, while the league average is 10.5%). However, by some bad luck, I don’t mean a lot of bad luck. Instead, I’ll claim that the average Ingolstadt shot attempt on target is just not very dangerous for opposing keepers to save — hence the 39 ExG for Ingolstadt this season.
All of which is to say that a Key Pass god like Pascal Groß is a bereft man with the likes of Dario Lezcano, Matthew Leckie, Almog Cohen, Alfredo Morales, Lukas Hinterseer, and Moritz Hartmann receiving his Key Passes. The data hints at the unpleasant conclusion that this crew is just not good enough to bury the chances Groß gifts them. In fact, Groß actually scored more goals (5) than assists (4) this season. #FootballHumor.
Which means that he can score goals.
One facet of Groß’s Key Passes ability stands out: set pieces, especially corners. Groß is a highly underrated corner kick taker. Even on scoring-poor FCI, his teammates couldn’t help but receive good corners from their central midfielder. The right corner, in particular, is a Groß scoring-chances-created hotspot with well over 50% of the chances coming from this area:
InStat video footage of all Groß’s corners corroborates this trend: Groß consistently lands in-swinging corner kicks perfectly into the crowd of bodies inside the box. Usually, it seemed, Groß was delivering the ball to a selected target man. Moreover, I hardly saw any just plain old poor quality corners that got away from his foot, or belied spotty technique. In this video clips, what stands out the most is consistent trajectory Groß’s corners take. From this phenomenon, I can only speculate that Groß does his footballing business with a cool routine of automation. Thus, he can take corners like the best of them.
As fully developed as Groß emerged in the late summer of 2015 from the 2.Bundesliga, I’m still confident that we don’t even know who he is on the pitch. Yes, he lines up as a central midfielder, and yes he plays like a central midfielder in many way. For example, he works out of the middle, veering to the right. He wins possession and loses it. He frequently takes-on opponents. He presses from Ingolstadt’s second line (and well, too). However, in other ways, Groß doesn’t resemble a central midfielder. For example, he doesn’t distribute the ball; e.g. his average of 46 completed passes per match with a completion rate of 69.4% is not what you’ll find from the likes of distributors like Julian Weigl, Thiago, Christoph Kramer, or even Kevin Kampl. And then there’s the happy “issue” of the Key Passes. Now in back-to-back seasons, Groß has been in the top two in Key Passes creators — a phenomenon you’ll see from the likes of Weigl and company. It’s as if Groß plays football with two distinct identities: a central midfielder with holding/defensive leanings or playmaker, picking out the most dangerous passes.
Is it any mystery then that he’s worn the #10 shirt for Ingolstadt?
Unfortunately, for us Bunderliga followers, we won’t be able to work out this puzzle here in our home league now that Groß has left for the Premier League. Nor do I think this puzzle will be worked out there, given the stratification and intensity of the world’s most lucrative sporting league. Nor do I expect that Groß will lead the Premier League in Key Passes next season, or the season after. If anything, I’ll bet that his dual-identity will be hammered down into a monochromatic role with diminished returns. Which is a shame.
Furthermore, the fact that a player like Groß transferred out of the Bundesliga is a small indictment against our favorite league and a comment on the Premier League’s wasteful purchasing power. After Ingolstadt were relegated, nobody expected that Groß would remain with the club. However, my own nearness bias certainly dictated that Groß would remain in the Bundesliga — somewhere. Probably with a mid-table or Europa League side; say a Köln, Hertha, Eintracht Frankfurt, or even a big club from the cellar, like HSV. For example, I figured a side like Köln might consider Groß worth the extra money splash, given the midfielder’s playmaking abilities. Moreover, Groß would fit with the style of stretched and speedy counter-attacking at Köln. But nope. Auf wiedersehen, Pascal.
Sadly, the Bundesliga’s loss is probably not the Premier League’s gain.
Anyhow, you now realize that the Bundesliga has lost it’s top Key Passes from the last two seasons. On this account, Groß deserves our song for what he gave us in two seasons as the midfielder homunculus demonstrated to me, at least, that there was never anything miniature about himself. I know I’ll miss those sweetly curved parabolas, swinging over the heads of lost defenders.
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