Prelude – Recap of Leipzig match
In what was one of the biggest upsets of the season, Augsburg, a team that most Bundesliga experts picked for relegation beat last season’s runner-up RB Leipzig at the WWK Arena on Tuesday. While FCA have been in excellent form – arguably unlucky to have seven points from four games considering they outplayed HSV in their opening loss and managed 2.75 expected goals against Gladbach – few would’ve picked them to handle the mighty RB. On the other hand, Leipzig were coming off a Jekyll and Hyde performance against Gladbach where a sluggish second half saw them get only a draw and then lose star Naby Keita to a red card and an ensuing three match suspension. Ralph Hasenhüttl went with a new backline from the game against the Foals: Marvin Compper got his first start alongside Willi Orban while Benno Schmitz was deployed at RB, with Marcel Halstenberg regaining his LB spot. They even made a change in goal, giving summer signing Yvon Mvogo a start over Péter Gulácsi. The double pivot of the usual 4-2-2-2 was also different: Kevin Kampl took the Keita spot alongside Diego Demme, who played 30 minutes vs Gladbach. In the attacking midfield role where Forsberg and Kampl played on Saturday, this time it was Marcel Sabitzer and Bruma’s turn. Timo Werner remained the lone starter from Saturday’s match, but his partner was Yussuf Poulsen instead of the excellent Jean Kevin Augustin. It was definitely understandable to rotate ahead of the weekend game against Frankfurt on Saturday and the must-win Champions League match against Besiktas on Tuesday, but Leipzig paid the price against a pesky FCA side.
Defense – solid CBs and massive fullback upgrades by chance!
Since Augsburg are not involved in European competition, they have been using the reliable 4-2-3-1 under Manuel Baum (albeit with the occasional 4-1-4-1) and his lineups have been pretty stable: the perennially superb Marwin Hitz in goal with the Jeffrey Gouweleeuw, Martin Hinteregger CB duo which has been very stalwart so far save for Hinteregger losing a few aerial duels and the occasional brainfart (Cordoba chance against Cologne). You can see that they lead the league in clearances (with the caveat that they both played 5 games already).
The fullback position has been unstable in recent memory, particularly when you consider that ex-captain Paul Verhaegh left in early August to join Wolfsburg (how is that working out Paul?) and Konstantinos Stafylidis has been involved with a move to HSV that took up most of the summer. In their places, Raphael Framberger and since his injury Daniel Opare have filled in admirably on the right, but the left side has been on fire with Philipp (son of Martin – Schalke Eurofighter) Max, who has been doing a lot of passing\crossing into the box:
Gonzalo Castro’s inclusion will probably infuriate the more astute Dortmund fans, but aside from that it’s the usual suspect of the better wide players\wingbacks in the Bundesliga with the Hertha\Eintracht duos and of course the wonderboy Kimmich. Max’s name sticks out like a sore thumb, because he’s about to equal his career highs in key passes in 440 minutes!
It’s not just the long crosses like the one that destroyed poor Fredrik Sorensen and landed on Finnbogason’s head so perfectly that the Icelander didn’t even have to jump, that are really helping. It’s that removing Stafylidis’ horrendous passing\crossing (as analyzed by Dustin Ward over at Statsbomb) and replacing it with elite production has transformed FCA. Per Dustin’s research we know that “Stafylidis is all the way to the right on that chart on completion% in final 30 yards, completing 19.7% of those passes compared to league average of 45.4%. He is neck-and-neck to be the most common danger zone entry pass provider on Augsburg and those passes end the possession 80% of the time.”
And that’s just the offensive side of things, which isn’t that surprising considering Max was often used as a LM last season. The fact that he can have the same production from LB is astounding.
Midfield – Baier finally has a partner!
In the middle there is the ever despised (add Ralph Hasenhüttl to the list), ever fouled (currently leading the league with being fouled 23 times) and ever loved Daniel Baier who is still chugging along at 33, pissing off opponents and still not letting anyone pass! I mean he is 21 of 25 on tackles for God’s sake!
He made six interceptions in this match, several in key spots and just continues to be one of the best pressing players and the most underrated Bundesliga midfielders.
His partners over the years have been pretty unremarkable, but in Rani Khedira (another ex Leipzig player!) Baum looks to have found someone who can do both the playmaking and the legwork of a CDM. He can even drop into a 3rd CB position, as shown by the passing map via 11tegen11.
In the match against Leipzig FCA used Jan Moravek for the first time, but Ja-Cheol Koo is also capable of playing there, as well as one of the three attacking mids.
Attacking midfielders: old guys rejuvenate the counter and Augsburg’s attack suddenly looks dangerous!
This corps has been perhaps the biggest reason for FCA’s success. The Jonathan Schmid, Halil Altintop, Max trio combined for 8 goals (six by the veteran Turk!) and 7 assists last season, but often looked punchless and slow.
In stark contrast to them this season’s trio of Caiuby, Michael Gregoritsch and Marcel Heller all have something to offer. The Brazilian who managed just 245 minutes after a a devastating knee injury in early September last year that caused him to miss 9 months, is known as AIR CAIUBY around the Bundesliga, winning the most duels in 2015\16.
But unlike some of his partners on that list, the former Wolfsburg man is also a good playmaker (1.5 key passes in the last 3 seasons on average) and a solid dribbler (nearly two a game this season and 1.7 in 15\16) who is devastating on a counter (SPOILER ALERT!) In addition he can play LW\LM and even centrally to score wondergoals!
The addition of RW Marcel Heller – who at age 31 is still the fastest guy in the Bundesliga has added even more pace to FCA. You can ask Germany and Cologne LB Jonas Hector on what defending him is like, since he was basically powerless to stop the former Darmstadt\Frankfurt man in their 3-0 win earlier.
Finally, the 5 million signing of Michael Gregoritsch from HSV was met with a sneer by yours truly. While the former Bochum man has a cannon of a left foot and an excellent size\speed combo, he was basically a super ineffective long-range gunner (often from set pieces and from headers) at Hamburg. Here is his shot map by Paul Riley:
80% of his 5 goals were headers, but the rest are basically taken from terrible locations. It seems as that was more of a case of that’s what HSV were able to produce for him, because his shot locations and his over performance this year have been much improved. You can see how the first 3 pics show his better shot selection this year:
Compared to his career stats, it’s a welcome improvement to take more open play shots from closer locations, even if he’s still struggling to hit the target:
Goalscoring strikers at Augsburg?
Halil Altintop lead the team with six goals last year, and Ja-Cheol-Koo’s eight were top the season before that, which tells you all you need to know about Augsburg’s problems scoring. Second on the 15\16 list was the winter transfer from Real Sociedad, Alfred Finnbogason who scored all seven in his 13 spring appearances. He then went on to feature for Iceland in the Euros, but was perhaps already feeling that groin injury that would ruin his next season: he appeared in the first six games and scored a goal vs Darmstadt before going out until late February! The club to their credit stood by him and while he rehabbed in Qatar, did not sign replacements (Guido Burgstaller’s name came up) and he appeared to have repaid that faith by scoring two important goals late in the season in 1-1 draws against Dortmund and Gladbach. Those two extra points were much-needed, as FCA finished on 38 points in 13th place, while Wolfsburg had to play the relegation playoffs on 37. Fast forward to the new season, and Finnbogason is finally healthy and tearing it up: four goals in five matches including a hat-trick to see off Cologne.
Perhaps more impressively, he has taken 13 of his 16 shots from inside the penalty area, which puts him in elite company with Raffael (12) Lewandowski (13) and Timo Werner (13). When it comes to open play shots his 12 is right up there with the same trio, plus Dortmund’s Aubameyang and Philipp. For the season he’s averaging 2.4 shots in the box, double his best season for FCA (15\16) and triple his out last season! Even more surprising is the fact that his 8 short key passes are behind only guys like Lars Stindl, Gonzalo Castro and Admir Mehmedi and ahead of the Bundesliga’s premier playmakers like Karim Bellarabi, Franck Ribery! His off the ball movement has long been his best attribute, but if he can also playmake in addition to moving well and finishing, he really might just become the total package at age 28!
At risk of jinxing a brilliant start by Augsburg, we’ve seen small-budget teams lead by a solid defense, tough-tackling-playmaking CDMs and quick counterattacking coupled with a hot season from a striker have a lot of success in recent past (Hertha, Cologne, Freiburg), so why not FCA? I mean it’s always fun when us experts look stupid!