Almost at 80% – Examining what is left to play for in the Bundesliga – 1.FC Köln and the rest of the relegation candidates (sorry Hamburg)

We’re 80% done with the season, which means that there is only 20% left and just 7 matches remaining. Sorry, I had to talk like Loddar there for a second, it is the man’s birthday after all!

The  international break gives us Bundesliga fans time to catch our breath and take the temperature of the league. Starting with a look at past performances, we’ll see which teams are catching fire at the right time and which have begun to fade. We’ll be using projection systems like Goalimpact and 538, alongside advanced metrics, as well as injuries to speculate about how the rest of the season will unfold.

As we enter the home stretch, there’s still a lot up for grabs, though the very top and bottom of the table seems decided. Let’s start at the bottom, (okay not exactly at the bottom, sorry Hamburg fans!!) where Effzeh have been the talk of the league: an impressive 2-0 win over Leverkusen that although it benefitted from B04’s individual errors (Leno and Alario) was every bit deserved. Here are a couple of reasons why Cologne have looked like a different team:

  1. Stefan Ruthenbeck has gotten 14 points – 4 wins 2 draws 4 losses – since he got the job on a permanent basis. Including his 4 other matches in charge (4-3 loss to Freiburg, 1-0 losses to Bayern in the league and Schalke in the cup – the top two teams of the Bundesliga in case you forgot –  and a 1-0 win over Wolfsburg), he’s done a very solid job: 17 points in 13 matches are the same as RB Leipzig and one more than Hoffenheim….
  2. Advanced numbers over that 13 game span have Köln as third or fourth worst team (non pen XG difference and expected points). By the way, that ranking does not change if we scale down to the ten game sample mentioned above. Still, going 2 points over expectations is well-within the range, especially when one considers the club’s historically terrible start: 3 points in 14 games vs 12 expected in what was the stuff of nightmares. It is a nice example of regression to the mean, though for Effzeh fans it would be nicer if they were closer to the 26.72 expected points, as that would be right around the trio of HSV, Wolfsburg and Mainz who are between 27.4 and 27.68 per Understat.
  3. Here is another shocking metric: Cologne have used a league-leading 31 players – compared to Leipzig’s 23 and while RBL have had their share of key injuries, their squad was always deeper and better, while Effzeh were running out youth players and Lukas Klünter as the lone striker against Bayern at one point, or six of eleven starters under 21 against Wolfsburg!! (Schalke have used just 21, but they were not involved in Europe, so the comparison would have been inaccurate)
  4. Injuries of course were one of the main causes of those early struggles (Guirassy and Cordoba not being able to score anything was another one), and Cologne are healthier now: Jonas Hector is back as the left-sided wingback, while on the other wing longtime absentee Marcel Risse is already second on the team in assists (2) and third in expected assists (1.47) despite logging just 695 minutes (450 in the last five matches).
  5. Risse’s return came as a sub in the dreadful 4-2 loss to Frankfurt, after which Cologne decided on a formation switch.  Under Ruthenbeck there has been a shift to three in the back – going 3 wins 2 draws and 12 losses with the four defender setup is as good a reason as any- and it’s working quite well with 7 points from the last five games, including wins over Leverkusen and Leipzig! Structurally, Risse’s return has also helped secure the right side, where Freddie Sörensen ( until his nasal fracture has been exposed at RB. It’s a position that the Danish CB can play and has played a lot in the 2016 season, but due to his 1.94m height he isn’t best suited for it and can struggle mightily even against the likes of André Schürrle. He was featured as the right-sided central defender in the three back system until his injury against Bremen.  Given the success of  the much more mobile Meré as RCB in the win against Bayer that included a complete pocketing of Leon Bailey and the occasional runs forward, even venturing towards a bizarre backheel in the opponent’s box when a simple pass would’ve been a likely assist, it’s worth asking whether Ruthenbeck should have switched the two sooner. The Doms, Heintz and Maroh are still around and the younger Heintz has been linked to a potential move to Dortmund and has been the most durable of Effzeh’s outfield players with 2160 minutes logged. The 24-year-old ranks fourth (tied with Sven Bender) in the Bundesliga in defensive challenges (winning a rather average 65%) ball recoveries with 248, and he’s also in the top 15 in interceptions and free ball pickups per the great folks at Instat! Unfortunately he is also leading the league in the one category you don’t wanna lead the Bundesliga in if you are a CB: That’s not to say Heintz has been the worst CB, as he’s had to deal with an inconsistent defense, a miserable offense and a lineup that included 30 different teammates. In addition, blaming the CB for a team hemorrhaging goals is a little bit of a low-hanging fruit, as there are potentially structural issues further up the pitch that could leave him exposed, etc.  Compared to last season, where Effzeh made Europe for the first time in 25 years, Heintz is the same and\or better in statistical categories (40\47 passes vs 38\44, challenges are exactly at 63% on the same 9\14 per game, same 60% tackle success), with passes into the box going up from 0.4 per game to 0.8 this year. He’s an underrated dribbler (succeeds 83% of the time on one attempt per game) and can playmake through the halfspace, as Leverkusen and Tin Jedvaj found out multiple times in the first half. For a reported fee of just 10 million, one could do much worse as a rotation CB replacing the departing Sokratis at Dortmund, that’s for sure, though of course there’s the added monkey wrench of Cologne potentially staying in the league and making this a moot point. Still, it is worrying for the immediate future, that he’s made almost as many mistakes leading to a goal (8) in the Rückrunde than in the disastrous Hinrunde (9).
  6. Dominic Maroh, who alongside Matze Lehmann is the longest-serving Köln player filled in wonderfully against Leverkusen despite a five month layoff and kicker reporting that the 31-year-old will be leaving the club in the summer.
  7. The midfield has also become stable with the tackling machine Marco Höger, who is up to 59% success vs 52% from last year on the same 21 tackles per match and new darling Vincent Koziello in the double pivot. Koziello, a longtime hipster favorite “stolen” from Nice in the winter was the star of the Leipzig win and aside from a clunker in Bremen has been impressive with his crisp passing and excellent vision – both sorely needed for Köln. He is certainly an upgrade over the aging Lehmann, who despite offering some good defensive instincts, as well as playmaking by dropping between the lines does not have the athleticism to keep up against many opponents. While the Frenchman Koziello isn’t exactly an athletic upgradge, as a result of his involvement and the three back setup Cologne have more control over the game with a net (ball in play) possession of 26 minutes and 51 seconds vs Stöger 24m58s in the Bundesliga.
  8.  Having sacrificed wingers in the tactical shift to the three in the back, Risse and Hector have done a lot of the attacking down the flanks, but previous contributions by the mercurial Milos Jojic who had looked rejuvenated under Ruthenbeck prior to his injury – 4 assists and 5.25 expected assists (though a hint of set piece bias can be detected) are double than anyone else on the team! Yuya Osako has scored 3 of his 4 total goals on the year on just 0.5 XG in the last 5 weeks, and it was about time:  the Japanese was on 4 XG for the year, but had just one actual goal to show for it. He’s also the clubhouse leader in XGChain with 7.32 (last year he was third behind Anthony Modeste and Jonas Hector with 13.34), showcasing his importance in the creative department. Meanwhile Leo Bittencourt, whose talent is only matched by his supporters’ frustration at his inability to bring it once every 6 weeks, was instrumental in the Leipzig and Leverkusen wins, as his pace on the counter befuddled top Bundesliga defenders like Jonathan Tah. He’s still incredibly inefficient in his decision-making in the final third, but thanks to Osako that has been mitigated. Simon Terodde was the saviour early on as the winter returnee quickly hit five goals before this recent upswing. Though he’s been left out of the squad lately, it’s worth noting that since his move from Stuttgart his shots (2.09 to 1.3 per 90) are way down and key passes (0.76 to 1.46) are way up suggesting that he’s more involved in the creating of chances. Long-term injuries to Jhon Cordoba and Sehrou Guirassy and Terodde’s lack of form (often subbed out around the 60 minute mark or before) have led to the millionth rebirth of Claudio Pizarro, who although has only scored one goal, became the fourth-oldest Bundesliga goalscorer. He was replaced by Simon Zoller in the lineup on Sunday and Zoller repaid the faith by scoring a crucial goal in the defeat of B04.
  9. So, as we discussed above, the offense has come alive, but it is worth driving home the point in more detail: in the Ruthenbeck era, Cologne’s 21 actual goals are tied for third behind Eintracht (22) and Bayern (32) Surely, there is a very strong sense of overperforming/progression to the mean as their 16.11 XG would just be eleventh. However, if we recall the Stöger era producing SIX goals vs 16.24 XG, and put it together with the latest upswing, it still leaves Cologne still five goals short of their XG (27 vs 32.35) on the season.

In summary, when you have every little decision (VAR or otherwise) go against you, concede 8 penalty goals in the Hinrunde – NONE since! –  have every outfield player other than Domi Heintz miss significant time, fire Schmadtke and Stöger, i.e. have the season from hell, being FIVE points off the relegation playoffs with SEVEN to play is not the worst thing in the world.

That’s not to say that the chances are anything but slim: Goalimpact projects an 86% chance of outright relegation and a final tally of 27.4 points, with a 10.1% shot at the 16th spot.

Espn’s 538 is a little more optimistic, giving Effzeh an 82% chance of relegation with a final projected total of 27 points. While that isn’t great of course, it’s a glimmer of hope and an upgrade on the 94% of last week! (Their preseason projection was 46 points with a 9% chance of outright relegation in what seems like ten years ago!)

Here is what the remaining schedule looks like and thanks to 538, we can see match odds for all of them. Let us use that as a baseline and I will add my comments:

  • MD 28 – I don’t see that much of a chance vs Hoffenheim away on MD 28, though TSG have been maddeningly inconsistent as well. 538 gives the Billy Goats 44% of a chance with 21% chance of taking three points.
  • On MD 29, Mainz are visiting the Müngersdorfer Stadion, in the definition of a last chance match. 538 favors the hosts with 46% chance of winning with 27% likelihood of a draw and an FSV win. Since Mainz have just one road win all year and 8 points and Cologne have the league’s fewest home points with 12, something will have to give. Still, Mainz have taken just 10 points (only ahead of Wolfsburg’s 8 and Hamburg’s 5) since the time of Ruthenbeck’s appointment and conceded a league worst 24 goals, I think picking a Cologne win is a good idea.
  • MD 30 sees die Geißböcke travel to Berlin, with Hertha having a 48% chance of winning per ESPN and Köln at 24% to triumph. It’s worth mentioning that Hertha are a not even a net zero team at home – 4-5-4 in 13 games with 17-18 goal difference, despite overperforming their XG and could also have little to play for, as they fall in between the “not good enough for Europe but safe from relegation” zone. Mainz are playing Freiburg on Monday night in this round, so there’s presumably some advantage of knowing what others have done before them.
  • Effzeh host Schalke on matchday 31, and have 31% odds of winning with the visitors at 42% and it’s tough to argue with Tedesco’s results in the last few games – five wins in a row – and 24 away points (second most behind Bayern). Still, even the most ardent of Royal Blues fans would admit that there’s been an element of luck in those, and we’re not talking just about being 5 points over their 18.79 XPTS away from the Veltins Arena:  the last two road wins against the feeble duo of Mainz, and Wolfsburg were XG losses and required penalty misses and Ralf Fährmann miracles. Do miracles regress to the mean?
  • Next up is the round 32 semi-relegation derby on the road against the sliding Freiburg – 11 pts from last 10 games with 11.3 XPTS!! –  and 29% chance of a win per 538. Freiburg are easily the streakiest team in the Bundesliga – winless in the first 6, a win, then losing 4 of 5 + a draw before a 9 game unbeaten run with 4 wins and 17 points followed by a loss and a win before a current four game winless run. Cologne will have to hope the bad streak lasts until MD 31, because Freiburg are a very strong home team, with 21 of their 30 points earned in the Schwarzwald-Stadion.
  • The home match vs  Bayern is likely going to be difficult to win, though FCB are 100% putting out a B team given that it’s on MD 33. There is no way the esteemed projection systems can account for that. Currently, the Bavarians are a 73% favorite to win, but we saw what could happen if their less than motivated, heavily rotated XI meet a pesky opponent like Leipzig, whom Cologne recently beat.
  • The final match is of course against Wolfsburg, because why not! Per 538 the Wolves are 45% favorites to win, and should be getting back a number of key players like John Brooks, Marcel Tisserand, and maybe Admir Mehmedi. Did we mention that since Ruthenbeck took over, Wolfsburg have won 1 match out of 13 and collected just 8 points?

Mainz should try to sneak out home wins against the spiraling and injury-riddled Gladbach (against whom they were unlucky not to have won in the Hinrunde (1-1 draw despite 20 to 9 edge in shots) and against Freiburg in between the Cologne derby. Getting revenge on FCA who pummeled them in early December in Mainz will be a tough ask, especially since Augsburg’s absentees Jeffrey Gouweleuuw and Alfred Finnbogason might be back by then. The Zerofivers definitely have a tough last three games (albeit 2 of them at home) against RBL and BVB fighting for the UCL, and under Kohfeldt, Werder 28 points in 17 games) have been one of the top 5 teams in the league per the #Kohfeldttabelle!

Wolfsburg have back to back trips to Berlin and Freiburg and they need to make sure they don’t lose both, otherwise Cologne – even if it wins just one of the Hoffenheim/Mainz games – will be within 3 points, though VfL have the added benefit of being 13 goals better than Effzeh.

We’re ignoring HSV for the purpose of this exercise, as both projection systems give them 95% odds of outright relegation and losses to Stuttgart and Schalke in the next 2 weeks could easily make that 100%.



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Abel started out watching and playing soccer in Hungary, before falling in love with the Bundesliga in the mid -90s (thanks to Kicker and Sat1's Ran). Now, he's in the USA -- and still loving it all many years later. Abel is faithful to BVB, but also endlessly fascinated by the emergence of new teams and talents from Germany, to the point that he even started a website about it, at Otherwise, you can find him working in publishing, teaching ESL, and/or drinking craft beer - not necessarily at the same time, or in that order. Abel tweets at @VanbastenESL and @BundesPL

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