Christian Tiffert: Paint-by-Number

by Travis Timmons

Already, you could make a convincing argument that Christian Tiffert is the best German player ever to play in the MLS…. or, at the very least, is the German player who has made the biggest impact on an MLS side. Admittedly, the competing pool of other German players is not very large, yet Tiffert has made his mark in so little time with the Seattle Sounders FC. But here’s the thing, it’s not a glamorous splash, or even one you would notice on conventional stat sheets (like his MLS player profile).  However, heatmap and chalkboard analysis reveals that already Tiffert is a central part of the Sounders’ engine, which, I would argue, makes him irreplaceable to my hometown side.

The Metadata

As the Sounders’ regular season winds down (we do it “playoff style” in America!), Tiffert’s stat box looks like this:

  • He’s started 8 of the 9 games he’s appeared in, logging 709 minutes (averaging 79 minutes per match), since his August 5th debut in Seattle’s 4-0 throttling of the L.A. Galaxy.
  • 2 assists.
  • 6 shots on goal.
  • 12 fouls committed (he’s gotten “chippier” as the season progresses, committing 5 fouls in the Sounders’ last game against Portland, and 6 in the previous two games combined before that).
  • 2 yellowcards.
Tiffert’s metadata (at least this is what I call it, since these data points form the “big picture” state of things in terms of their direct impact on wins and losses) isn’t Chris Wondolowski or Thomas Müller-esque. You won’t find his value in the box score. Even if you were to throw in his pass completion rate into the metadata mix – becoming a trend these days – which is 77% (316 of 412 total passes by my manual count), his contributions still look pedestrian. Another Designated Player, euro footy body happily on the road to retirement in America?
Yet soccer becomes so interesting when you leave the box score behind. My point here is obvious. I mean, how many of those goals and assists are fluky anyway (unless you’re Messi)? Even the pass completion rate – and team possession rates –  is not terribly meaningful, much like a pitcher’s ERA in baseball. In both cases, the number’s significance is muddied by other on the field variables, like a baseball outfielder having a bad night or a midfielder slotting every pass into the box, success be damned!
In Tiffert’s case, we need to abandon the metadata. But then again, anyone talking about the Sounders’ acquisition of Tiffert knew this trick from the beginning. We expected a “distributor” in Seattle.
Heat and Chalk
Here’s the deal, I don’t think Tiffert is quite the Andrea Pirlo, central-lying, marksman distributor that I imagined he would be (wasn’t this the summer of Pirlo lust for us all anyway?). That is, it’s not as simple as saying that he became the Sounders’ “distributor.” Yes, he added a significant new distribution point from the Sounders’ midfield, but labeling him the distributor and leaving it at that reifies who Tiffert is on the MLS pitches. I’ll put it this way: the Sounders’ midfield was significantly upgraded with the Tiffert signing, but not because he stands in the middle of the circle lobbing lasers like Pirlo.
Like a car with alignment issues, Tiffert drifts. Usually to the right. If Tiffert’s movement was a work of abstract expressionism (what else are footy heatmaps good for?), you could stylize his average Sounders’ heatmap like this (hmmmm, can anyone build a heatmap that averages together other heatmaps?):
You catch the drift? The green gradient marks the frequent terminus of the drift, which sometimes results in a cross into or atop the goal box.  However, even here I’m reifying Tiffert’s presence and movement on the pitch (i.e. he cuts a dashing diagonal across the pitch, the pivot of which is center midfield, the terminus of which is the right flank). However, we have to start with a generalization somewhere to find where truth lies in the fissures of Tiffert’s dashing diagonal.

Where does Tiffert typically start? In his first start (against San Jose), Tiffert was atop the midfielder in a unique 4-4-1-1 formation (although in reality, Tiffert works in a sort of midfield triangle during play):

In the next game (a derby match against Vancouver), Tiffert started in a more expected LM position in what becomes a midfield diamond during with Tiffert, Caskey, Alonso, and Evans:

In the following game (a 6-2 romp against Chivas USA), Tiffert started in what many Sounders supporters would consider to be our “A-Team” lineup, replete with midfield diamond, firepower up top and good play on the right wing – all in a Coach Sigi Schmid-infused 4-4-2 formation. Here, Tiffert usually plays above Alonso and adjacent to Evans and Rosales in a squashed diamond:

Schmid tinkers with lineups. Clearly, and appropriately,  he was trying to fit Tiffert into the existing chemistry, rather than build anew around the German. However, Tiffert still favored a rightward drift. Here are three heatmaps:

Versus Vancouever (8/18):

Versus Chivas USA (8/25):

Again, versus Chivas USA (9/8):

From these heatmaps, the rightward drift trend is clear. Of course, Tiffert’s pitch travels took him widely abroad (e.g. his creatively slanted “Y” shaped heatmap against San Jose on 9/22, yet even here the slight trend is toward the right flank in the final third). However, the trend, the average, the tick, or the compulsion was clear: rightward ho! Fast forward to the most recent match against the Portland Timbers (10/7):

A signature Tiffert move was picking up the ball around midfield, dribbling a bit rightward, then send a pass close to the box. He of the angular passes, Tiffert became the Sounders’ corner and freekick taker as well. Interestingly, Tiffert’s chalkboards in the second half of the pitch show passes that go east-west, rather than north-south. For example, here the chalkboard of passes played in the pitch’s second half in a game against Chivas (9/8), which featured Tiffert playing 52 passes – a season high:

My understanding of his play deepens when I combined this distribution chart with the absolutely lovely heatmap from the same game (see above). Perhaps more than any other, this Chivas USA (9/8) heatmap reified my picture of Tiffert’s presence and movement on the pitch. The drift is very prominent. You can see how the passes are built off the rightward movement. Tiffert’s rightward play and passing also explains his 77% pass completion, since a number of his passes are longer balls, balls into the box, or crosses (e.g. his game against San Jose on 9/22). In other words, he takes risks with his passing.

Very little in soccer is static. One movement has ramifying consequences in a manner more complicated than other sports, I’d argue. (Hence the statistical difficulty of “moneyballing” soccer with the current status quo.) So Tiffert drifts right, Ozzy Alonso fills the middle, Mauro Rosales onward and upward, and Fredy Montero beguiles with one of foxy runs – playing off the space Tiffert has opened up on the left side of the box. Oh, now  Eddie Johnson can get groovy with the German partnering up on his side of the pitch. I wonder otherwise if the Fredy/EJ power atop would be as effective? Ramifying effects.

Of course such ramifying sequences occur anytime soccer is played anywhere. What Tiffert brings to the Sounders is increasing the quality of the ramification. Seattle is a feared attacking unit, who’s become even more feared thanks to Tiffert spring others free with his rightward work. Before Tiffert, the burden fell on Mauro Rosales to make it all work, or on the less-than-inspiring-shoulders-as-a-leader work of Brad Evans in the midfield.

MLS writers have taken notice too. MLS’s own Devin Pleuler analyzes the Sounders’ aggregate improvements in the final third, attributing them to Tiffert’s efficient passing. Pleuler admits no causation from the correlations he observes, simply pointing out Seattle’s improved passing performance since Tiffert’s arrival. What Pleuler observes, I’d chalk up to the ramifying effect Tiffert’s play has on the other Sounders. Anyhow, Pleuler simply notices that Tiffert is performing above the MLS mean. Meanwhile, Jeremiah Oshan of Sounder at Heart picks up the same “ramifying effect” thread. Finally, Dave Clark, also of Sounder at Heart, muses at Tiffert’s contribution to the recent “crossing-ification” of the Sounders in which the Sounders have an extreme rightward drift in general. Tiffert’s passing distribution from this game is almost humorous, a barrage of passes from the right flank:

So the Seattle machine has been upgraded – significantly. Tiffert adds the (clichéd) “European” class of his movements, dribbles, and passes, which open even more possibilities for what was already a strong MLS side.

Why Should You Care?

Dear Bundesliga fan, you might wonder why you should care about a former Kaiserslautern midfielder thriving in the far-flung Pacific Northwest. After all, he’s only tangentially connected to you, the Bundesliga supporter. Yet here is where the Tiffert story particularly gets interesting. Precisely because the Bundesliga let him get away.

In the MLS, we’re used to only aging European stars crossing the Atlantic to “retire” in America and play a little footy on the side. (As good as Thierry Henry or David Beckham have been in the MLS, we all know America is not getting the best years of these European castoffs.) Yet Tiffert is different. Sure, he’s not a star commodity, like Henry or Beckham. And sure, he’s 30 right now. But Seattle seemingly got a player in his prime; perhaps, like baseball player who peaks late in the farm system. Yet no one in Germany courted the Halle native. Did the Sounders simply get lucky?

Surely, Tiffert still could have contributed to a Bundesliga club (first or second division) this season and even into the next couple of seasons. Central midfielders are valuable commodities, sort of like quarterbacks in American football – that is, a good central midfielder can make the difference between a fertile or desiccated offensive attack. (It’s all about those ramifying effects.)

Even at 30, for a few more seasons Tiffert could have helped a club stay up in the top flight, or leverage a team looking for promotion. So I’m puzzled (but also happy!) that Tiffert didn’t stay in Germany, or at least in Europe. (To those of you who follow the German sports media closely: please share any information you have in the comments section below!)

Of course, there’s the whole Kaiserslautern business. A mess – as relegations always are. Tiffert went from leading the Bundesliga leader in assists (17) in 2010-2011 to out of work after the club was relegated in 2011-2012. His assist total plummeted to 2 during the relegation season. Yes, 2. But don’t forget about ramifying effects: Tiffert was surrounded by offensive ineptitude (losing all his main targets: Srdjan Lakic, Erwin Hoffer, Jan Moravek, and Ivo Ilicevic) and a consequent historically poor scoring output from Kaiserslautern.  Under these circumstances, what’s a central midfielder to do?

For the scoop, I emailed with Kaiserslautern supporter and Bundesliga Fanatic writer, Jobst Elster. After his successful 2010-2011 campaign, Tiffert was made a captain, but fell out of favor with new manager Krasimir Balakov, who benched him.  Tiffert was then one of 16 (!) players Kaiserslautern offloaded in a particularly large relegation fire-sale.

Sadly, Tiffert didn’t handle the PR-aspect of the 2011-2012 disaster well, publicly criticizing younger players and (then) manager Stefan Kuntz, who in turned publicly doubted his captain’s leadership, particularly his (and the whole team’s) Herzblut. It got personal. Tiffert became tainted, representing part of the element management wanted to clear out. So Tiffert’s salary provided a convenient excuse to offload him in the house cleaning that followed relegation.

I wish I could say here that Seattle nabbed him, thanks to the MLS rising profile, in particular Seattle’s clout – with its average attendance of 42,000+ supporters (66,000+ for the derby game against Portland). However, I don’t have any evidence to suggest that MLS is still nothing more than a retirement league for European stars.

In Tiffert’s case, however, I think another phenomenon was at work: the “vividness effect” driving the European transfer market. That is, a player’s value on the market seems somewhat determined by the vividness of his most recent play, rather than a longer track record (e.g. Gareth Bale winning footballer of the year in England, because of the “vivid effect” if his sensational performance against Inter in the Champion’s League).

Tiffert left nothing vivid after his 2011-2012 season and his naked numbers suggested an assist drop off from 17 to 2. Grim.  In a transfer market that absurdly hypes up and overprices “the next big thing,” Tiffert was peanuts. Of course, his case wasn’t helped by the odor of the Kaiserslautern mess, which perhaps cast him as tainted, but more concretely cast him as “finished,” or as a “one hit wonder.”

However, from Europe’s perspective, what’s the problem? All the players on the globe want to play in a top flight European league anyway. It is the gravitational force of the footy world.  So it can afford to let go a 30 year old midfielder on the heels of a disastrous season, given that every hot young thing is clamoring to play in Europe. It can afford such waste. However, it can also forget about, or undervalue, ramifying effects. Besides, such factors don’t fit cleanly into the rabid media narratives that drive European football coverage.

Thankfully, Sigi Schmid and the Sounders kicked the Tiffert tires and saw more than the paltry 2 assists from 2011-2012. His current season with the Sounders seems to confirm that Tiffert’s “real” value is closer to his successful 2010-2011 Bundesliga season, rather than the disastrous 2011-2012 season. Regardless, the logic of the European transfer market let him go. For that, I am grateful.

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Author:Travis Timmons

Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. In addition to editing and writing here, he writes a regular Bundesliga column for Bloomberg Sports and sometimes blogs about sports and the meaning of life at http://sportisourstory.tumblr.com/ and tweets at @tptimmons.
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