March 23, 2017

Early-Season Takeaways and Questions for the Bundesliga’s Matchdays 3 and beyond

We are two games into the Bundesliga season, and while that is far from any kind of relevant sample size, it’s enough to test some theories, draw some conclusions and ask some important questions for a number of teams. While some have argued that the league has taken a while to get started, with a long summer full of Euros and Copa America, with extended preseason tours and international breaks, things are about to heat up, as teams like Freiburg will play three matches in seven days! As a reminder, here is how thing stand just before Matchday Three kicks off :

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Rather than recap matchday two – already done in an audio and text format – let’s focus on the upcoming fixtures: die Englische Woche followed by Matchday Five!

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OOFF! That kind of schedule/workload can have a huge impact on your season. Take Borussia Dortmund for example: BVB lost to RBL on Sep. 10, beat Legia Warsaw 6-0 on Sep. 14, will host Darmstadt on Sep. 17, before travelling to Wolfsburg on Sep. 20 and finishing things off home against Freiburg on 9/20. FIVE matches in ELEVEN days, and even discounting the Legia UCL match, that is still four in the Bundesliga. With margins so small – recall that the eight point gap between them and Bayern opened up mostly due to the 5-1 thrashing and some dumb losses to Cologne and Frankfurt, losing just one (vs. RBL) or two can make or break their season. Eight or nine-point differences gain exponential importance further down the table – last season, eighth-placed Wolfsburg ended with 45 points, while Eintracht played the relegation playoff with 36 points at number 16! The case was very similar the year before, with Hertha edging HSV on 35 points for 15th thanks to goal difference, as Hoffenheim finished in the number eight spot with 44 points.

PART 1 – takeaways from the season so far

While two games are miles away from any meaningful sample size, there are some interesting takeaways from the first two games of the Bundesliga. Factoring in some preseason expectations and rankings here are some #hottakes in no particular order: Bayern appear to be in a class by themselves, with BVB (buildup play and the lack of a midfield/attacking midfield creator), Gladbach (away gameplan, back three, the two CDMs and the Mo Dahoud conundrum) and Leverkusen (injuries, ability to create versus set defenses) all suffering from some fatal flaws. Hertha and RB Leipzig are pleasant surprises, but whether they will they be able to keep up this pace remains to be seen. There was certainly plenty of pace in the eight goal thriller that Mainz and Hoffenheim treated Bundesliga fans to, but as one might expect, defense was not the order of the day. Furthermore, Mainz’s defensive struggles might continue, due to a language barrier between the Danish goalkeeper Jonas Lössl and his defenders, as our colleague Conor Garratt suggested in this piece. Hoffenheim know a thing about dismal defending – even during the meteoric rise led by Julian Nagelsmann they conceded on average SEVEN shots on target, per Dustin Ward of Statsbomb. They are at a total of 15 (six vs Mainz and nine vs RBL) for this season and have shipped six goals.

At the opposite end of the spectrum, Ingolstadt, Cologne and Wolfsburg are taking a defense first approach – Die Schänzer concede just 7.5 shots per match, while the Billy Goats and die Wölfe are at 15.5 and 14.5 respectively. However, quality of shots allowed is more important than quantity, as FCI allowed just one chance to HSV – and credit should go to Bobby Wood for making the most out Rene Adler’s hoofing the ball up the pitch – but were far more generous in letting six of Hertha’s total shots hit the target! That kind of gentlemanly defending makes a goalkeeper’s job incredibly difficult, but sometimes, as in the case of Koen Casteels against Cologne, they just have their day and keep out all nine shots reaching their goal. To be fair to the Wolves, their defense mostly allowed Augsburg to shoot from the distance in the first match, a habit to which FCA takes to about as often as Donald Trump to saying something ridiculous. Cologne have restricted their two opponents to a combined seven shots on target, and their stifling defense has been a huge reason why both Timo Horn and Sven Müller were able to keep clean sheets. While solid defending can get you very far in the Bundesliga,with all three teams one wonders if they have enough scoring to hang with the bigger teams. There are some promising signs: a combined five goals between is probably underperforming expectations, as Cologne actually lead the league with 8.5 shots on target and are second in total shots with 18.5 per match, while Wolfsburg and FCI are tied for seventh with five OT apiece.

Scoring would be a novelty for Hamburg (save for Bobby Wood), who have been dismal on attack despite (seven shots per game and 1.5 on target are tied with Werder for the worst marks in the Bundesliga) shelling out some major cash during the offseason, as the discontent with Bruno Labbadia grows. Viktor Skrypnyk might beat him in the first coach to get fired sweepstakes if Werder don’t quickly improve on the health front or on the playing better front. That would include a league worst defense that allowed eight goals (granted they took the proverbial drilling at the Bayern dental office) and twenty shots on goal already!

On the other side of the ledger, Freiburg and Frankfurt have had two positive games in terms of performance, but both had come away empty-handed in at least one of them. With a solid defense, and some timely attacking football it’s not likely that will they fall off their mid-table spots back into the relegation zone. Augsburg are also on similar grounds after a somewhat unlucky loss at home to Wolfsburg was followed up by a strong performance against Werder. Dirk Schuster’s plans might have to change now that Caiuby looks to be out for the rest of the Hinrunde following knee surgery and replacing him will be a massive challenge.

Darmstadt and Schalke actually have something in common apart from taking ten shots and 2.5 shots on target per game: spirits are fairly high despite sporting a combined one goal – a 91st minute cross that wound up in the back of Eintracht’s net. The Lilies are a revamped team that is struggling to field a competent starting XI after offseason departures – after all they are relying on Sven Schipplock as the focal point of their offense. The Royal Blues impressed against Bayern (after a stinker in Frankfurt), and many attributed it to Christian Heidel and Markus Weinzierl mixing up their squad selection and starting five new summer signings (Baba Rahman, Naldo, Nabil Bentaleb, Yevhen Konoplyanka and Benjamin Stambouli). Neither of their schedules look easy – the Lilies have BVB, Hoffenheim and Augsburg, while S04 play at Nice in the Europa League on Thursday before a visit to the capital (Hertha BSC) followed by a tough home match against Cologne and away to TSG 1899.

So those are some of the takeaways, but I still have lots of questions for all 18 Bundesliga teams, organized in order of their appearance for Matchday 3:

Part 2 – questions ahead of Matchdays 3-4 and beyond

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FRIDAY Feature

Cologne vs Freiburg

  1. Do we believe in Cologne as a solid defensive team with enough offensive firepower to contend for Europe? Effzeh was able to keep its squad together over the summer, only selling Yannick Gerhardt to Wolfsburg for 13 million and Kevin Vogt to Hoffenheim for 3 million. So far, they have been able to replace them on the cheap with the additions of Marco Höger, who has filled in very well since arriving from Schalke for free, whilst Konstantin Rausch is yet to make his debut after moving on from Darmstadt. The continued solid play of German international Jonas Hector and the rest of the defense with tough-tackling right back Frederik Sörensen and the solid center back pairing of Mergim Mavraj and Dominique Heintz is a great foundation in the back, while Leo Bittencourt’s individual quality and Marcel Risse’s dribbling are the foundations of an interesting offense. Anthony Modeste continues to take heaps of shots, and Artjoms Rudnevs (out for this match) has looked solid, as Peter Stöger has switched to a 4-4-2.
  2. Are Freiburg sneaky good under Christian Streich or just a good home team, bad away team? 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 question relevant. They have some further conflicting signs for this match, having won their last four encounters against Cologne, but going winless in their last seven Bundesliga away games. They had one of the weirdest games vs Gladbach on Matchday two, winning the shots battle 18 to five, and outshooting their expected goals model. freiburgvbmhStill, holding Gladbach to one shot inside the box is mighty impressive, and taking the teeth out of an a devastating attack with the likes of Raffael, Lars Stindl and Andre Hahn suggest that Christian Streich has got something cooking in Breisgau. Despite the three goals, their offense is still failing to get good quality shots – they scored on two long-range efforts and a PK on MD 2 and from a last-minute corner vs. Hertha and as the 11tegen11 passing map suggests, they lack a commanding presence in central midfield. freiburgbuildup

Saturday games

RB Leipzig vs HSV

3.Are RB Leipzig a serious European challenger, due to Ralph Hasenhüttl’s excellent coaching? The tactical analysts all praised RBL for shackling the mighty Borussia attack, limiting BVB to a mere eight shots and an expected goal sum of 0.5. bvbxgvrbl

The idea was to limit Weigl’s influence on the game by pressing him with as many as five players, as both Tom Payne and Ryan Tank noted, forcing BVB to drop Sebastian Rode back and resulting in an endless string of passes between the defenders that RBL could pounce on. 1-blocking-julien-weigl

Given that Hasenhüttl has done the same at Ingolstadt with arguably worse players, and the fact that HSV possess nobody of Weigl’s quality, things look rosy for RBL.

4. Is Bruno Labbadia gone before October?

Oh how quickly things turn sour! Just weeks ago HSV fans and pundits (including this one) were praising the club for its spending to recalibrate a horrendous attack, but a dreadful start has resulted in the overreaction theater calls for Bruno Labbadia’s head. While perhaps that’s too much, HSV have a brutal schedule – Freiburg away, hosting Bayern before travelling to Berlin – that offers no easy points. The on-field performance has been nothing short of anemic – lowest offensive output in the league, and statements such as ” Nico Müller and Filip Kostic had a combined FIVE passes completed in the ATTACKING THIRD, the same number of FOULS Müller committed” are quite damning indeed. Other than Bobby Wood, not much has gone right in Hamburg, who ignore their wingers and rely on long-balls to Michael Gregoritsch. There are some obvious changes:  starting Douglas Santos at LB, finally playing Alen Halilovic are two of them for starters. I’m not sure if Bruno Labbadia is the man to quickly pull the trigger on those….

Hoffenheim vs Wolfsburg

5. Is Hoffenheim’s defense going to keep them from reaching their potential while at the same time continuing to play exciting matches? We know that Julian Nagelsmann has a quick trigger, as he pulled Fabian Schär on just 35 minutes following a disastrous performance vs. Mainz, but while he deserves credit for introducing Mark Uth (who bagged a brace), he deserves equal amounts of blame for inverting Lukas Rupp (a right-sided midfielder who was mostly fine and led his team with seven attempted tackles) and Jeremy Toljan (a left back) on the left and right wings of a 3-4-1-2. Although the wunderkind rectified his mistake by bringing on Pavel Kaderabek, it was not the first time of getting the starting lineup wrong. I’ve already mentioned their atrocious defensive numbers – seven shots on target per match will slowly drive Oliver Baumann insane and I suspect it contributes to him making a couple extra howlers. My bonus suggestion: Benjamin Hübner should get look at CB after his summer move from Ingolstadt.

6. Do Wolfsburg actually have a good defense? Well the high shot volume conceded appears to say no, and Koen Casteels leading the league with eleven saves is probably not ideal, either. However, Jakub Blasczykowski has looked solid at RB, Ricardo Rodriguez is still great, and the partnership of Robin Knoche and Jeffrey Bruma has been impressive enough to get the latter into our team of the week. Certainly nobody is missing Naldo based on his mistakes that have led to Schalke losing both games to open their season, and nobody cares about Dante’s escapades in Nice. Furthermore, while the volume of shots conceded is high, the quality is low, as Augsburg were held to shots from outside the box, and Cologne were mesmerized by Casteels. Going up against Andrej Kramaric and the high-powered TSG offense will be a nice test!

Leverkusen vs Eintracht

7. Will Leverkusen’s injury issues (Bellarabi gone for 2016, knocks on Chicharito, Aranguiz, Volland, etc) and Roger Schmidt’s coaching rigidity continue to be an issue? 

Many have picked die Werkself to challenge Dortmund for the silver medal, but so far they have been underwhelming and if it were not for a certain Finnish starlet could be without any points. The defense has looked out of sorts with the Toprak and Tah pairing looking confused against Gladbach, and Tin Jedvaj is definitely not the answer at right back. The previously stacked midfield has some issues (aside from Kevin Kampl) with Aranguiz injured, Baumgartlinger struggling mightily versus the Foals and Bender injured. Losing Karim Bellarabi for the rest of the Hinrunde is a massive blow, as it will be up to the massively talented Julian Brandt to create for the broken-hand duo of Kevin Volland and Chicharito. Schmidt has hardly gotten his selection right, as Jedvaj, Calhanoglu (despite working hard) and Mehmedi would all be wise to keep looking over their shoulders. The manager’s manic pressing style has led to some timely goals, but one has to wonder why Leverkusen fans need to wait until the 80th minute for those goals to come….

8. Have Eintracht become a solid team under Niko Kovac? While I was not a huge fan of the hiring of the time and it took some luck, the Croatian has kept Frankfurt in the league and has actually got them playing quite well at the start of the new season: Raise your hand if you had Eintracht as the Bundesliga’s stingiest defense with a mere FOUR shots on target allowed! David Abraham has been a great leader in the back, and is also key to their distribution, which looked very solid against Darmstadt.

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The new signings – Omar Mascarell and the sadly injured Guillermo Varela have impressed as well, and with Branimir Hrgota there’s an added dimension of speed to the attack of die Adler.

Bayern vs. Ingolstadt

9. Can Carlo Ancelotti keep Bayern from winning the title in January? Okay, that may be a harsh question, but there is very little wrong with Bayern – aside from don Carlo getting his starting XI wrong. Hopefully Joshua Kimmich has done enough to get more playing time.

10. Are Ingolstadt going to be relegation candidates? Starting the season with just one point before visiting Bayern is certainly not ideal for the Bavarians, who were let down by a couple of individual performances in their loss to Hertha. Pascal Groß was his usual active self, but failed to deliver his trademark killer passes. pascalg

The Ingolstadt midfield maestro lacked his usual solid service of the final ball, demonstrated by the statistic that he and RB Tobias Levels were 4 for 19 on accurate crosses. The other big problem was that Dario Lezcano got the ball on the right-wing all the time, which is a problem as he is the CENTER FORWARD. The Paraguayan also lost the ball 9 times in 59 minutes, so his substitution was more than deserved. Matthew Leckie deserves some praise for his tremendous work-ethic and for leading the league in successful dribbles with 11. ml

Yet, the team has a couple glaring weaknesses: 1. it lacks a proven goalscorer and looks to repeat the miserable 11 goal Hinrunde of last season 2. the defense has weakened after losing Hübner and Matip has looked shaky (the Bobby Wood goal and the Ibisevic goal were too easy) and Orjan Nyland is not a very good goalkeeper. This could get ugly….

Dortmund vs. Darmstadt

11. Will the real  BVB please stand up? Can they fix their attack, or are their buildup struggles going to last? After a turbulent summer, there was considerable optimism in Dortmund after beating Mainz, but a feeble performance in Leipzig has tempered expectations. Was it just a case of Thomas Tuchel getting his lineup (Piszczek for Passlack, Castro for Dembele, Götze starting) wrong and running into a well-oiled machine, or is the lack of a box-to-box CM and a creative attacking midfielder going to doom Borussia? Raphael Guerreiro certainly submitted his application for the former spot in the dismantling of Legia on Wednesday and BVB fans will hope that Götze can fulfill the latter role.

12. Do Darmstadt have a chance of staying in the Bundesliga? Well, not after losing most of their better players and the architect of last season’s success in Dirk Schuster. They won against Frankfurt with a fluke goal, and the dedication of the stadium to Jonathan Heimes is a great gesture, but this time is still dreadful. I really hope that “long to Schipplock” is a title of a new indie rock album and not their gameplan. darms

The funny part is that Mainz are below them in possession, while Werder and HSV have taken fewer shots, so cheer up Lilies fans!

Gladbach vs Werder

13. What’s wrong with Schubert’s Gladbach? While the season started brightly for the Foals, after some exciting performances against Young Boys and Leverkusen, the last week has been rough: losing handily at Freiburg was followed by a hard lesson at Pep University. Gladbach continue lack any sort of clue on the road, and I’ve found some key structural issues: bmgpass

Apparently teams named Borussia have to knock it around the back, as going forward seems not to work. Christoph Kramer, Tobias Strobl and Andreas Christensen to a lesser extent would be responsible for the link-up play to the great Raffael, Lars Stindl duo, but that is difficult if they just pass the ball sideways. chrisstroblkramerMo Dahoud, their breakout player of the season, and someone who has attracted interest from just about every big team in the top five leagues is crying somewhere on the bench. Is Andre Schubert, who has a 1.9 points per game average – higher than any current coach in 29 games – a failed Bundesliga coach who hit the lottery as he inherited a talented team that ran hot for 30 games? Or did he really change up the tactics, instill a new work ethic, and mold the Foals to his image? I still can’t tell and will flip my opinion like 19 times before the season is over.

14. Are Werder Bremen beyond saving? While we don’t want to overreact to the early and Bayern inflated numbers of the Green and Whites, they are not exactly coming off a stellar campaign. If I were Viktor Skrypnyk’s agent – and Lord knows if he has one or even needs one given his long tenure at the club as player and manager – I would point to the fact that neither Max Kruse nor Claudio Pizarro have played a single minute, while Serge Gnabry and Zlatko Junuzovic have just played one match each. The defense has three new starters and needs time to gel, while the new signings Thanos Petsos, Lennart Thy and Justin Eilers need to adjust to the Bundesliga.

On the other hand, a measly penalty goal is the only positive thing for Bremen, and with Gladbach, Mainz and Wolfsburg in the next three games, things could get out of hand quickly. At this point they should consider all options, including Junuzovic at right back, as the Spielverlagerung Mailbag suggested. I mean just keep putting out attackers a’la Roy Hodgson. Hey, isn’t Roy very available right about now?

Sunday matches

Augsburg vs Mainz

15. How will Augsburg cope without Caiuby? The brilliant Brazilian is going to miss the rest of the Hinrunde and possibly more after undergoing knee-surgery earlier this week.  With the solid double pivot pairing of Dominik Kohr and Daniel Baier, FCA have a nice foundation to build on. Dirk Schuster should however be worried about scoring, as two defenders (Stafylidis and Gouweleeuw) won’t usually get two goals, and his team takes the Andros Townsend approach to scoring – dumb shots from far away. On the flipside, Schuster has made lemonade out of some very sour lemons at Darmstadt – Sandro Wagner and Marcel Heller combined for 20 goals, people! – and with the Korean duo of Ja-Cheol Koo, Ji Dong-Won, and the artists formerly known as Raul Bobadilla and Halil Altintop with lead signer Alfred Finnbogasson, there is a decent band forming.

16. Are Mainz the regression candidates? Having played two thrilling matches, Mainz fans should be certainly excited for the new season, but perhaps just as concerned. The rock-solid defense and Loris Karius’ shot-stopping has deserted Martin Schmidt, and the second-half collapse against Hoffenheim was dismal, questionable red-card to Gaetan Bussman notwithstanding. 34% possession, even if it’s just two games is sub-Darmstadt level, and they have already wasted their allotment of one great Pablo de Blasis game for the season.

Mainz optimists would point out that with the additions of Levin Öztunali to an already potent Clemens, Cordoba, de Blasis, Malli quarter, the offense has a chance to explode and if Muto, Jairo regain their fitness, watch out. Jean-Philippe Gbamin looks like quite the defensive presence, with his 4.5 tackles and interceptions per match as well.

Hertha vs Schalke

17. Can Hertha pull another wacky Hinrunde full of low shot numbers, impressive defense and timely goals?

The Berlin club are repeating last year’s magical Hinrunde, with Vedad Ibisevic taking on the Salomon Kalou role (played by Julian Schieber), as a stalwart defense is led by American John Brooks – your league leader clearances  and Fabian Lustenberger – the leader in successful tackles. The midfield is once again buzzing thanks to Vladimir Darida covering 13 kms on average and Genki Haraguchi has shown some brilliant flashes and added two assists over the weekend.

Still, a total of 22 shots – split evenly at eleven in terms of outside and inside the box – is worrisome, even if Hertha are getting 5.5 of those on target. That looks like a continuation of last season’s approach of getting quality looks, but it just takes a few games for those huge conversion rates of last year (Ibisevic and Kalou were at 20 and 28% respectively for much of the year) to plummet.

18. Which is Schalke’s “One Direction”?: “New kids on the block” or “Sonic Youth”?

Schalke are probably the most volatile team left in the Bundesliga. Their dismal showing against Frankfurt was followed by a strong performance against Bayern, and if not for a couple lapses in concentration, or better judgment by their strikers they could have earned a point. They have a very interesting dilemma on their hand, terrible band name jokes aside: their legendary  youth system has churned out talent after talent, but new sporting director Christian Heidel has gone in a different direction and added seven new players over the summer. With the sale of Leroy Sané, the recently out of favor Johannes Geis should be worried, as he has been displaced by the likes of Stambouli and Bentaleb. While it would be foolish to think that Schalke will give up on talents like Max Meyer and Leon Goretzka, a more balanced side of guys in their peak years – Konoplyanka, Stambouli are both 26 – or about to enter them – Baba Rahman (22), Bentaleb (21) alongside some veterans  – Naldo (33) and Coke (29) looks likely. The elephant in the room is the continued reliance on Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, who despite some penalty-inflated goal totals has been in decline for two or three years. While his total shots are relatively consistent, set pieces, which accounted for just 10 percent of his total shots in his 29 goal year in 2011/12 now make up over 20% of his total shots in the last two season. In terms of alternatives the real problem is that Breel Embolo is too young and raw at this stage, and Franco di Santo is only good for being the butt of some jokes, now that Sandro Wagner is a decent Bundesliga striker.

This game in Berlin has quickly become a must-win, as Cologne, Hoffenheim and Gladbach represent three tough fixtures ahead for Markus Weinzierl.

Enjoy the games everyone!

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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 www.bundespremierleague.com. 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

2 Comments

  1. And you should do the same Mr Heldenbrand, keep your threats out of it. This is a comment section on the internet, nobody cares. Sure, you are entitled to criticize anything in the article you deem innacurate or inapropiate (the author’s sense of humor, keeping sports journalism strictly apolitical, etc) and hopefully it will spark a constructive discussion, but keep it civil and do as you preach. Besides The Fanatic is far from having a vibrant comment section, it is unlikely that you will start a flame war here, or that your threats will spark an editorial change, realize the futility of your comment. As a long time reader of The Fanatic I wish you guys the best, keep up the good work !

  2. Yet another Bundesliga Fanatic blogger making a stupid Donald Trump joke. I stopped reading at that point. Donald Trump is 10x the man you’ll ever dream of being. Stick to football and leave your arrogant and bigoted politics out of it. I thrashed another blogger for doing that and I’ll keep doing it.

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