May 27, 2017

Explaining Borussia Dortmund’s Horrendous Loss at SV Darmstadt 98

However you cut it, Borussia Dortmund’s 1-2 road loss at SV Darmstadt 98 was horrendous. Going into Saturday’s match, Darmstadt was in last place with 2 wins (!), 3 draws, and 14 losses on 9 whooping points. The club had only scored 9 goals (league lowest) and conceded 38 (2nd most in league). Moreover, D98 have taken a league lowest 9.5 shots per match and 2.5 shots on target per match. Ominous signs for the hosts.

Saturday’s match didn’t bode well for the home side, even taking into consideration BVB’s moribund Rückrunde (2-1 win at Werder, 1-1 draw at M05, 1-0 win against RB Leipzig, and an exausting and joyless 1-1 Pokal win on penalties against Hertha). During this stretch, BVB has been goal-challenged, while conceding too many match-opening goals. Surely, you reasoned, even with these challenges a trip to relegation-certain D98 seemed like a balm for your be-Tucheled soul.

Except it wasn’t. At all. Darmstadt played its best match this season, and new coach (and player legend) Torsten Frings earned his first win at D98. And Tuchel’s BVB continued its moribund ways.

So how did this result come about?

Disclaimer: explaining match results, as this piece will attempt to do, is an empirical, and to a greater extent, epistemological problem. Post-hoc ambushes await at every corner. Confirmation biases practically rain down from the air. Hindsight bias itches one’s shoed toes. And data becomes your mistress, while randomness is ignored. We venture into Humean billiard balls stuff here. Tread carefully.

Disclaimer II: I don’t know what to do about these philosophical problems, other than what I’ve always done in these pieces, and try to not overstate any claims. And, damnit, there’s some really striking stuff about this match! It’s begging to be said.

BVB Allows Too Many Shots, Again

Amazingly, Darmstadt created 15 shots (8 on target) against BVB on Saturday. Bayern created 15 shots against Ingolstadt on Saturday. Nobody else created as many in the Bundesliga this Matchday. Nobody. Ergo, D98 led the Bundesliga in shots created and in shots on target (8) this matchday. This, from a club who’s been league-worst in creating shots.

Two views of D98’s shot selection against BVB. (Courtesy of Squawka.com)

Dortmund has been conceding 10.2 shots per match this season (3rd fewest in the league) — certainly much less than I imagined, given what watching BVB is like this season (Tuchel’s side seems porous on defense). So Data is our friend. Still, Saturday was a bad day at the office for BVB, especially considering the average D98 offensive performance this season. Come on, BVB, 15 shots? TO DARMSTADT? Delete your account.

Astonishingly, Darmstadt took 12 (!) shots, 7 of which were on target, inside BVB’s penalty area, the most of Bundesliga side this matchday. Surely, this shooting achievement was boosted by Darmstadt’s pass completion rate of 58%, one of this matchday’s better rates (avg. was 48%), inside the penalty area. All this penalty box success was achieved by a majority of D98 possessions being 5-15 seconds in duration. On Saturday, Jan Rosenthal led D98 with 5 shots; next was Marcel “Schneller” Heller with 3 shots. Needless to say, with these kind of shooting numbers, it’s little wonder that Darmstadt won the match — ExG corroborates this observation as well:

BVB didn’t lose this match by committing a decisive defensive error or two; rather, D98 consistently gained access to the most dangerous area of the pitch. Yes, Ginter, Sokratis, and Burnic were subpar as the back three, but they didn’t commit any gross errors. To explain why BVB allowed so many shots, this data talk leads to talk about tactics / match strategy, and other factors, which I don’t have the time to get into here. The point is that BVB seems to have had something like a systemic letdown in this match, defensively. That, and BVB’s only 1 goal scored was a bit unlucky.

D98 with Quality Possession

Not only did Darmstadt create shots, but the club also possessed the ball effectively in general. For example, D98 created attacks 15% of time it possessed ball (tied for most on the matchday). Furthermore, D98’s possession mostly occurred within BVB’s side of the pitch, while 62 of Darmstadt’s 91 attacking sequences came through build up play. So it’s not as if D98 got lucky and utilized a rare break or set piece. Nope. D98 won this match honestly — through good ol’ build up play.

Torsten Frings’ crew was simply sharper in possession than the visitors. For example, Darmstadt completed 62% of its “Key Passes” (i.e. Schlüsselpässe, or passes leading directly to scoring attempts) to BVB’s 35%. Indeed, Darmstadt attempted fewer Key Passes (21 vs. 31) than Dortmund, but completed more (13 vs. 11) than its opponent. Finally, D98 had almost as many total final 3rd passes as its illustrious attacking opponents (115 passes vs. 135). I suppose a table cellar club probably needs to do these things to have even a chance at beating a top European club like BVB. And it did.

Finally, Darmstadt’s most frequent passing combination was not keeper to a centerback, or centerback to a fullback as you might expect from a relegation-certain cellar dweller; rather, it was a fullback, Fabian Holland, to winger, “Schneller” Heller. In general, Darmstadt was more active on this left flank than right. Defensive midfielder Jerome Gondorf also helped immensely in build up play (completing 90% of his passes), as well providing both key defensive stops and ball movement, drawing fouls (he was the Bundesliga’s most fouled player this matchday!), which kept D98’s possessions alive. Long live Wizard Gondorf:

Gondorf put in a “man of the match” day against BVB. This chalkboard shows his passing work, challenges, interceptions, etc. Blue and green = successful, while white = was fouled. (Courtesy of FourFourTwo.com)

BVB Cries Foul

Usually, you’ll find BVB close to the Bundesliga’s very bottom for fouls and tackles committed per match (12.3). For one thing, Tuchel’s club possesses the ball more than anyone not named Bayern Munich, so its opponents simply don’t have as much time on the ball to get fouled; for another thing, Tuchel sides seem to avoid fouling or challenge/tackle-heavy defensive styles. Instead of last-ditch tackles and fouls, BVB relies on interceptions and especially offside traps when opponents penetrate into BVB’s final 3rd. (Ironically, Darmstadt typically plays in opposite fashion — lots of  tackles, lots of fouls — anything to disrupt an opponent’s rhythm.)

So you should be shocked to learn that BVB led the Bundesliga in fouls committed in its own half (7) this matchday, earning two yellow cards to boot (bring on that pun!). A rare phenomenon for Dortmund.

Dortmund committed a league-high 7 fouls in its own half against D98 on Saturday. (Courtesy of FourFourTwo.com)

What to make of all these fouls? Again, I don’t know — any explanations veer into multilayered contextual talk about tactics, strategy, timing, etc. All dynamic elements beyond my scope here. However, we see the phenomenon, which simply tells us that Dortmund was having trouble on Saturday. Weird trouble.

D98’s Own Great Defensive Play

Finally, Darmstadt itself played an outstanding defensive match against Dortmund. In general, BVB could only do a little less of everything it normally per match: fewer shots, fewer shots on target, fewer Key Passes, less final 3rd possession, less dribbling, etc. Everything was down a notch. Slightly. Enough to tilt the match in the weaker opponent’s favor, given the home side’s stellar all-round performance.

Conversely, Darmstadt just did everything a little better than usual on defense. For example, D98 was more successful than usual in defensive challenges (61% on Saturday vs 53% on average); the club won the most challenges in its own final 3rd (31) in the Bundesliga on the matchday, while winning 57% of all “ground” challenges (tied for 2nd best in the Bundesliga on the matchday), and won the most interceptions in the opponent’s half (13).

As I stated earlier, this match was Darmstadt’s best of the season. It’s no wonder why.

Aside from these numbers, each (or almost each!) D98 player had his best performance of the season: Heller, Gondorf, Terrence Boyd (who scored the opening goal), Aytac Sulu, Peter Niemeyer, Holland, Rosenthal, and Sidney Sam. That’s right, Sidney Sam. Remember him? The pacy Leverkusen guy, who disappeared into an injury abyss? He’s back — and he was fantastic against Dortmund. Sam had 2 Key Passes, completing 90% of all his passes (mostly forward-passes through the right midfield). Enjoy the Heller-Sam flank duo while D98 remains in the top flight. I’m hoping Yank Boyd will benefit from the pace dwelling on the D98 flanks right now.

Anyhow, as a BVB partisan — with the prospect of a silent Yellow Wall to look forward to this weekend — I can stomach the loss. Writing this piece was cathartic. After all, it took D98’s best performance this season to win a close match at home against BVB. Besides, who can begrudge Torsten Frings’ full-fist pumping and leaping Kloppo-esque celebration after the final whistle? I know I can’t. I’ll take the loss just for this jubeln moment. We can all share a bit of fleeting happiness, lord knows it.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U6s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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