November 24, 2017

Is Hamburg’s offense really that bad?

Entering the 15/16 season, predictions and previews had HSV in the 13-16th range, just above the one and done sides Ingolstadt and Darmstadt (double whoops). So, while the two second division sides have taken the league by surprise, Hamburger SV are right on schedule at the international break, sitting in 12th position in the Bundesliga with 31 points after 27 games.

The more alarming sign is that the club has taken just 9 points from their last 10 games, only Cologne (9), Augsburg (8) and Hannover (3) have fewer in the Rückrunde.

Even more recenlty, with just 5 points from their last 6 games, HSV will need a win against Hannover and a result in hosting the pesky road warriors of Darmstadt , because the final stretch will feature a suddenly tough game against the surging Werder sandwiched between two away games at Dortmund and Mainz, followed by a home game against Wolfsburg.

A match 34 showdown with Augsburg might prove vital in avoiding the relegation playoff spot, as HSV are just 4 points clear of 16th place Hoffenheim (12 points from their last 6 games!). With Hannover as good as relegated and Frankfurt in shambles, HSV will probably fulfill those predictions as they will battle it out with the FCA, Werder, SV98 and TSV quartet to avoid a third consecutive playoff fixture.

The larger issue is that HSV, an improved defense notwithstanding, are still far from being a solid Bundesliga side. For the entire season, they have just 31 goals in 27 games and attacking midfielder Nicolai Müller, who got a grand total of 13 minutes as a substitute in the club’s first 3 games, is their leading scorer with 7 goals.

After having taken a deeper look, we have identified 5 reasons why this team is struggling to score goals:

1. Is HSV’s attack really that bad?

It’s easy to forget now, but HSV were dead last in the Bundesliga just 11 months ago on April 24 of 2015 with 25 points from 29 games. Their number of total goals? SIXTEEN! Bruno Labbadia, who previously lasted just a season in 2009/10 in his previous coaching stint with the red-shorts, was tapped as savior for a franchise that was reaching Kardashian level dysfunctionality.

Miraculously, Labbadia’s team scored 9 goals and won 3 of their last 5 games to finish 16th and earn a relegation spot. The win against Karlsruhe was nothing short of dramatic – a goal by Müller and Adler saving a penalty in extra time – meant that die Rothosen remained, for yet another season, the only German club never to have gotten relegated since the Bundesliga started in 1963.

2. Advanced stats actually show improvement this year

You don’t need advanced stats to tell you that 31 is more than the 25 goals they managed all of last year, with Pierre-Michel Lasogga (more on him later) and the artist formerly known as Rafael Van der Vaart joint top scorers at 4 goals apiece.

In the 2015/16 season HSV are enjoying more possession by 2%, a higher pass completion rate by 3% and more shots – 0.9 more per game and 0.7 more shots on target. Shots from open play are also up – 7.6 this season compared to 6.6 last year. The breakdown on their total shots per game is as follows: 2015/16 – 11.6 – total – 5.1 off target – 4 on target and 2.6 blocked, while the 2014/15 distribution is 10.8 – 5.2 – 3.3 – 2.2 – meaning that the team has actually improved its accuracy. This is despite taking 0.6 shots more per game from outside of the box (5 to 4.4) than last year.

(stats courtesy of Whoscored.com and Footballintheclouds.)

Replacing the combined 99-year-old trio of Valon Behrami, Ivica Olic, Van der Vaart with Holtby, Gregoritsch and Hunt (avg age of 25) has helped, though not necessarily in the goals department, where both troikas produced six.

3. Transfers have not worked out

After two consecutive escape jobs one would believe that it would behoove Hamburg’s management to make some significant upgrades in terms of transfers to avoid another relegation battle and the club has tried, spending close to 20 million Euros on revamping the midfield with Lewis Holtby, Albin Ekdal, Aaron Hunt, Michael Gregoritsch – three guys with big league experience in their mid 20s, plus a promising 21-year-old from Bochum. That quartet has played 5714 minutes and produced 6 goals on 96 shots (a 6% conversion rate), 86 key passes and 4 assists.

After a disappointing loan spell that saw many HSV fans surprised at the permanent transfer, Lewis Holtby was not only the costliest at 6.5 million, but the best signing over the summer. His versatility has been invaluable: besides his 18 games as central defensive midfielder, the 25-year-old also started as a left mid vs Bayern in the 5-0 loss and played attacking mid in his best game in the 2-1 loss against Cologne and in the 3-1 win over Dortmund.

His biggest strength, however has been his ability to tackle and win the ball, as his 3.1 tackles per game are the 4th best in the league among all players! He also ranks 4th among midfielders with 189 duels won behind such machines as Hannover’s Sane and Mainz’s Baumgartlinger.

The German is also a good passer, while his 78% accuracy isn’t outstanding, his 1289 passes rank him 7th among all Bundesliga midfielders, behind superstars such as Vidal and Alonso, Gundogan and Xhaka, and two emerging stars in Darida and Weigl. He is also a decent creator for his position – his 31 key passes are the 17th most in the league. 20 of his 29 shots have come from outside of the box

Granit Xhaka, widely considered one of the Bundesliga’s hottest commodities and linked to every big club on the planet, can point to being 2 years younger and to a slightly better pass completion percentage as the only two upgrades over Holtby in a statistical comparison. With all due respect to the Swiss midfielder with a penchant for red cards, 43 million from Arsenal would be 37 million more than Holtby’s current 6 million value! A better way to phrase that: the former Tottenham man is criminally undervalued!

Aaron Hunt, once a promising Werder Bremen starlet, who could not break into Wolfsburg’s side last season came over in late August for 3 million. The 29-year-old, who scored 33 goals in 5 season for Werder has not been effective for HSV, with just last weekend’s lone penalty goal and 1 assist in over 1400 minutes. Part of that has been a string of nagging injuries, 6 different maladies have caused him to miss a total of 57 days since signing for Hamburg.

A quick comparison to 4 other CAMs (Pascal Groß, Max Meyer, Kevin Volland, and Vladimir Darida) and his great 2.12 key passes per 90 mins – sandwiched in 8th place among Reus, Vidal and Mkhitaryan, reveal him to be a very creative player. The trouble has been shooting volume, with only 1.39 shots per game or 23 total shots in 18 games ranking him 47th out of 86 midfielders. That is 0.6 fewer than the 1.96 shots per game Hunt was averaging in his 5 Werder seasons.

Michael Gregoritsch, a young free kick maestro blessed with a cannon of a left foot, has impressed with 4.5 aerials won – 13th most among all Bundesliga players! and 3.25 shots per 90 minutes – the 4th best mark after Robben, Didavi and Calhanoglu. At 1.93 meters and 87kgs, it’s questionable whether his size will allow him to consistently play in an attacking midfielder/winger position, where Labbadia has used him. He needs to improve his 60% accuracy on passes –  and would be wise to not hold on the ball too long, but finding a player of his quality, who is about to turn 22 in April is rare.

Hamburg fans will be ecstatic that after a shin bruise kept him out for 6 weeks, he finally made his return in the 3-1 loss to Hoffenheim with 5 shots – 3 on target in just 60 minutes! Hopefully, he will be able to feature for Austria at EURO 2016 where he can add to his staggering 20 goals in 25 cap totals.

Albin Ekdal was the last addition, coming over from Bologna of Serie A for 4.5 million. Unfortunately, the 26-year-old Swede has been sidelined with an ankle injury for close to 4 months after a nice start to the season (voted man of the match vs Stuttgart on Matchday 2). He finally made his return in the 2-0 win against Hertha and with his 3 interceptions per game will look to form a tough partnership with the aforementioned Holtby in the center of the park.

Last but not least, in their recent friendly against Holstein Kiel Labbadia experimented with a duo of Lasogga and Sven Schipplock – with the latter bagging a brace. Schipplock, who came over from Hoffenheim for 2.5 million in the summer is goalless in 15 Bundesliga appearances and 606 minutes. More importantly, in terms of shooting accuracy, out of the 54 strikers eligible, only the one and only Lord Bendtner is worse than Lasogga and Schipplock. OUCH!

4. The striker merry-go-around

Head coach Bruno Labbadia has gone through a bevy of unsuccessful options: First, Pierre-Michel Lasogga, a former Germany U21 international, who had a breakout year with 13 goals on an average of 3.5 shots per game in 2013/14, appears to be repeating his miserable 2014/15 season (4 goals in 1860 minutes and just 2.5 shots per game) this year.

The 24-year-old is averaging just 2 shots per game and has not scored since November 20th, as all 6 of his goals came in the Hinrunde. Since February 1st, Lasogga has not made any starts and has given way to the 28-year-old Latvian forward, Artjoms Rudnevs, who had made zero appearances in the Hinrunde despite no significant injuries. With just 2 goals in 579 minutes, the current Labbadia favorite’s most meaningful contribution has probably come off the field in a bizarre domestic incident, where the words ‘wife, tongue, bite and on the street’ were involved. Only in Hamburg….

That leads us to HSV’s third option in Josip Drmic, one of the worst forwards of the Hinrunde for Gladbach, whose 1.2 million winter break loan move has resulted in 1 goal in 420 minutes before going down for the season with a knee injury. We already mentioned Sven Schipplock’s goalless 606 minutes.

That is 3306 minutes of forward play producing 9 goals in total. Goals from counter attacks (3) or set pieces (6) aren’t even helping out this weak offense, which actually has benefitted from 3 penalties and 3 opponent own goals.

Despite all of the nonsense and farcical finishing, HSV are most likely safe from relegation, as no team has ever gone down to the Bundesliga 2. with that many points at this point of the season.

5. Internal incidents + poor management

We already mentioned the Rudnevs incident, but there was also a strange training ground scuffle in February between Michael Gregoritsch and Ivo Ilicevic. The 29-year-old took exception to a challenge by the Austrian and promptly headbutted him. Ilicevic was suspended for the match against Cologne and is set to leave HSV in the summer, with Werder and Frankfurt among the candidates to sign him.

The sale of young stars – as explained by this article – is absolutely staggering, and when you combine that with the instability of the managerial position – 14 (15 if you count Labbadia’s two stints) managers since Thomas Doll was let go in February of 2007 and 5 since February of 2014.

As far as solutions go, there are no quick fixes of course, and while I agree with Nik Wildhagen that it could take a couple of transfer windows to sort it all out, I will offer a couple of counterpoints. Coaches like Martin Schmidt, Ralph Hasenhüttl or Pál Dárdai have all proved that it is possible to get a lot out of sides with limited capabilities and that HSV management would be wise to take a hard look at Labbadia’s future, unless they want to keep battling against relegation.

Bringing in a quality attacking player should be the number one priority this summer and raiding Frankfurt in the form of Alex Meier – who has been stunning before his unfortunate injury – and Marc Stendera – a superb 20-year-old center-mid linked with Dortmund would be a nice start.

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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

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