November 22, 2017

Song of the Unsung Midfielders: Szabolcs Huszti

Song of the Unsung Midfielders is a series celebrating, well, midfielders who are unsung in the Bundesliga. The fußball laborers in a semi-anonymous state, orchestrating the dance between coordination and chaos that is football. I have a weakness for these players, as they toil away in large heatmap territories in the heart of the pitch. This series will celebrate their work and bring attention to these conductors – these conduits – for the paths of that silly round ball. Expect some data, but mostly expect a tonal treatment.

This installment of our series features a first: an unsung midfielder, who also happens to score goals. And yes, he’s still unsung, because despite the (necessarily!) oversized weight and attention goals and goal scorers get in football, it’s possible for a scorer of goals to slip through the mesh of our divided attention. Bundesliga journeyman, Szabolcs Huszti is such a slip of our attention. Remember him? That Hungarian dude, who helped Hannover 96 transition out of the Bundesliga’s purest of the pure counter-attacks into something more balanced and possession-oriented. Then he disappeared (to Zenit St. Petersburg and China it turns out), only to reappear this season for Eintracht Frankfurt.

If any of you do remember Huszti, it’s probably from one of these following moments:

Goals. Even the Bundesliga.com considers Huszti to be a scorer of goals, as seen here in his officially-sanctioned “Top 5 Goals” video. #Respect. So here we have it, Huszti is officially a scorer of goals. However, a playing career spanning 2002-16, Huszti has scored (just) 63 goals in 300 appearances, or roughly once every 5 matches. Not the sort of numbers you’d want to see from your forward, but not exactly insignificant either. Of course, Huszti scored 36 of these goals in 132 matches for Hannover 96, where the Hungarian played from 2006-09 and again from 2012-14. Between these two stints, you could have found Huszti appearing in 58 matches (7 goals) for Zenit St. Petersburg. After his second H96 stint, Huszti did some China time in 2014-15, making 39 appearances (9 goals) for Changchun Yatai. Not exactly the number of a goal scorer.

Which is why I’m calling Huszti of a “scorer of goals.”

A subtle distinction that – I promise! – is not a mere splitting of petty neo-scholastic hairs. Bear with me. “Goal scorer” sounds like a job description for a footballer. Gerd “der Bomber” Müller was a goal scorer. In fact, he couldn’t help but score goals (398 goals in 453 appearance for Bayern alone!). Leo Messi is goal scorer, as is CR7. Or Robert Lewandowski. So by “goal scorer” I’m inferring something like a player who quantitatively tallies up net fulls of goals, which, of course, doesn’t preclude said goal scorer from scoring memorable or beautiful goals. It’s just that this player’s main job is score. Nothing glamorous here. Just a job with its attendant skill set.

By “scorer of goals” I mean something qualitatively about said player – Huszti in this case – because, let’s face it, he’s mostly not tallying up net fulls of goals; he’s doing lots of other dirty stuff on the pitch. Like passing. Running. Running. More running. Some sliding. Tackling. Intercepting? Possibly. Looking, looking, looking, and looking. Probably some pointing and gesturing. More looking. However, all footballers do these things, right? Yes, it’s just that a scorer of goals does them without that routine-ingrained, hence now premordial, drive to look for goals that haunts the likes of Robert Lewandowski and his possessed brethren. Goals. GOALS. GOALS. Something like what I’ve heard football folks call the “striker’s instinct.”

You see, Huszti is a player who’s scored beautiful goals. But I don’t imagine his play on the pitch is defined by that ingrained drive to always already look for goals. Hence “scorer of goals.” Yet, despite a meager quantitative tally, Huszti’s goals have an over-sized quality because of their beauty and instinct. That is, Huszti is dabbed by a bit of magic from us fans. We reason among ourselves: Because he’s done it once, he can do it again. How else do you explain this “flagged” beginning of his suspect wikipedia entry?

huszti_wikipedia-page-lede

Heh heh, did you get it? “[G]oal scoring ability from midfield.” The phrase is dusted by Tinker Bell herself. Huszti is indeed dabbed by magic. And the magic only shined brighter after Huszi’s two-penalty kick goals during this legendary match against Bayer Leverkusen:

I mean, isn’t it bad luck to take a penalty twice in one match? Like, won’t the keeper totally jinx you out on that second penalty? (At least this is the superstitious line I’ve heard trotted out.) Not Huszti. Which … well, why? Magic. He’s above it all.

Or it means that Huszti probably got a bit lucky to bury back-to-back penalties. (Aside: statistically, how does taking back-to-back penalties affect the usual 60% success rate for the shooter? At this point, the penalties are sorta / sorta not “independently occurring events,” which means … well, tell me in comments below.)

Look back at the dickered-with wikipedia entry for Huszti. Even in that flagged last sentence, three other skills precede his “goal scoring ability,” namely dribbling, pace, and passing. Quantitatively, the goal scoring item is outnumbered. And of course it is, given what midfielders do on a football pitch. So let’s move past the goal scoring pixie dust stuff, and look at Huszti qua midfielder.

Our unsung man is a central midfielder by trade. Less frequently, he’s been a left attacking midfielder. Given this positioning and its responsibilities, Huszti’s quantitatively small goal tally makes sense. In philosophical talk, scoring goals is an “accidental” quality of his play. Yet central midfield is a position reaching a large amount of territory (like d4/e4/d5/e5 complex of squares on the chess club). Good central midfielders can exert immense influence from the heart of the pitch. And Huszti was no different during his 2nd stint at Hannover 96, when the Hungarian exerted influence through his passing work, specifically “Key Passes,” which create scoring opportunities for teammates:

Radar of Huszti's 2012-14 stint at Hannover 96. (Thanks to @FussballRadars)
Radar of Huszti’s 2012-14 stint at Hannover 96. (Thanks to @FussballRadars)

Huszti’s chance-creating work is outstanding during these H96 seasons. You can also see that he did a fair amount of dribbling, plus was defensively active with interceptions and tackles, although who knows if this was “good” defensive work or not. Huszti’s goal conversion rate looks lucky (or opportunistic?), given the high conversation rate + low shot output. Additionally, within the framework of Hannover’s relatively limited (errr, “in transition”) offensive scheme during these seasons, I’m not surprised to see Huszti’s pass completion rate well under 80%. My guess is that Huszti had to pass many a longish ball from deep, deep in the midfield, or on the break. In other words, risky passes.

I remember the 2012-14 seasons for Hannover 96. The club was transitioning out its barely-hanging-onto-top-flight status phase, which was marked by a deep set 4-4-1-1 shape that snuffed opponents out and hit them on the break. When Huszti arrived, H96 was trying to solidify its newfound status as a top half of the table club, playing in the Europa League. Moreover, Huszti was the sort of player Hannover 96 seemed to use as a catalyst for changing their entire tactical identity. In Huszti, H96 suddenly had a play maker, capable of slicing through defenses with his dribbling and passing, who was capable of scoring the infrequent but ultras-stirring goal.

Thanks to Huszti, H96 left its deep defensive lines + counter-attacking style behind, and transitioned into a more possession oriented style of play. For example, Hannover scored the 4th most goals (60) in 2012-13. During that season, Huszti averaged 2.4 Key Passes per match (8th best in the Bundesliga), while attracting attention from defenders (he was one of the top 10 fouled players that season). Additionally, Huszti made the 4th most crosses per match in the league, these and groundballs are signature Huszti passing traits. Finally, Huszti made a significant mark in only 21 matches for Hannover, thanks to a hamstring injury. So his 9 goals and 11 assists from this season look impressive, given the relatively small number of matches he played.

All of which set Huszti up for what was supposed to be a spectacular 2013-14 season at Hannover 96. And on the surface, it was: Huszti scored 10 goals with 9 assists. However, this tally is less impressive when you consider that Huszti played about 45% more minutes that season, while taking nearly double the quantity of shots. Meaning his goal and assist was almost only half as productive. However, to form Huszti was still among the league leader with 2.3 Key Passes per match and 2 crosses per match. His Key Passes were mostly played around the 18 yard box territory, meaning that Huszti was penetrating high up the pitch, as in 2012-13. Furthermore, Huszti made a higher volume of passes (37 per match vs. 25 per match from the season before), so his touches appear to have increased during the 2013-14 season. Indeed, he was nearly fouled just as much in 2013-14, drawing the attention of defenders with his dribbling and central pitch presence.

However, Huszti’s aggression spiked in 2013-14, as he earned 10 yellow cards and 1 straight red. I’m not sure what, if anything, to make of these cards. In no other season of his career does Huszti come even close to this card total. As for why, it’s slightly fun to speculate: coaching instructions, more vigilant officiating, randomness, or losing a half step with older age (Huszti would have hit 30 years old during the 2013-14 season).

The bottom line is that 2013-14 was probably a letdown for Huszti at Hannover 96. A somewhat disappointing follow up season for the Hungarian’s return to his old Bundesliga club. Yes, he was productive, but throughout the larger sample size of an entire season (no major injuries this time), his productivity seemingly regressed to the mean. Nonetheless, as the radar above illustrates, Huszti was a fantastic chance creator during his 2nd stint at H96, a role that probably made the difference of a few final table slots for Hannover by the end.

But here we are today. Huszti is back in the Bundesliga at age 33, after two season in China’s Super League with Changchun Yatai. He signed an 18 month contract with Eintracht. Through the Hinrunde, Huszti made 15 total appearances (starting 14 times). As you’ll probably notice by glancing at the radar diagram below, you’ll see that Huszti’s role has changed:

Szabolcs Huszti's radar from the Hinrunde with Eintracht Frankfurt this season. (Thanks to @FussballRadar)
Szabolcs Huszti’s radar from the Hinrunde with Eintracht Frankfurt this season. (Thanks to @FussballRadar)

In general, he’s doing a bit less of everything these days. In fact, he’s only 3rd on Eintracht with 1.1 Key Passes per match (following Marco Fabian and Timmy Chandler). He’s still crossing the ball in, but not dribbling nearly as much. In general, his ball touches are down from his earlier seasons in the Bundesliga, yet – amazingly – his scoring contribution remains relatively high. God bless, him. Is it luck? Pluck? Wily veteran ways? The Rückrunde will tell us more. For now, here he is. Chipping in where it matters most, all the while remaining unsung.

In case you’re wondering, Huszti has scored 2 goals and has 2 two assists.

Funnily enough, his goals were scored during matches against Bayern and Dortmund – matches Eintracht drew (2-2) and won (2-1) incidentally. A couple moments that symbolized what Eintracht has achieved this season, sitting at 4th place at the Winterpause.

For those of us creeping toward mid-life or already dwelling in mid-life, this goal is a joy. In footballing terms, Huszti is “late-life.” He’s the old sporting man. In this scoring sequence, his touch wasn’t clean and his balance odd, but he manages. Let’s give him a break: he’s mopping up a rebound. The ball ends up at his feet eventually, then our Hungarian beats Manuel Neuer to the far post. Both men seemed to know the plan and tensed their bodies accordingly. But as keepers know, the shot ball is faster than the reacting eye. Huszti scores. His shot is streaked with speed.

At this moment, age and all else falls back. Right foot planted. Left foot cocked. Arms out for ballast. Probably a stance Huszti has practiced thousands of times. The motion is clean, automatic, and ageless. Not bad for a scorer of goals.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U8s 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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