April 25, 2017

The Bundesliga Doctor is here to help your team! Part 1 – the Waiting Room

Since we are still on a rather pointless and lengthy international break, Bundesliga fans are forced to wait around, with only the occasional NationalMannschaft beatdown of the Czech Republic to keep them entertained. The break for the World Cup Qualifier, as the panel on the excellent Yellow Wall Podcast suggested, can be seen as the end of the starting phase of the Bundesliga season and thus is a nice time to look back on what trends have emerged so far. While past history is not a clear indicator of future performance and the sample size is just 6 games, the idea is that certain conclusions can be drawn from all that we have witnessed so far in the Bundesliga. To make things a bit more fun, we will try a new gimmick: the Bundesliga Doctor – evaluating teams, diagnosing “illnesses” and finally prescribing some treatment. Just like proper hospitals and medical staff, we will loosely follow the triage concept, and divide the victims into several categories:

  • I.Those who are likely to live, regardless of what care they receive, and/or are completely healthy – they shall take a seat in the lobby – Four teams
  • II.Those who are unlikely to live, regardless of what care they receive – we will treat them, but they might be beyond saving – Two teams
  • III. Those for whom immediate care might make a (positive) difference in outcome – this group will have several subheadings depending on the severity of the situation, such as:

A. Quick check-up and some suggestions – four teams

B. Prescriptions only – quick fix – two teams

C. We need to run more tests, but in the meantime here is a temporary fix that might not solve things in the long run – four teams

D. SURGERY REQUIRED IMMEDIATELY – two teams

Some teams were given a clean bill of health, since they are either outperforming (low) expectations, have no significant problems, or are not “medically” interesting. Let’s get to them first. In this group we have Hertha Berlin, RB Leipzig, Mainz and Cologne.

1. Hertha are currently second in the table, and aside from a beating by Bayern, Pál Dárdai’s side has proven over the last season that if they are healthy (Darida and John Anthony Brooks in particular) they can hang with/beat every team not named Bayern in the Bundesliga. They had a similarly hot start last year, getting 14 points out of their first eight matches, which allowed them to finish the Hinrunde in third place. The upcoming four matches against Dortmund (away), Cologne (home), Hoffenheim (A) and Gladbach (home) will test them, but Hertha should be optimistic: Salomon Kalou and Ondrej Duda have played a combined ZERO minutes so far this season, yet the attack has been very efficient as Vedad Ibisevic’s five goals are tied for the league lead, while supersubs Julian Schieber and Valentin Stocker (scorer of last-minute goals and destroyer of Hungarian dreams) have each won a game for them. So, while the Bundesliga doctor does not love Hertha’s advanced metrics – league low 51 shots for or 8.5 per match, struggling to create open play shots in the box (30 is the second lowest to Augsburg’s 29), sporting the second highest conversion rate at 18%, with slightly below average defensive numbers – the Berlin club should hang around the top 7.

On a personal note, if you are a Bundesliga player between the ages of 21 and 32 – cut by one of the big teams, go to Pál Dárdai rehab in Berlin – sure it’s not as luxurious as Lucien Favre’s treatment center for big name players in Nice, but it’s perhaps even more effective. The complete list is below:

Bayern – Thomas Kraft, Sinan Kurt, Mitchell Weiser, Sebastian Langkamp,

Dortmund/Stuttgart – Julian Schieber

Schalke – Alexander Baumjohann

Leverkusen – Jens Hegeler

2. RB Leipzig were at best expected to finish in lower mid-table, as many experts listed the typical potential stumbling blocks of a newly-promoted team: “adjusting to the  Bundesliga”, “inexperience” “different league”. While there was some merit to some of those claims, and RBL did struggle in the second half of the season in the Zweite Liga, this is no ordinary promoted team, a point that has been made, but perhaps not understood properly. RBL currently have some excellent advanced metrics: second best numbers in the Bundesliga with 61.5% Total Shots Ratio (they average 61.5% of the shots in a match), + 31 in total shots, shots on targets plus/minus with +23, shots in the box plus/minus (+55) and open play shots in the box with foot plus minus.

These numbers are fueled by a strong defense that is second to Bayern in shots allowed and actually allowed the fewest shots on target against with just 13. Furthermore, the conversion rates are not crazy high (eighth FOR) or low (seventh lowest AGAINST) on either side of the ball, shooting percentage is twelfth best at 28%, and their save percentage is actually below average at just 61%, thanks to opponents converting 20% of their shots against them from inside the box – a mark that is just behind the miserably unlucky Ingolstadt team. If anything, Leipzig could have a case for being slightly unlucky…

In terms of tactics here is what they do: the 4-2-2-2 lineup of coach Ralph Hasenhüttl  featured a defensively compact shape supported by a calculated but relentless press and it has not only surprised teams like Dortmund, but was brutally effective in the second half beatdown of mistake-prone HSV as well. Imagine a younger version of last year’s Ingolstadt on steroids, with stunning depth – Kyriakos Papapodopoulos and Davie Selke have played just a combined 108 minutes – and much more creativity: Emil Forsberg, Timo Werner, Naby Keita, Yussuf Poulsen, Marcel Sabitzer and Oliver Burke all look like stars in the making. Diego Demme, Dominik Kaiser and Stefan Ilsanker all play like 10-year-Bundesliga veterans, despite only Kaiser coming into the season with 500 minutes of first division experience back in 2011/12 with Hoffenheim. The defense, which allows the second fewest shots in the league behind Bayern has managed to make former Hoffenheim CB Marvin Compper (the Georg Niedermeier of his day!) look decent, and has in Willi Orban, Bernardo, Benno Schmitz and the injured Lukas Klostenberg some excellent young talent on hand. Wolfsburg, Bremen, Darmstadt and Mainz are the next four games, so expect RB to stick around the top 5 for quite a while. They cause(d) a ton of problems for possession heavy teams like Dortmund, Gladbach and Hoffenheim (Bayern, Wolfsburg, and Leverkusen should beware!), and the strong underlying numbers suggest an ability to overpower weaker teams like Augsburg. In addition, they’ve already played FOUR of the top EIGHT teams and are still unbeaten.

3. Mainz are the most fun team in the Bundesliga for neutral observes, with 12 goals scored and 11 conceded there is hardly a dull moment. Basically, if Mainz were a poker player they would always  be getting playable cards and thus involved in the pot in every hand. FSV have already played a fun opener against Dortmund, a wild 4-4 draw with Hoffenheim where they led 4-1, a game where they snatched a win against Werder with two goals after the 87th minute and one where Chicharito broke their hearts in the 92nd. The Wolfsburg game was not exactly a case of a dull goalless draw either, as Giulio Donati made several vital tackles, including a goal-line clearance of a Julian Draxler shot to save one point for Martin Schmidt’s side.

Ironically, for a team with such thrilling matches, there isn’t much wrong with them. I’ll even go further and make the claim that Mainz and Cologne might just be too identical teams on opposite ends of the injury/variance spectrum. Before you think I’ve ingested some of those crazy pills that I have gotten from my former patient Nicklas Bendtner (a curious fellow beyond help I must add), allow me to set the story up:

4. Unbeaten Cologne have been one of the biggest surprises in the league, with 12 points in six matches, despite already having played Wolfsburg, Schalke, Dortmund and Leipzig. After being tied for the Bundesliga lead with five goals, Anthony Modeste has rightfully gotten some praise, and pundits can point to the defense only conceding three goals all year despite a rough schedule that also included Matchday 6’s 1-1 draw at the Allianz Arena. They are fourth in the table, with BVB edging them on goal difference. But are they actually an elite team, or just a run of the mill Bundesliga side running hot early in the year?

Comparing them to Mainz, we find some interesting conclusions:

  • they are tied for 16th in possession with both at 42%, a low number, but typical for two counterattacking teams. Mainz scored ten goals from counters last year, while Cologne, although less efficient due to occasional poor finishing (Hallo, Simon Zoller!) showed what they can do versus Bayern (ca va, Anthony?).
  • both are in a three-way tie with HSV for second worst TOTAL shots with – 33 each.
  • their Total Shots Ratio is basically identical at 40.5% (Cologne) and 39.8% (Mainz)
  • both have 29 shots on target for and shots inside the box are 39 to 38 with Cologne edging the latter category
  • contrary to popular belief Cologne are statistically a worse defense: they allowed more shots in the box against (61 to 56). Yet, they allowed just 3 goals to Mainz’s 11. One key might be the type of shots conceded by Effzeh: although the volume of shots in the box allowed is second-highest only to Hoffenheim, when it comes to allowing OPEN PLAY shots with feet they are only the 11th highest. What that suggests is Cologne let you get low percentage HEADERS against them, most likely from set pieces.
  • another piece of evidence is the astronomically low 2.9% conversion rate that opponents have against Cologne. That’s basically second half of the season Leicester City level, a historical outlier as James Yorke of Statsbomb pointed out:

    The Foxes are currently getting their dose of reality, sitting in twelfth after seven games with a conversion rate of 12.6% against, per Footballintheclouds. Mainz on the other hand, are at a league average 10.6% against which should account for a few extra points and wins perhaps.

  • Goalkeeping is even more ridiculously skewed: While Timo Horn is arguably one of the five best Bundesliga keepers, he won’t keep out 89% of the shots he faces. That’s not because he isn’t great, but even guys like Manuel Neuer rarely get to sniff 80%. A cursory look at other leagues shows Nice and Tottenham both at 91% for this season, but that can’t last for more than half a season at best. The best example of that kind of a run lasting was Manuel Neuer at 89% until January of 14/15, but there is no way he faced the kind of volume that Horn, whose side conceded 103 shots – second most only to Darmstadt, and Sven Müller had so far. Mainz are slightly below average at 69.7%, despite Jonas Lössl, the Danish goalie who replaced the Liverpool-bound Loris Karius already having made 22 saves – the fifth most in the league. Still, we are one hypothetical Lössl save (against Hoffenheim) and one insanely lucky one (Timo Horn + the post versus Bayern) away from these two teams being tied on ten points and the narrative completely flipping.
  • Last year’s performances had some similarities: the two clubs finished seven points apart, as Mainz scored eight more goals at 46 to Effzeh’s 38 – basically Yoshinori Muto’s seven goals in the Hinrunde and Jhon Cordoba’s five in the Rückrunde, provided the output of a secondary goalscorer next to Yunus Malli (11 goals, most of them early in the year) that Köln and Anthony Modeste (15 goals) lacked all year.
  • The final interesting nugget is regarding injuries: According to Whoout.com Mainz are missing at least six players that are definitely starter level quality – Danny Latza, Jairo Samperio and new signing Andre Ramalho (ex-Leverkusen) have yet to make their season debuts after offseason injuries and Yoshinori Muto has only played 48 minutes before going down again. Leon Balogun has been one of their better defenders, but he missed the last game with an adductor strain, while Fabian Frei pulled out before the Switzerland – Hungary match with a thigh injury. Alexander Hack, a Mainz II team player who filled in admirably (notably against Bayern) last season had to be recalled and started the last two Bundesliga matches and the Europa League affair vs Qabala. In contrast, Köln are only missing Dominic Maroh (and as you will read Dominique Heintz has done quite the job of replacing the CB) and Leo Bittencourt who has resumed training.

That’s not the complete picture and it perhaps short-changes Peter Stöger’s club whose “bend but don’t break” defense has done real well results-wise (if not statistically) in the short-term, but questions about its sustainability remain. One interesting aspect of Cologne’s defensive philosophy that partially explains conceding so many shots is their activity in their own third – according to Whoscored.com no Bundesliga team spends as much time there (31% of a match) than Effzeh. They are definitely not sitting idly on their hands, as the Cologne back line excels at one skill: SHOTBLOCKING . The team is ranked 16th in the Bundesliga in passes blocked with 32, but lead it in crosses blocked with 18 and are tied for fourth with 24 shots thwarted. While that’s obviously very good, the low amount of passes blocked and interceptions – a total of 103 is 13th in the league – it suggests some deeper defensive issues in midfield. It wasn’t so much the loss of Kevin Vogt – averaging more fouls at 1.2 per game than tackles at 1.1 last season, but the departure of Yannick Gerhardt – two tackles and 1.2 interceptions per game that hurt. With a double pivot defensive midfield pairing of veteran 33-year-old Matthias Lehman and Schalke castoff Marco Höger contributing just 2.8 tackles and 2.6 interception and 2.3 fouls combined, they certainly give plenty of work to the rest of the team. Höger in particular gets dribbled past quite often, at two per match. To their credit, Cologne’s other defenders have stepped up:First,right back Frederik Sörensen, who is tied for the Bundesliga lead with 33 attempts and 22 successful tackles.  Mergim Mavraj leads the league in clearances with 42 and shots blocked with seven, and his new center back partner Dominique Heintz – filling in since a rib injury to Dominic Maroh in the Darmstadt match – is second with six in five matches! On the other hand, having your CBs rank one and two in clearances isn’t exactly the greatest testament to your defense, as it typically means that they are under pressure and will eventually concede. Case in point: Hamburg’s Johann Djourou and Emir Spahic are fourth and fifth respectively for one, and no one could accuse them of being capable this season, while Schalke fans probably don’t think Naldo has been great, despite the Brazilian averaging over seven clearances in his five appearances this year. Sure, he clears the ball often, but as we saw in the Frankfurt match those (poor) clearances can lead to goals, and when he fails to get to a ball to clear it, Robert Lewandowski is off to the races. Let’s give a little more credit to two more Köln players: Marcel Risse is second in the league with eight passes blocked, while Jonas Hector’s four blocked crosses (Sörensen leads this category with six) and five passes rejected are also excellent. Just for context, last year’s blocks leaders were Joel Matip, Niklas Süle, Ragnar Klavan and Aytac Sulu and all four teams conceded close to 50 goals or more. So clearly, the lesson is that Liverpool will sign either Mavraj, or Heintz, and that high block numbers do not correlate with being a great defense. Sorry Effzeh fans!

The Doctor will be back tomorrow with Part Two!

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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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