November 18, 2017

The Bundesliga Doctor Part 3 – More Tests Needed on Gladbach, Leverkusen, Hoffenheim and Wolfsburg

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 us 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 – Hertha BSC, RB Leipzig, 1.FC Köln and FSV Mainz covered in Part One

  • 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 – Ingolstadt and Darmstadt

  • 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 – Bayern, Dortmund, Augsburg and Eintracht covered in Part Two

B. Prescriptions only – quick fix – two teams – Werder and Freiburg

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 – Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, Gladbach and Hoffenheim discussed in this post

D. SURGERY REQUIRED IMMEDIATELY – two teams – Schalke and HSV

Today the Bundesliga Doctor is going to run more tests on four teams that have been among the league’s elite for the last 9 years or so, occasionally disturbing the ecosystem of the league’s Bayern-Dortmund duopoly. We’re using the beginning of the 08/09 season since it’s the first time that all four teams were in the league, with Hoffenheim gaining promotion and Gladbach rejoining the first division after relegation. Of the four, Bayer Leverkusen have been the most consistent finishing in the top five every year but once since 2008/09. Wolfsburg have had the most success by winning the title in 2008/09 and clinching a runner-up spot in 14/15. Gladbach are no strangers to winning the league – having done it five teams from 1969/70 to 1976/77, but had to drop down to the Zweite Liga, and it was not until Lucien Favre took over the coaching duties in February of 2011 that the Foals got back on track, though not without surviving the relegation playoffs after finishing two points ahead of Wolfsburg in that same season. Since then, Borussia have never finished lower than eighth despite losing key players such as Marco Reus and Favre departing after a five game losing streak to start last season. Hoffenheim were actually leading the table in their first Bundesliga season at the winter break, thanks to the Vedad Ibisevic, Demba Ba duo, and many blamed the ACL injury to the now Hertha player as the reason for their decline. That explanation seems reasonable, given that TSG scored 42 goals in the Hinrunde, but managed just 21 in the Rückrunde on their way to their best ever seventh place finish. Since then, the club has seen a lot of players leave – Luiz Gustavo, Carlos Eduardo, Demba Ba, Vedad Ibisevic, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Chinedu Obasi, Roberto Firmino and Kevin Volland have brought in profits in excess of 100 million Euros, but Anthony Modeste, Jannik Vestergaard, Fabian Johnson, Vincenzo Grifo, Pascal Groß or Koen Casteels are other notables on the list of player departures. The total player sales stands at 175 million Euros and it’s clear that Dietmar Hopp’s club has never been afraid to spend some of that money, with player arrivals totaling over 159 million (but never going above 26 million in any window) in those nine years. It’s worth mentioning that Hoffenheim rarely shelled out big money to sign name players (Andrej Kramaric is the most expensive at 10 million this summer!), but rather quite often bought  some of those aforementioned players at a young age then sold them after a good season or two. Aside from last year’s disastrous Hinrunde and the 12/13 season where they needed a last round victory over silver medalists Borussia Dortmund – with two penalties and one red card for BVB keeper Roman Weidenfeller – just to make the relegation playoffs (thought Fortuna Düsseldorf certainly did not do any favors for themselves losing five in a row to go down outright), TSG have finished eleventh three times and seventh, eighth and ninth once each. This year they are yet to lose after four consecutive draws were followed by two straight wins. Let’s take a closer look at them first!

  1.  Can Hoffenheim be fixed?

On the plus side, Julian Nagelsmann’s team plays some of the most entertaining matches in the Bundesliga, having scored 11 goals in six matches, and drawn with Mainz in an eight goal thriller already. They rank second behind Bayern in shots per match at 16.7 or 100 total and fourth in possession at 55%. Andrej Kramaric is posting superstar numbers, trailing only Robert Lewandowski in total shots with 24 and also proving to be an excellent playmaker with four assists already. Mark Uth continued his excellent run under Julian Nagelsmann, scoring three goals before going down with a torn muscle in his thigh that will keep him out until the end of the year. Sebastian Rudy has continued to be the team’s most consistent performer and a worthy German national team member, while the development of Nadiem Amiry and Kerim Demirbay have been very encouraging, as the trio averages almost six key passes per match. Summer bargains like Sandro Wagner and Lukas Rupp have already paid dividends with a couple of goals each, and the former Stuttgart man continues to be one of the league’s hardest-working players. So it looks like the TSG attack is firing on all cylinders, picking up from where they left off last season, as Nagelsmania sweeps the Bundesliga!

Well, not quite. Hoffenheim do put up a ton of shots, but sometimes lack in accuracy and quality: they lead the Bundesliga in shots from outside the box at 7.5 per game and are second in blocked shots at 4.3 and in shots off target at 7.3 per match respectively. While that’s not a massive problem in of itself – Bayern rank right up there with them – but the Bavarians average a whopping 12 shots from inside the penalty area to Hoffenheim’s still excellent eight. Currently, it’s taking Hoffenheim over nine shots a game to score a goal, which ranks them NINTH in the league, despite such a heavy volume. Still, things are looking quite good for TSG on that end, and with the emergence of Kramaric as a borderline superstar, a midfield of Rupp, Demirbay, Rudy and Amiri should have enough firepower to hang with teams on offense.

At this point you probably have noticed the lack of defenders in the above paragraph, and that means that as an observant Bundesliga fan, you deserve a lollypop from the nurse! Defending apparently is not in style for the club, as they conceded nine goals on a brutal 16.3 shots per match. While conceding a lot of shots is not the greatest strategy (example – Cologne, with their comically unsustainable ratio of opponents needing 34 shots for a goal against!!!), TSG also allowed the second most shots on target with 37. It’s probably a bad sign for your defense, if your goalkeeper Oliver Baumann leads the league in saves inside the penalty are with 19 and is 15th with six saves from outside the box. My professional medical opinion is that it’s the exact opposite way a good defense should work! Furthermore they have allowed ten more shots than Darmstadt from inside the box, and lead the league by a country mile at 70 in six games, for a near SIX shots from inside the box average! Given such metrics that have been going on since last year, as Dustin Ward pointed out in his season preview piece, Hoffenheim are probably somehow overachieving on defense.

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According to the XG models, they are right around the Bundesliga average in shots per goal conceded at 10.7 and expected goals allowed per shot against at 11%. That’s quite remarkable given the 6.17 shots on target that Baumann has had to face, and perhaps having to make the most saves in the Bundesliga with 28 excuses a couple of his mistakes against Mainz earlier. In terms of assigning the blame, Fabian Schär nd Ermin Bicakcic have been quite sub par, with the Swiss even getting the early hook on just 28 minutes after allowing Mainz to get three first half goals. Niklas Süle comes off looking quite great with 15 of his 16 attempted tackles succeeding, but doesn’t always pass the eye test, and averages just one header won per match despite his massive size. Kevin Vogt also has a ton of size, and has often been forced to play as an extra center back due to injuries (he has played more than Bicakcik and Schär), but his lack of speed and reading of the game has left the team exposed. To be fair, Julian Nagelsmann has not helped matters by inverting the fullbacks, with Jeremy Toljan – a left back – starting three matches as a right wingback, and Pavel Kaderabek – a right back – making four appearances on the left side of the defense. There are two bright spots: 1. Sebastian Rudy has been an emergency right back, as he has done in the past, and leads the team in tackles (14 of 17 successful) and interceptions (19).  Benjamin Hübner, who for some silly reason (Nagelsmann preached patience) has sat on the sidelines, put up a monstrous performance with eight clearances in his only start against his former team Ingolstadt on matchday six. The 3-1-4-2 with a back three of Süle, Vogt and Hübner, with Rudy in front and Toljan at RWB and Kaderabek at LWB looked interesting, but still conceded 18 shots to an offensively challenged Ingolstadt – the latter being the understatement of the season, as FCI need 25 shots to create a goal on average. The same formation was used against Schalke, where Bicakcic was fortunate to escape a red card and a penalty in the first half, as the team survived with two goals on two shots on goal.

Whether or not this defense improves is doubtful, especially given that aside from Leipzig they have yet to face any of the top 6 teams. The final diagnosis is thus inconclusive and more tests (games) are needed, but the likelihood of a porous defense, benefiting from a third lowest opponent conversion rate of 8.2%, keeping them from achieving a top seven finish is higher than their offense sustaining its volume and effectiveness in light of losing Uth for the entire Hinrunde.

2. Do Leverkusen look right?

If I had written this analysis after the first four games, the answer would have been a clear no. The Bayer team that many picked for great things this year – settle down Pál Dárdai, they have no chance of winning the Bundesliga!! – was sitting in twelfth place. A hard-fought loss in Gladbach, followed by the Joel Pohjanpalo show obliterating HSV in the final 12 minutes was not a horrible start, but the loss at Frankfurt and Chicharito missing a stoppage time penalty was uncharacteristic. It was Charles Aranguiz’s turn to miss a PK against Augsburg, and it resulted in a scoreless draw for die Werkself, who also blew a 2-0 lead in the Champions League vs CSKA Moscow in between those two matches. In an earlier article, I questioned Roger Schmidt’s tactical rigidity and wondered whether Leverkusen would have enough to make the UCL next season. Fortunately for them, Chicharito broke out with a hat-trick against Mainz, added another versus Dortmund and Admir Mehmedi became the first Bayer player not named Hernandez or Pohjanpalo to score this season. The Dortmund match looked like the platonic ideal for Roger Schmidt’s Leverkusen: an intense affair full of fouls, where Kampl and Aranguiz ran tirelessly at BVB, while Calhanoglu put in two assists to Mehmedi and Hernandez in a man of the match performance. The defense, led by 20-year-old Jonathan Tah and 19-year-old Benjamin Henrichs completely shut down Dortmund’s high-powered offense, with Henrichs erasing Pulisic and Dembéle for a half each. So, the real question for the rest of the season is:

Which one is the real Leverkusen?

The advanced stats paint an interestingly dour picture on Bayer: They are sandwiched between Ingolstadt and Schalke in most counting stats with identical numbers in total shots, shots on target, shots against (FCI 61- Bayer 60), shots on target against (Ingolstadt are even and Schalke have conceded 11 fewer shots!!), shots in the box against (FCI 34 to B04’s 41). If it weren’t for the statistically atrocious offenses of FCI and S04 -both hovering around 8% in terms of goals / total shots and sitting in 17th and 16th – sixth place Leverkusen with its 33% rate would be much more within reach. Could the low save percentages of FCI and S04 (61 and 44%) fueled by conversion rates against of 20 % for FCI and 26.7% on shots taken with feet inside the box for Schalke be making that much of a difference? Bayer in contrast have an 11.7% overall conversion rate against, with the third best ranking of 12.9% opponent conversion rate on shots taken with feet inside the box. Short term randomness can be brutal, and even relatively long, and given that 38 games are, as demonstrated by Mark Taylor, not enough of a sample size Leverkusen should consider themselves pretty fortunate overall based on their play so far.

Leverkusen optimists would probably have a different point of view, and state that they’ve done pretty well given the circumstance.  Their argument that goes something like this:

  1. Injuries: long-term to Stefan Kießling, Karim Bellarabi (their most dynamic player), Joel Pohjanpalo ( four goals in 104 minutes !), and Vlad Yurchenko have robbed the team of attacking talent and depth, forcing Roger Schmidt to play a lot of Admir Mehmedi, or even Hakan Calhanoglu up top. That happened because of a couple of short-term freak injuries: both Chicharito and 20m Euro summer signing Kevin Volland broke their hand in a matter of a few days. Lars Bender is struggling with a calf injury. Outside of Kevin Kampl, no outfield player has started all six games!
  2. Adjustment of new arrivals: Julian Baumgartlinger has led the Bundesliga in tackles per game at over three in each of the last four years. He currently has made three tackles on the year in 148 dreadful minutes, as he was overrun frequently against Gladbach and was subbed off in the 57th minutes vs Eintracht in his second chance at winning a starting job. Aleksandar Dragovic, who cost 25 million has barely played with just 136 minutes, while Kevin Volland has just 240 minutes to show for the 20 million Euros the club spent on him. These two will definitely play a bigger part in the Hinrunde, though perhaps not starting every match.
  3. Julian Brandt is struggling to regain his form that made him last spring’s most terrifying attacker after a great Olympics. The 20-year-old mega talent has posted identical numbers to last year, but goals and assists are notably absent from him so far. That should chance in the future, as will the fact that someone other than Chicharito and the injured Pohjanpalo will have 90% of the team’s goals.
  4. Hakan Calhanoglu is alive! Not only did he get two assists and the man of the match award vs Dortmund, but the still only 22-year-old free kick maestro is taking just one out of the box per match compared to his career average of 2.5! Could he finally be figuring out that taking 80% of your shots from distance is an awfully ineffective way to score, even if you might be the best free-kick taker in the world? Looks to be much more involved in the passing game: 
  5. Kampl and Aranguiz are slowly figuring it out: The Slovenian has been Leverkusen’s best player outside of Chicharito the last two years and is loving the hard-pressing style of Roger Schmidt. His tackling rate and success (12 of 18) are well-known, yet adding two dribbles and 1.2 key passes per match shows how surprisingly versatile Kampl is. The Chilean is one of the more intelligent players in the Bundesliga, and when healthy has the skills to be one of the league’ best box-to-box midfielders. It’s pretty clear that these two on the inside with Brandt and Calhanoglu on the wings is Schmidt’s best midfield. 
  6. Henrichs and Tah are two defenders, 19 and 20 respectively, but Leverkusen have two building blocks for the future. Tah is ranked as the third best defender by Kicker (behind Philipp Lahm and Raphael Guerreiro) and aside from a poor header that sent Andre Hahn in on goal in the opener I can’t recall him doing much wrong. Henrichs meanwhile has shut down two of BVB’s wunderkids, and has gone 22 of 27 on tackles this year! (That Tin Jedvaj has a fullback experiment really needs to stop Roger…)

The next four games – at Bremen, home vs Hoffenheim, at Wolfsburg and home to Darmstadt should not be too difficult, but the biggest question for Bayer is as follows:

Will Chicharito continue to terrorize defenses, as he did in the last two matches, and the Hinrunde of the last campaign, or will he put up the kind of subdued performance in the first two games? Perhaps, as a natural poacher on a team that chooses to emphasize pressing over creative attacking football,  is he somewhat at the mercy of others around him creating for him? We need to see more of them to figure out the answers.

3. Gladbach – a premature extension for Schubert, who is #nocluebert on the road?

Gladbach are the most fun team in the Bundesliga on their day, putting together quick strings of passes to build-up some of the prettier goals this side of  Barcelona, or hitting the opposition on a lightning-paced counter. They are also an incredibly frustrating side to watch, often lacking a strategy away from home, resorting to defensive possession and little creativity going forward. They absolutely destroy teams at Borussia Park: three wins eight goals scored and two conceded this season, 13 wins a draw three losses last year with 42GF and 18 against. Away from home they have one point with two goals for and eight against this year and went four wins three draws and ten losses in 15/16.

Raffael is one the Bundesliga’s gems: a wizard with the ball who last year finally got some recognition after joining Henrik Mkhitaryan as the only two members of the double-digit goals and assists club. Raffael has only played three games and 206 minutes so far. Raffael has averaged over 2600 minutes since arriving in the Bundesliga in January of 2008, save for his 2012-13 purgatory in Ukraine and then Schalke. Lars Stindl might just be the poor man’s Thomas Müller, and together with the Brazilian is responsible for the following nugget courtesy of  Dustin Ward of Statsbomb :”of the most 50 common attacking passing combinations (30 shown below), only Stindl to Raffael and Raffael to Stindl were both in the 5 shortest on average, and the 5 closest to goal. Close together and close to the opposition a goal, a fantastic combo.” In 16/17 Stindl’s shots, key passes and dribbles are at career low levels by 50% and his defensive numbers are also down by that much and then some. Christoph Kramer is a World Cup Winner and a 15m Euro summer transfer that was brought in to replace Granit Xhaka’s playmaking and tackling. Despite playing much further up the pitch in a CM role, Kramer averages just 0.3 key passes per game, as opposed to Xhaka’s 0.7 from the second-deepest role in the league last year.  Kramer also has the 2 to 1 ratio of accurate long balls to inaccurate ones that Xhaka gave the Foals last season, and he replicates the 7 to 1 successful short pass ratio. So, accuracy or volume isn’t a problem, but rather as this passing map vs. Freiburg shows, it’s the lack of risk-taking.

kramer

Kramer’s tackling success is also down from 63% in an off-year at Leverkusen to 58% this year. More importantly he leads the league in tackles attempted with 33, on pace for 187 attempts, which would be three more than Julian Baumgartlinger tried last season and 63 more than Kramer’s 124. Even if we account for the six games that he missed last year, he is still a full tackle ahead of last year’s average of 4.4 with this year’s 5.5.

Tackling seems to be a vital issue for Gladbach, who are just fractions off the Bundesliga lead at 20.7 this year, after ranking tenth last season with 18.4 and 14th the year before with 18.1. The difference is explained in part by the reacquisition of Kramer and speedster Ibrahima Traore who are both adding over three per match. Interestingly, Gladbach are averaging two fewer interceptions per match than last year, but that’s perhaps explained by the fact that BMG are at a very high 57.5% possession rate. You would think that a team full of technical players with exceptional passing skills and speedy creative attacking players like Thorgan Hazard and Traore would attack often and create lots of shots? Well, then I got a surprise for you! Gladbach have taken just 55 total shots – four ahead of league-worst Darmstadt – for an average of 9.2 per match.  While the Foals were never a high volume team with 13.4, 12.5 and 12.6 shot per game averages in the last three season, that kind of low volume – high possession mix is practically unheard of.  The passing map from the Freiburg match where they comfortably lost thanks to 5 total shots on an absurd 65% possession shows why:

bmgpass

They do know they are allowed to pass to their attacking players, right???

strobl

Even you Tobias Strobl!

Or take a look at an even more extreme case against Schalke: Gladbach completed 702 passes to Schalke’s 234, edged them in possession 72 to 28%, and lost the shots battle 15 to 12 and the match 4-0. I dare you to find an attacking player within these pass combinations! bgmpass

This was of course the match that famously had Jannik Vestergaard pulled for Lars Stindl on 45 minutes in a tactical switch, after the big Dane had 92 passes in ONE HALF resulting in the biggest dot in the history of Passing Maps!

Even more ridiculous is that Mo Dahoud was playing the number ten role, according to the lineup, and look at WHERE he received his passes!

dahoudvsch

Hopefully you are starting to see the trend now: both of the two massive possession games for BMG, Freiburg and Schalke, were away from home, where Schubert’s strategy seems to be one based on possession as defense. That isn’t a bad idea in of itself, as it’s something that for example Pep Guardiola uses, but it has come at the expense of abandoning forward passing. The third away game – a 1:1 draw against Leipzig saw another extreme example: 57% possession, but just THREE shots. bmgrbl

0.3 expected goals sounds about right: 

That’s three away matches and a total of 20 shots, despite never going below 57% possession. So overall, the team takes just 36% of its total shots away from home, compared to 64% at Borussia Park, despite having the ball all the time and “controlling” the game.

The pessimistic take is that given that 17 games are played on the road, Gladbach, if they continue this strategy, might just be beyond saving with Schubert at the helm, as Conor Garratt pointed out. The optimistic version will hope that Raffael gets healthy, Stindl improves, Mo Dahoud gets more playing time and returns to last season’s form and that the Thorgan Hazard revenge tour continues. We shall see.

4. Wolfsburg

Do you like a team that creates a ton of shots at a top 4 volume, gets them on target at the same rate, but has no clue how to finish? Wolfsburg have two giant flaws – the 6.7 shots from outside of the box are the smaller issue, the four goals in six games is the bigger one – three if you discount the Robert Bauer own goal against Werder. They get into the box at an elite rate overall, but are just middle of the box with shots with feet, suggesting a penchant for low-percentage headers – a Mario Gomez specialty. Julian Draxler is third in the league in total shots, while Gomez is 14th, and they have taken 30 of their 36 shots from inside the area, on 6.5 combined shots per game, so it follows that they should have at least five or six goals. WAIT, THEY HAVE ZERO???? What the Hecking? I guess when it takes you 32 shots to get a goal, that’s a rough life…

The good news is that nobody goes on those kind of droughts for extended periods, even if the team might struggle for a few weeks until Daniel Didavi’s creativity and two goals return.

The defense on the other hand is equally concerning: After losing Naldo and Dante it looked like shedding them was the more appropriate term. VfL started out with three clean sheets (Bruma and Casteels both made the team of the week once), before Dortmund put up five goals on 11 shots on them, thanks to Dieter Hecking not being able to press properly. While they were not that bad enough to give up five to BVB,

the four clean sheets and three goalless draws probably overrate their defense as well. The lapse in the final few minutes vs Werder cost them two points, and it’s down to fortune and Casteels’ performances in-goal that Cologne and Hoffenheim failed to score despite a combined 36 shots, with Effzeh managing nine on target to TSG’s five. The XG maps for the matches show two bizarre results.

On an individual level, Koen Casteels has arguably been the team’s best “defender” followed by Jeffrey Bruma, who has played every minute so far and aside from a disastrous game against Dortmund has looked solid. Robin Knoche rated better than Philipp Wollscheid on both the Kicker rankings and the eye test, looking more composed and better in the air than the combative former Stoke player. Ricardo Rodriguez is still an excellent left-back and his shooting and offense are vital to the team. Right back remains a massive issue, as Vieirinha can’t defend at all (see Portugal’s Euro campaign, Dortmund, or much of last season) and Jakub Blaszczykowski has been forced to step in for him. The single biggest defensive issue is in the center of the midfield, and it’s one that Wolfsburg will not be able to fix for a while as both Josuha Guilavogui and Luiz Gusvato have long-term injuries. Their replacements, particularly the pairing of two promising and highly regarded youngsters in Yannick Gerhardt and Maxi Arnold have stunk it up. At times they were lined up just centimeters away from each other, and they combined to average just one tackle and interception per match in the double pivot. Paul Seguin, a 21-year-old who played mostly in the Regionalliga last year has been another option, but his 0.5 tackles and 0.3 INTs are also horrific numbers for a CDM. While Guilavogui won’t be back anytime soon thanks to a cervical fracture, Luiz Gustavo should return from a muscle injury.

The offense should figure itself out, provide that Didavi can stay healthy, because Draxler and Gomez are too good to be goalless and are putting up excellent numbers.

Stay tuned for part 4 soon!

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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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