May 30, 2017

The Bundesliga’s best XI after ten games – Part 3 – Defenders

We are still on that everlasting international break, and while we could talk about the fake feud between Thomas Muller and the nation of San Marino, the new hit move “The depantsing of Sokratis by the coward Edin Dzeko” and such other wonderful tabloid fodder, we’ll just stick to quality Bundesliga analysis. On to the best XI in the Bundesliga after ten games we go! We’ve covered the best coaches  in Part One of our series and the goalkeepers got their due, so it’s time to give the defenders some love. Here are the nominees based on my experiences of watching the league, plus statistical analyses gathered from Twitter\Facebook, various blogs and incorporating metrics from Squawka, Kicker and Whoscored.com

Defenders (from left back to center to right back)

LBs : Konstantinos Stafylidis,  Jonas Hector,  Marcel Halstenberg

CBs : Jesus Vallejo,  Javi Martinez, Mergim Mavraj, John Brooks, Benedikt Höwedes, Niklas Süle, Willi Orban, Jonathan Tah and David Abraham

RBs : Frederik Sörensen, Benjamin Henrichs, Bernardo

Those are 15 candidates, but we will only pick four. Apologies to greats like Philipp Lahm, Mats Hummels, David Alaba and Ricardo Rodriguez, but either your team is a mess (hey there VfL) or you’ve all had better seasons (Ante Rebic ruining Lahm, Timmy Chandler owning Alaba). We’ll try to go by positions, so let’s pick two central defenders, and one right and left back each.

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Left back is a stacked position, but let’s narrow it down: Stafylidis woulda won this award after week 5, as his two brilliant goals and high interception numbers (3.8 per game) had him in the lead, before putting in some good but not great performances in three losses, a draw and (half) a win vs Ingolstadt in the last five. Having said that going 28 of 34 on tackles is pretty amazing and this is a guy who has played just 68o Bundesliga minutes prior to this season. Marcel Halstenberg is the obligatory RB Leipzig pick who has 2.8 interceptions and won 20 of his 30 challenges. 1.2 key passes is pretty impressive, but 72% passing needs some work, and he benefits from the monster pressing of the team, and the great defensive duo of Naby Keita and Diego Demme, plus all the defensive work guys like Emil Forsberg and Stefan Ilsanker do. The one sneaky stat that surprised me is him leading all defenders with 23 dribbles attempted. Thus, the winner is Jonas Hector: rated second by Squawka, sixth on Whoscored and fifth among all defenders at KickerThe German international is enjoying a stellar year: he is averaging 0.7 shots per game and 85% pass completion rate, both career highs. In addition, he has got 14 key passes, tied for the most with David Alaba among defenders and 21st overall in the Bundesliga. He has won 18 of his 25 challenges and is drawing a career high two fouls a game. He gets bonus points for his versatility (a couple of appearances as LM and CM) and for Köln conceding just seven times all season.

Benjamin Henrichs, deutscher Fußballspieler
Benjamin Henrichs, the latest crush of hipsters everywhere!

Right back was a pretty easy decision, once we moved Mitchell Weiser to the midfielders. Bernardo is a nice player for RB Leipzig and Sörensen tackles anything in sight (accounting for the fact that he has the second most fouls with 21), but Benjamin Henrichs has been the breakout player of the season at fullback. He has more successful tackles than Sörensen (36 to 34), despite attempting four fewer than the Dane (45 to 49) and opponents only succeeded 20% of the time against the 19-year-old. He reads the game really well, as his 27 interceptions put him ninth among all defenders and sixth among fullbacks.  He is also an 80% passer and has succeeded in ten of his twelve dribbles. Did we mention that he is 19 and had just 540 minutes of Bundesliga experience, and was playing as an attacking midfielder less than a year ago??? I mean eight months ago he was still playing in the Bundesliga West A-Junioren. bennyh

That is until it occurred to the Leverkusen coaching staff to try him as a fullback at the Florida Cup last winter, as covered by the Bundesliga Fanatic. Now, he has been called up to the national team and started against San Marino….no wonder Mr. Knutson is giddy!

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Center backs are the tougher choice, since we have to pick two players out of these nine candidates: Jesus Vallejo,  Javi Martinez, Mergim Mavraj, John Brooks, Benedikt Höwedes, Niklas Süle,Willi Orban, Jonathan Tah and David Abraham. John Brooks has played just six of the ten games, but he has been marvelous for Hertha. Willi Orban has been a nice player for Leipzig, but he benefits from an excellent pressing system by Hasenhüttl that made guys like Hübner and Matip look like Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique. I mean even Marvin Compper looks like a good Bundesliga defender…

Javi Martinez and Niklas Süle have had nice seasons, but the former benefits from playing alongside four all timers (counting Manuel Neuer) and has only completed 90 minutes once since October first, while Süle basically sleepwalked until October (khm the Mainz game) and has come on recently. Höwedes has been the best Schalke defender and a figure of consistency all year, as he leads all defensive players with 38 interceptions, but it is hard to make a case for him being among the best defenders when his team lost five games to open the season and were a dumpster fire for 50% of the ten games we looked at. That leaves us with four players fighting for two spots: Jonathan Tah, Mergim Mavraj, Jesus Vallejo and David Abraham. Tah has great looking statistics: 23 of his 26 attempted tackles succeeded and he is putting up a career highs in tackles per game at 2.7 and pass completion at 86%, earning him the seventh best defender ranking by Kicker. Yet, he is rated just 26th by Squawka and 40th by Whoscored and looked quite bad in two big games against Gladbach (committing a grave error to put Andre Hahn in on goal for the opener) and Hoffenheim that Bayer both lost. His team has also conceded 15 goals already and it doesn’t seem right to reward them by selecting two players from the unit responsible for preventing goals.  Although, we might have to reconsider if we keep finding pics of him like this one.

The three ranking systems agree, David Abraham has had a great year, with an average ranking of 11th. The veteran Argentine who was rated 44th out of 94 by Squawka and 36 of 76 by Kicker has posted similar defensive metrics, but has notably improved the frequency (47 avg passes per match) and accuracy (career best 83%) of his passing and has played a big part in Eintracht allowing just eight goals and 2.5 shots on target per game. In addition, he has succeeded on 15 of 19 attempted tackles. The Darmstadt and Hertha matches (where he got subbed out after 31 minutes) remain blemishes on an otherwise brilliant season, and he just misses out.

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That leaves us with his teammate, the 19-year-old Jesus Vallejo, who has been stunning for die Adler:  the Zaragoza youth product who signed a 6 million Euro contract for six years came over on loan from Real Madrid after realizing the difficulty of breaking into a first team that includes Sergio Ramos, Pepe and Raphael Varane. He has been nothing short of brilliant: Kicker ranks him as the best defender in the Bundesliga with a 2.69 average, while Squawka has got him sixth. It’s even more remarkable, when you consider that Michael Hector’s two red cards (one in the cup, one against Schalke) have allowed him to grab a starting spot that he was not assured of. Since coming in late against S04, he has started every game and has not posted a Whoscored rating under 6.64. He leads Eintracht with 88% passing and is second with 51 passes per match while also leading the team with 3 interceptions per match. He isn’t considered a great tackler, but has succeeded seven out of eight times, and the low volume is an indicator of Vallejo being a great reader of the game, as is the fact that he has only committed six fouls on the year. His one weakness is in the air, where he has lost 29 duels (the most among qualified defenders) and only won 25 but Abraham winning 38 compensates nicely.

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On our squad it will be Mergim Mavraj, who is third behind Abraham with 35 aerials won that will make up for Vallejo’s aerial deficiencies. The big Albanian has been the rock for Effzeh’s defense that has allowed just seven goals all year, despite facing 142 shots, the fourth most in the league. Mavraj is an excellent passer posting career highs of 88% on 45 attempts, who has played all 900 minutes so far. He is imperial in the air, but rarely gets beat on the ground, succeeding in 17 of his 26 tackles. His 26 interceptions are just outside the top 10 and his 52 clearances are second only to Naldo, while he is tied for the lead with 10 shots  blocked. Opponents are converting just 3.8% of their shots against them, a sub Leicester City rate. It’s all pretty remarkable stuff for a 30-year-old who has played 1000 minutes in each of the last two seasons and has previously played for Greuther Fürth and VfL Bochum, mostly in the 2. Bundesliga. (Mavraj has 10,000 Bundesliga minutes compared to 7500 ” Zweite Liga minutes in his career). Yet, this season Squawka has got him 12th, Whoscored ninth, and Kicker ranks him third among qualified defenders.

So there you have it, next up are the midfielders!

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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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