November 18, 2017

The Bundesliga’s Best XI – Part 4 – Midfielders

In Part four of the series, we examine the best midfielders of the Bundesliga after ten games, using the matches we watched, analytics from all over the place, plus the Kicker, Whoscored and Squawka rankings to narrow down the field.

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After eliminating guys like the Robben-Ribery duo and Andre Schurrle due to lack of playing time we are left with the following group of 15.

Mitchell Weiser, Thiago, Kerem Demirbay, Marco Fabian, Naby Keita, Emil Forsberg, Vincenzo Grifo, Julian Weigl, Serge Gnabry, Joshua Kimmich, Daniel Baier, Gonzalo Castro, Marcel Risse, Sebastian Rudy and Omar Mascarell.

Mascarell is perhaps a surprise to Bundesliga fans, but the 23-year-old Real Madrid loanee has had a wonderful season for Eintracht as a ball-winning CDM with decent passing at 77%. He will still make the occasional defensive mistake (misjudging a cross against Hertha to allow Vedad Ibisevic to thump the ball home), but has grown into his role as the season progressed. His best game came against HSV where he posted seven successful tackles, six interceptions and four clearances. Together with Szabolcs Huszti they form an excellent double pivot that has enough defensive stability to provide cover for the back three that has been so successful for Eintracht, who allow just 2.5 shots on target against.

Gonzalo Castro is one of the streakier players in the Bundesliga, and his four assists essentially came in a hot spurt when BVB were humming.

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Julian Weigl should own a spot on this list for many years to come,  and is posting almost identical numbers to his breakout campaign. He will be omitted mostly for some defensive errors (Ingolstadt scoring on set pieces twice, where at least once it was his man who got free, and he gets dribbled past more often this year) which can be explained by Dortmund’s inconsistency and his own late start to the season after a long summer that included EURO 2016.

Marcel Risse deserves a lot of credit – his four assists have all gone to Anthony Modeste – and he is one of the engines of the Cologne revival, but until he gets his passing over 60% I can’t really see him in the top four.

I’m a huge fan of Daniel Baier, who leads the league in interceptions at nearly four a game, but his FCA team isn’t very successful or exciting to get him into the cream of the crop.  Sebastian Rudy is probably a better candidate with career-best numbers, but his team is performing much better than Baier’s.

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Joshua Kimmich and Serge Gnabry are also worthy candidates, but the former has played only 441 minutes and started just four games, albeit using that time to score just about every time. Kimmich’s national team teammate and fellow 21-year-old Gnabry has also banged in four goals, and has done everything (two shots, 2.4 dribbles, two key passes, 76% passing) for a lousy Werder team. In fact, Gnabry has 17 key passes that Whoscored defines as “other” (so not crosses, corners or free kicks) which is the highest figure in the league.

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He’s a very tough choice to omit, but there are still guys who have either performed better and\or are more important to their teams.

Mitchell Weiser, Thiago, Kerem Demirbay, Marco Fabian, Naby Keita, Emil Forsberg, Vincenzo Grifo are seven fighting for four spots.

Toughest cuts

Kerem Demirbay is a wonderful surprise or horrible decision to let go, or a moron, depending on whether you are a Hoffenheim, HSV fan or just not a misogynist. It’s pretty remarkable how this guy was sold for 1.7 million by the overlords at Hamburg, perhaps not helped by the fact that he showed up dressed to the nines when he was told to accept his punishment to referee a girl’s match after this sexist remarks. For more on him check out his radar

and my colleague Anas Ali Molla’s description at the 4th Official.

Grifo means everything to Freiburg and leads the league (albeit heavily inflated by set pieces) in key passes, some of which you can see from here. Shades of Pascal Groß here.

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His radar looks very solid:

and if he figures out how to finish, he will be on a bigger team very soon. I’ve personally witnessed him squander at least a couple of golden opportunities (he skied a great chance against Wolfsburg on a counter, hit a week shot on a breakaway versus Dortmund that Bürki saved) that he would like to have back. He is a remarkably accurate shooter, but accuracy often comes at the expense of power and placement, as Grifo loves to shoot from outside the box;  out of all midfielders he has taken 21 such shots, second place Marcel Risse has just 14! So when you take 21 of your 33 shots from such long distances, it’s always going to be more difficult to score, especially when placement isn’t your forte. screen-shot-2016-11-15-at-10-36-58-am

Thanks to Alex Rathke’s work we can also look at all his shot locations and see that he is also getting blocked about as much as a guy with that kinda name should expect on a warm summer night down the Jersey Shore! #howyoudoinimVinnyG!

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Naby Keita remains the odd one man out, which is very weird for someone who has a very good case for being the best Bundesliga midfielder. He has three goals (including an all-timer vs Bremen) and a sick radar shows his stunning impact as a superb all-around midfielder.

Unfortunately that’s only 505 minutes as a metatarsal bone bruise kept him out early and RBL (correctly) took their time in bringing him back. I could easily see him cracking the top four by the end of the Hinrunde.

The four best midfielders so far

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Emil Forsberg beats out Keita, as the 25-year-old Swede, who many thought was the 2. Bundesliga player of the season (ahead of Grifo) has continued to terrorize the German (first) league. Aside from being a guy who was born into football (grandfather played in the 50s, while his dad Leif has 400 appearances in the Swedish league)is also one of the nicer guys in football. He is older than you think and has already nearly eight years of pro football experience, having debuted at 17 for Sundsvall. I mean some of the stuff he was doing in Sweden were as brilliant, raw and filthy as anything the country has produced in extreme music.

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Malmo and the UCL were logical steps, but many shook their heads in disbelief when he opted for the 2. Bundesliga and Leipzig. Perhaps the reason was that his wife and pro footballer Shanga Forsberg plays for FFV Leipzig, but regardless he looks to have made the right decision.

He is a devastating attacking player, who can play centrally and on the left-side and excels on the counter, presses really well and is an 80% passer: in other words what all HSV fans wished Filip Kostic could be. That’s probably underselling him a bit, because the Swede has actually taken just one of his 15 shots on the counter, compared to 12 from open play. His radar chart looks excellent:

He is probably overshooting his numbers a bit (his own stupidly high 40% conversion rate) and the four goals plus four assists are boosted by one penalty (also missed one against Wolfsburg) and Timo Werner’s  24% conversion rate, as Forsberg has assisted on three of the striker’s goals. On the other hand, his defensive impact is massive – nearly four INT + tackles a game from that position is near world-class!!!

Tom Payne at Spielverlagerung wrote an excellent assessment of his play vs Wolfsburg noting:

“Although Leipzig’s chaotic attacking struggled to form many dangerous attacks, when it did, Forsberg was usually the centrepiece. Technically the strongest out of the four, he was most comfortable in the high-speed attacking and was able to play calmly in a hectic midfield. Coming inside from his left-sided position, he found gaps of space well and used his pressing-resistance to find the two strikers in moments where teammates couldn’t. “

Being rated the best midfielder by Kicker (min 6 starts) is well-deserved and so is his spot on our team.

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Thiago has been Bayern’s best player this season. It’s not because of his number one ranking at Squawka or Whoscored among all midfielders, but the former Barca man is yet to have a bad game: his lowest rating on Whoscored is a 6.8 in 29 minutes in relief of Renato Sanches. It’s partly because of what Matthew Büning at Bayern Central wrote in his piece pondering Thiago’s irreplaceability. You’ll see his improvement if you watched the games, but these radar charts explain it a lot better

We should just call it, how to go from a tidy distributor who contributes a ton to scoring to

an elite do it all CM! Seriously look at the defensive numbers skyrocketing!

In addition, he is equally comfortable playing as RCM, or LCM and of course in the middle, covering for old man Alonso, while also rendering the great XA obsolete with laser passes like this.

There are more but you get the idea: consistent excellence and improvement for a top team gets you into the team of the season!

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Marco Fabian didn’t have a great 15\16 campaign by any stretch of the imagination, after a winter break switch saw him make just 11 appearances for a struggling Frankfurt side. After not scoring in 800 minutes last year and picking up 2 assists on 1.7 shots and 1.8 key passes last year, the Mexican looks like a player reborn.

He has three goals, four assists and has doubled his shot tally to 3.6 per match, while keeping possession and passing stats the same despite attempting 32 passes per match to 36 per game last year. Did we mention he is making nearly four INT + tackles per game, compared to under two last season??

He looks like is in much better shape, and Niko Kovac is using him properly as a free-roaming attacking midfielder, who might slip in that key pass for an assist,  take on a guy near the sidelines one second, only to show up in front of goal to bang in a cross the next, even with his chest.

He is in the top seven in all three rankings, and is arguably the biggest reasons (along with the defense) for Eintracht surprising everyone by competing not for the 2. Liga but for Europe this season.

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Mitchell Weiser also has his sights on Europe with Hertha. The 22-year-old was the second name on our list after Thiago, and we are including him as a midfielder, as he has played a little more in that role as the pic shows.

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Despite playing on a Hertha team that takes just nine shots per game, Weiser has four assists on a stunning 21 key passes, many of them looking like this:

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Despite what you might think, those are not really crosses, as Weiser ranks second to Gnabry with 14 key passes defined as other by Whoscored. The two assists to Salomon Kalou are great examples of Weiser’s sublime skills of passing: a dinked Messiesque chip and an Iniesta like through ball. I guess it’s that Bayern\Pep University education paying off. He also has 2.3 dribbles and gets fouled 2.5 times per game.

Defensively, Weiser is no slouch either, with  4.2 tackles and interceptions combined and succeeded on 16 of 24 attempted challenges overall.

His rankings are solidly in the top 10 by all three sites, though perhaps the one criticism is his 69% passing. Still, it’s not enough for me to keep him out of the top four and even Jogi Löw’s dumb decision to select Yannick Gerhardt over him shouldn’t keep him out of the senior Germany side for too long either. (By the way, the argument for rewarding Gerhardt for last season is terrible, because Weiser was also better that year too). Must be the stupid hat….

Forwards are next!

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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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