June 23, 2017

What We Learned from Saturday’s Der Klassiker

Bayern Munich won another der Klassiker on Saturday. In what’s becoming an alarming trend for Borussia Dortmund, the quality gap between die Rekordmeister and the visitors seems to be ever widening. And while I was’t surprised that Bayern won Saturday’s match, I’m very surprised that BVB got walloped 4-1. Seriously? This big ticket match came during a bout of calendar congestion, which made the match that much more unreal, as the fixtures roll through thick and fast.

In itself, the loss wasn’t surprising, especially considering that BVB is probably mostly focusing on this week’s upcoming UCL match against AS Monaco, and considering that BVB will again travel to Munich for the DFB Pokal semis in about two week’s time. Moreover, Bayern was coming off a frustrating 1-0 midweek loss at Hoffenheim. And we all know that Bayern doesn’t drop points in consecutive Bundesliga matches — not these days. So Bayern had to be the heavy favorite entering the match.

But a 4-1 favorite? Surely not, which is why the manner of BVB’s 4-1 loss is so disappointing, rather than the loss itself. Immediately after the match, I just couldn’t believe that Tuchel’s BVB seemingly hadn’t learned any lessons from last season’s 5-1 walloping at Bayern.

However, maybe I am being way too hard on Tuchel’s crew. Take a look at this:

Big ExG Surprises

So it turns out I was blinded by the 4-1 scoreline. And you probably were too. This match was an ExG (“Expected Goals”) shocker. According to this important metric, the match was nearly a 1-1 ExG toss up, rather than a lopsided blowout. The models of Michael Caley and 11tegen11 both confirm this odd truth.

Here’s Caley’s ExG chart for the match:

Source: @Caley_Graphics on Twitter.

And here’s @11tegen11’s ExG chart for the match:

Source: @11tegen11 on Twitter.

Of course, as both models demonstrate, Bayern’s penalty really complicates the scoreline. Yet on another day, the scoreline for this match could have easily been 2-1. However, during the match from a game states perspective, the penalty (Lewandowski, 67′) seemed irrelevant as the 4th goal icing on the fat victory cake. But from a statistical perspective, the penalty would have decided this match on another day. (Did I mentioned that Ousmane Dembélé ducked on wall duty, allowing Lewandowski’s free kick to swerve in for a goal?)

Bracketing away the penalty, these ExG charts illustrate that, while Bayern had many more shots than Dortmund — 14 (6 on target) vs. 6 (3 on target) — Bayern’s shots weren’t exactly high quality in terms of location or scenario (hence the larger number of small-sized dots for Bayern) and hence Bayern’s ExG number of 1.0 (Caley) and 0.9 (11tegen11). However, football is not only spatial, but also temporal, so it’s worth seeing a line graph of the match to see when the shots occurred, especially from a game states perspective:

Two-thirds of Bayern’s shots (orange peaks) occurred before halftime. Source: WhoScored.com.

Interestingly, Bayern attempted a large majority of its shots before halftime, by which point the match was 2-1 with BVB trying to level the score. By contrast, the 2nd half was largely uneventful from a shooting perspective, especially after Bayern’s sudden 3rd goal at 49′ (a left-footed Robben classic). Of course, the psychology of watching this match was almost the inverse: the first half felt tense and close, while the second half felt like a time of continual Bayern dominance. However, at halftime, little did I know that BVB had weathered the most “dangerous” part of the match, data-wise.

If you’re a Bayern supporter, I’m sure how you’re supposed to feel about this data. Sure, your side created plenty of shots, but were the shots quality? Look, I don’t think there’s a club better than Bayern in the world right now, but, geez, BVB handed this match in a silver salad bowl to the Bavarians. How else can I interpret this data? Let me explain: if Bayern created 18 shots of somewhat puffy quality and ran away with a 4-1 scoreline, I’d be mistaken in thinking die Roten were playing their usual whipping posts, like HSV, Wolfsburg, or Freiburg. Not BVB.

More worryingly for BVBers, however, is the fact that their side only created 6 shots during match, a sad tally contrasted with BVB’s usual 15.2 shots per match. So rather than a scoreline indicating a bit of the #BayernTreament for BVB, it’s the club’s low shot output that points to the same.

Possession Whipped

Speaking of #BayernTreatment, another name for it could be the “BayernEffect,” meaning that any given club’s usual possession / passing / shooting numbers take a toilet bowl plunge when playing Bayern. BVB always has a big drop in offensive production when playing Bayern, but a new low was reached on Saturday: BVB possessed the ball only 29% of the time, while creating 6 shots. I’ve never BVB concede so much possession in a match. This season, the previous lowest of was 41% when Bayern visited Dortmund back on November 19; I mean, you almost have to see it to believe it:

Bayern’s possession is indicated by the orange line on this graph. Source: WhoScored.com.

Of course, having more or less possession — in a vacuum — means nothing. We’ve talked about this truism before. So by itself, Bayern possessing 71% of the ball doesn’t necessarily a Bavarian win and Dortmund loss. Truism granted. However, normally Tuchel’s BVB possesses about 56% of the ball. Indeed, Dortmund is built for possession; BVB’s midfield core does best with about 10-25 seconds per possession. For example, both Julian Weigl and Gonzalo Castro excel in build up play, allowing the likes of Dembélé, Pulisic, and Raphael Guerreiro to receive the ball in favorable spots for using their dribbling and passing skills to penetrate the opponent’s box. So it stands to reason that a BVB side with only 29% possession will lack identity and time to create its customary chances. For this reason, Bayern’s raw possession rate is a crucial factor in this match. By possessing more of the ball, Bayern played a sort of “possession = defense” strategy and alienated BVB from itself. Is it any wonder that BVB just didn’t look like itself, especially during the second half?

How did Bayern pull off this possession trick? Well, it helps to have Bayern’s impeccable balance in distributing the ball, which reached geometrical mastery on Saturday. Bayern’s passing network chart is a beauty:

Geometric beauty. Made by Bayern. Source: @11tegen11 on Twitter.

Can I please get a framed print of this network chart for my office? The Thiago-Vidal-Alonso triangle is Europe’s best. Then there’s the perfect balance between playing the ball to both right and left flanks. Meanwhile, Robert Lewandowski can haunt BVB’s backline with ghostly and unpredictable movement, thanks to the Pole’s being conceptually unattached to Bayern’s geometry. Forget about Dortmund, does anyone in Europe have a chance against this possession machine?

Inversely, BVB’s 29% possession looks like this:

Dortmund works the flanks — when it happens to get the damn ball. Source: @11tegen11 on Twitter.

While Bayern’s geometry is strongly defined, BVB’s shape hollowed out, as Bayern forced ball movement to the flanks. Tellingly, the Ginter-Passlack was BVB’s most common flank route, yet the ball didn’t seem to find its way forward from Passlack very often it seems. Of course, Weigl’s absence was devastating for Dortmund in this match. In Weigl’s place, Castro was supposed to be the ball router; however, Castro failed to imprint the match with his ball distribution and instead became relatively isolated.

However, even if Weigl had played, it’s not clear that Dortmund would have enough of a midfield presence to break up Bayern’s possession dominance. Neither Weigl nor Castro are skilled at consistently disrupting and breaking up the opponent’s possession. Usually, BVB compensates for its lack of holding midfield acumen by possessing lots of the ball. Of course, this coping mechanism just isn’t possible against Bayern. Throw in Weigl’s absence, and BVB was utterly doomed in the midfield. After halftime, Tuchel seemingly tried to bulk up a defensive presence by subbing Castro out for Sebastian Rode; however, this switch seemed to achieve only a marginal improvement defensively and a further handicap offensively. Although Rode completed 93% of his passes, his small quantity of work failed to make an impact on the match, except for a single Key Pass:

Against Bayern, Rode’s passing was accurate, but mostly inconsequential. Source: Squawka.com.

Julian Weigl’s role at Dortmund is invaluable. Right now, Tuchel doesn’t seem to have a Plan B when the tall youngster is out for a match. Castro probably needed another supporting midfielder, but given Tuchel’s roster options and that the opponent was Bayern Freaking Munich, it’s hard to say who else could have started along side Castro — perhaps, and against all logic, Mikel Merino should have started?

Bayern’s Old Men Have Got It Going On

On Saturday, Bayern’s old man core was tremendous. Absolutely tremendous. Arjen Robben, Franck Ribéry, Xabi Alonso, and Philipp Lahm were easily the best players on the pitch, earning two goals and two assists between them.

From deep in the midfield, Lahm and Alonso were exceedingly influential in distributing the ball. Alonso was especially influential, spoking the ball around his central wheel hub — long balls, short balls, but mostly forward balls. In particular, Alonso has been remarkable this season in hitting his passes. A perfecting of his timing, technique, and teamwork. Consummate work from the Spaniard. I will miss him in the Bundesliga next season.

Along the left flank, Ribéry terrorized Dortmund with his customary velocity, goal-bound vectors, and coolness. Yes, coolness:

Only a seasoned professional of Ribéry’s ilk could have scored just a goal. There’s a profound knowingness about Ribéry’s movement and technique in this goal. And suddenly, the Frenchmen is as valuable as ever for Bayern.

As for Robben, well … Seriously, there was something supernatural (preternatural?) about Robben’s performance. He, well, he didn’t seem human during the match. At times, the Dutchman seemed to appear from another — and higher! — dimension operating by different rules during the match. What I’m trying to say is that Robben played with an uncanny transcendence, as if he was above the game. In this match, there was simply the phenomenon of Robben. He was a matter of concern, gathering unto himself all manner of menace, action, possibility, and skill. When Robben finally scored, it seemed inevitable, as both commentators duly noted:

Moreover, the goal was a relief, given Robben’s ever so slightly demoniac bearing and focus during the match. He was terrifying as I imagine monarchs of a different age might have been perceived by to their subjects.

Just remember that at least half this core — Lahm and Alonso — will be gone next season. Surely, Ribéry and Robben won’t be too far behind. So please, please, please enjoy these four playing together this the last month and a half of the season.

You won’t have to wait for long: Bayern host Real Madrid in the first leg of the Champions League quarter-finals tomorrow. Enjoy the old men.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U6s 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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