Earlier this week Markus Babbel, who in spite of the grim sounding title is still very much alive, was let go from his position as head coach at Hoffenheim after less than a year on the job. The Sinsheim outfit (3-3-9) currently sit on 12 points from their 17 matches which is good for 16th place in the Bundesliga above only the 1 win apiece Augsburg and Greuther Fürth. Sporting Director Andreas Müller said of the decision: “Our increasingly threatening situation and the negative trend have left me no choice” adding that “It is important to make the cut” and “We have to hit the re-set switch and start a new beginning” ; words which sound quite similar to the ones then Sporting Director Ernst Tanner spoke about Babbel’s predecessor Holger Stanislawski 10 months ago.
So the question that remains unanswered is what went wrong? The simple answer is Hoffenheim just aren’t a very good side and this is reflected by their poor overall record and resulting position in the league standings, but simple answers don’t tell the whole story. Now I am not in any way a professional statistician but I decided to take a look at some of the statistical categories (both offensive and defensive) to try to identify the shortcomings of this Hoffenheim side; here are my findings:
Taking a look first at the offensive team statistics Hoffenheim doesn’t appear to be as bad as their record would indicate. Their respectable 22 goals for (1.47 per game) has them tied for 8th in the league with Borussia Mönchengladbach and their 184 (12.27 per game) total goal scoring chances has them sitting 9th in the league. Their conversion percentage is 11.96, which means that roughly 1 out of their every 8 chances results in a goal, which is good for 10th in the league. So what this means is that in these particular offensive categories, which I’ll call the critical ones for the sake of ease, Hoffenheim is actually much “better” than their table position would indicate, especially given that their conversion percentage statistic is better than almost half the league.
Clearly then the problem is on the defensive side of the ball, and the numbers don’t appear to lie. Hoffenheim have the worst goals against record in the league with 36 goals conceded in 15 matches, which works out to nearly 2.5 per game. While they are in the middle of the pack when it comes to goal scoring chances given up (187 or 12.47 per game) their opponents’ conversion percentage is nearly 20; keep in mind this is not shots against. That is a pretty staggering statistic when you think about it, 1 out of every 5 chances results in a goal against. With their defence leaking goals the way they do, Hoffenheim would have to score goals on the level of FC Bayern (2.73 per game) in order “statistically” draw their matches let alone win them.
If it does anything this analysis at least helps give an idea as to where Hoffenheim’s general deficiencies lie; in short they concede far too many goals in relation to the chances they give up. Does the blame then fall on the shoulders of the goalkeeper? No, not entirely. I’ve relied on using the goal scoring chances statistic to illustrate that teams must defend as an 11 man unit; possession, duels won/lost, tackles made, and pass interceptions all have an impact on the number of chances given up. Goal scoring chances by definition are not just the amount of shots on target and are not solely connected to how many saves a goalkeeper makes. So as much as we’d all like to blame Tim Wiese for this mess, sadly we can’t.
Babbel’s Role in this Mess
Now that the numbers have been crunched the time has come to examine the role that Babbel himself played in this disastrous season, because as the saying goes you can’t fire the team but you can fire the coach…unless of course you happen to be Felix Magath.
What is worth remembering is that when Babbel was brought on it was in a dual role as both head coach and sporting director for the club, which gave him the ability to really put his stamp on the team. During the summer transfer window he looked to mainly bolster his attack by bringing in forwards Eren Derdiyok from Bayer Leverkusen, Joselu from Real Madrid Castilla, and Kevin Volland on loan from 1860 München and attacking midfielder Takashi Usami on loan from Gamba Osaka, all of which have contributed rather positively with the exception of Derdiyok who is proving to be a bit of a bust.
On the defensive side, Babbel made moves for Stuttgart centre back Mathieu Delpierre and full back Stephan Schröck from newly promoted Greuther Fürth. Delpierre is a regular squad player while Schröck has been sparingly used as a sub. Finally Babbel made what was probably his most controversial signing in the form of former Werder Bremen goalkeeper Tim Wiese. At the time the signing was met with a rather negative reaction from the Hoffenheim supporters because it meant that in order to accommodate Wiese, Babbel shipped off former number 1 Tom Starke to Bayern, a move that many thought was a lateral one at best.
From his transfer activity, and the benefit of hindsight, it is plain to see where Babbel went wrong. He overestimated the quality of his defensive personnel and therefore did not feel the need to invest much money to bring additional capable defenders, or at the very least some proper depth to augment what he already had. He also took a big gamble on a very polarising figure when he signed Tim Wiese to be the starting goalkeeper even though Tom Starke appeared more than capable of handling the duties on his own. And again the numbers are telling; had Babbel invested some of Dietmar Hopp’s cash in bolstering his defence we may not be talking about the dismal season so far and his dismissal from the club.
On the sidelines however I believe Babbel was a bit more of a victim of circumstance. He stuck mainly to a 4-2-3-1 formation which appeared to best suit the players he had on the pitch, so perhaps there is little to fault him on that. However a huge problem he faced is that far too often this season his team was playing from behind due to individual errors in defending; in 8 of Hoffenheim’s 9 losses the opposition scored first. What this means in terms of in game tactics is that Babbel was likely forced to play a more aggressive attacking style in order to try to get his team back into the match, which in turn left them vulnerable to concede goals, which as the numbers showed they have done at an alarming rate.
So what do we make of all this? For the most part Babbel is the cause of his own undoing. At the beginning of the 2012-13 season he proclaimed that his Hoffenheim squad was good enough to challenge for one of the Bundesliga’s 3 Europa League spots, but as it stands they will be hard pressed for a mid-table finish. While his team had clearly underperformed on the pitch, it was his job to get the players into the squad that would allow him to back up his desire to challenge for Europe, something in which he most certainly failed. The decision to let him go was only made earlier this week but the writing was on the wall when in September he was relieved of his duties as sporting director in order to direct his full attention to the team on the pitch but by then the damage had already been done.