Will Niko Kovac lead Eintracht into Europe ? – Part 2 of the analysis of die Adler’s rise

This is part 2 of the analysis tracking Eintracht Frankfurt’s ascent under Niko Kovac, you can find part 1 HERE.

17\18 – sneaking under the radar thanks to a great offseason by Bobic and Hübner and Kovac finding the right mix

The offseason was once again busy, and with the losses of Vallejo, Seferovic and the departure of Bastian Oczipka to Schalke and the injuries to Fabian and Mascarell (both would miss the Hinrunde) Frankfurt didn’t exactly look like favorites to do well in the Bundesliga. Preseason odds were 501 to win the title, the 14th ranked in the league, while ESPN’s 538 had them at 12th with 42 projected points:

Aug 10th Bundesliga projections – It would be mid December, when 538 would project Eintracht to get to 50 points, despite having collected 25 already.

Our resident Eintracht expert Anas Ali was a little more optimistic, picking SGE to finish 9th in his extensive preview:

Eintracht Frankfurt: 2017-18 Season Preview

The focus for the 17\18 Bundesliga season, was very much not on Frankfurt, as besides the obvious contenders (Bayern, BVB, RBL), Hoffenheim have joined the European party. Meanwhile fans and analysts wondered about the underperforming quartet of Leverkusen, Wolfsburg, Schalke and Gladbach, pondered the fates of the European hopefuls Cologne, Hertha and Freiburg. Even Alexander Nouri’s springtime revival at Werder was overshadowing the work of Kovac and co in Frankfurt.

Transfer success

It seemed like that being the quiet outsiders suited Bobic and Hübner who doubled down on the young overlooked prospect angle and for the first time  shelled out some meaningful money: 7 million for Eredivisie star Sebastien Haller – a longtime Statsbomb favorite –  5 mil for the crosses and assists of 23-year-old Jetro Willems who had already played nearly ten thousand Eredivisie minutes and would be the Oczipka replacement were the start. Although Willems recently lost his starting job to Timmy Chandler, he still leads the team with 1.9 key passes, while Haller leads all outfield players in minutes, but more importantly in goals with 8!

Simon Falette (2.7mil) and Carlos Salcedo (470k loan from Chivas) were relative unknowns, but have played 1500 and 1200 minutes respectively in the 17\18 campaign. With a combined output of 5 interceptions, 3 tackles and 8.5 clearances, they are responsible for much of the dirty work as the right and left CBs, while David Abraham and his deputy Makoto Hasebe either pick off the passes (4.7 INTs combined)\ do the occasional playmaking. When it comes to interceptions, it’s very much a team effort that’s by design as Frankfurt who lead the Bundesliga last year at 24.4 per game are still number one at 19.6 per Whoscored. (The downward trend of INTs would be an interesting topic to investigate, but is outside the scope of this piece).

When it comes to passing, typically, Eintracht are into long-balls: Frankfurt leads the league with an average length of pass of 21.1 meters. Salcedo is the more comfortable passer of the two, while Falette, who looks like he should be the 12th man you don’t wanna cross on the Washington Wizards, is superb physically and with his usual good positioning, rarely gets beaten.

Their typical shape looks like this: the aforementioned three CBs are supported by highly athletic wingbacks. On the left, Frankfurt now have Timmy Chandler, who is now trying his luck on the left, having replaced Jetro Willems. Chandler’s come back strong after an injury and has four assists since early December, and his RWB replacement, the young Marius Wolf – perhaps the bargain of the season, having just made his move from Hannover permanent for 500k! – has been on fire in his place: 3 goals and 4 assists and potential national team buzz. Their athleticism has been winning games for them recently, as Chandler was able to muscle Patrick Herrmann to set up the first SGE goal, while Wolf’s counterattacking runs yielded a goal for Haller and Chandler against Wolfsburg. In addition, the two ex-Nürnbergers are a handful in pressing and counterpressing and have the versatility to play multiple positions. Here is a pretty standard lineup of Frankfurt, that’s been successful:

It’s a back three with the ball where the RCB and LCB pull out wide, but against the ball, Frankfurt use the wingbacks to form a back five that tends to narrow the field.

In front of the defense there’s a double pivot:Omar Mascarell’s reintroduction after missing the Hinrunde has been a huge boost, as the Spaniard is arguably Frankfurt’s calmest player on the ball. Kovac probably hasn’t gotten enough credit for having to rejigger the passing sequences of Frankfurt: last season there were 5 players who averaged over 30 short passes for Frankfurt and two (Vallejo, Oczipka) are no longer on the team, while the other two (Abraham\Hasebe) are at this point of their careers ostensibly playing the same position. The only constant has been Mascarell: his averages of 52 pass attempts on 88% are by far and away the best on the team, but it’s his ability to play short passes in all directions that really helps Eintracht retain possession and\or start counters. In addition, he’s an excellent tackler (so far 14 of 15 this season in 3 games and a 3 to 1 ratio last season, but more importantly he frees up Mijat Gacinovic (the leading tackler) to be more of a box-to-box presence. He’s about 75% of the way to last year’s minutes, but despite playing mostly as a number 8 as opposed to a winger\attacking mid (15 appearances there last year alongside 12 as a CM), he’s already taken more shots (27 to 22) gotten more on target (13 to 9) and doubled his box passes (1.6 to 0.8) while maintaining the same duel volume (19 per  game) and success (8).

The Eintracht midfield engine

If we think of the Eintracht midfield as a turbocharge engine, we can say that  Wolf and Chandler are the camshafts (RED and BLUE), Mascarell is the crankshaft (PURPLE) that makes it all go, while Gacinovic is the connecting rod that puts it all together.

But turbo engines need a catalyst and so do Eintracht, even if he had to take the roundabout way from the streets of Berlin through halfway around the world to get there. Yes, it’s Kevin Prince Boateng, who has been instrumental to Frankfurt’s play this season. While more than a few heads were turned as the much-traveled KPB left the Canary Islands for Frankfurt, not many knew that he and Niko Kovac share a common background: having grown up in the district of Wedding in Berlin just a few blocks from each other, albeit a good 15 years apart. Whether it’s that connection, or something else, Boateng whose world-class talent somehow never amounted to sustained periods of world-class play has finally found a home in Frankfurt. At 30, he no longer possesses that blazing speed that made him a feared player wherever he suited up, but his technical ability and footballing IQ is still way ahead of 90% of the players. He sees passes that aren’t quite there yet and can execute them flawlessly. In addition, he gives Frankfurt a great leader on the pitch and is very well-respected within the team. He’s not one to hide on the pitch either: ranking number one in fouls, number two in fouls suffered and in the top 20 in total challenges and free ball pickups per InStat. He’s also putting up the highest number of tackles and interceptions since his Milan days. And last but not least: important goals and excellent finishing have always been a KPB special, and he’s brought that to Frankfurt, who have to be ecstatic with what they’ve gotten from a free transfer that many believed is there to just be collecting a paycheck.

The last part of the puzzle was the attack that for years relied on Alex Meier. Thankfully the Eintracht management made some key moves in the summer in this department as well. We’ve covered Haller’s excellent rookie season above, but perhaps this little statistical tidbit shall suffice: Kevin Volland, who a lot of people are calling to be included in the World Cup squad is on ten goals despite an XG of 5.84, while Haller has 8 goals on 5.71XG, with their XG per 90 dead even at 0.32. I really don’t think anyone’s making the argument that Volland works harder\does more outside of Haller, who is head and shoulders every other striker in the challenges department….

In addition to Haller, the loans of Benfica starlet Luka Jovic (until the summer of 2019), who made his Red Star Belgrade at age 16 (!!) and Ante Rebic, whose deal was just finalized for 2 million have worked splendidly. The Serbian who had two or three bad misses against HSV earlier has now scored three goals in his last three games, while the Croatian Rebic is arguably the league’s most-improved player: besides doubling his goals from 2 to 4 this season, he’s cut down his 9 dribbles to 6, but still succeeds over three times, while improving his atrocious 58% passing completion to 63%. Those passing %s are deceptive, since Rebic’s actually got 19 key passes – the same as everyone’s favorite Christian Pulisic, yet virtually nobody’s talking about him. Rebic’s winning a higher percentage of duels per game (11\29 compared to 11\32) while being ranked sixth in volume

and thanks to his freakish athleticism, he’s a huge pain for opponent defenders with his combination of strength and speed. The Croatian is a pesky defender and is very aggressive in counterpressing and isn’t afraid to commit a foul. From my personal observations at the Wolfsburg game and in the mixed zone he seems to have really benefitted from Kovac’s coaching, and looks up to his countryman, who’s almost like a father figure to him.

Tactics

In terms of tactics, Kovac’s been able to construct an identity for Frankfurt that relies on a few key ideas: 1. a strong but disciplined press in a 5-3-2 shape without the ball, with Haller initiating the press and Rebic covering a lot of ground as the second striker. The wingbacks push up to pressure the opposition’s fullbacks, while the midfield trio usually creates a triangle with Boateng up top, seeking to trap the opposition playmaker much like Tedesco’s Schalke or Hasenhüttl’s Leipzig. They have the 6th most intensive press, and it does a good job of weaker opponents playing lots of long balls that the back three usually deals with, Falette seems particularly adept at these, and David Abraham’s long been excellent at just about any challenge that comes his way. They do allow a couple more shots per game (12.6 to 10.3) this year than last, but shots on target against has only increased by 0.4 per match.

As you can see from the pic, Frankfurt are not a good open play team, though 17 goals are the 7th most in the league ahead of Schalke’s 16 for example. On the other hand 11 open play goals shipped is second behind Bayern’s 9, with no other team under 15! The high percentage of set piece goals against is deceptive, as the teams total goals allowed is so low that the 9 doesn’t seem that bad, though only Augsburg (8) have allowed more goals on corners than Eintracht’s 7! Last but not least, seven counter-attack goals are a huge part of Frankfurt’s attack, as only Schalke, Leipzig (both at 8), Augsburg (9) and Leverkusen (11) have scored more.

Here’s a breakdown of a fairly typical counter goal they scored against Wolfsburg just last week:

Numbers

In addition, Frankfurt are overperforming their 17\18 advanced numbers, but per Understat they are 8th in expected points with 28.43, benefitting from the misery and bad luck of both Borussias, Augsburg and Leipzig’s inconsistency. Their defense continues to be elite, 2nd in XG against with 20.8 vs 20 goals allowed, and third if we look at non-penalty goals against (Leverkusen’s 18.45 sneaks in there). Their attacking output waxes and wanes, and a 22.98 total is less than Cologne’s but they’ve scored 26 actual goals. Their 3-1 win at Wolfsburg on MD19 was the first time they had won (or lost) by more than one goal and they followed it up with a 2-0 win against Gladbach at home. The home portion of that sentence is significant, because prior to Friday’s affair die Adler had just 9 points in the Commerzbank Arena and even with a win they are still 4 points behind their expected points of 16. Of course, the away form has been ludicrous, with 21 points nearly doubling their XP of 12.45 and scoring 14 goals instead of the 9 “expected” while also conceding just 8 vs 10.15. 

Conclusion

Ultimately, Niko Kovac’s biggest skill is perhaps not in a tactical adjustment, or a playing philosophy, though as we saw with the switching of formation, the toning down on tackles\pressing and the move into a post-Meier era, he’s definitely capable of those. No, Kovac’s best asset is his ability to connect with his players: he’s often the older brother\uncle to many of the Serbian\Croatian players, and the developments of Gacininov\Rebic\Jovic are a testament to his work. Kovac’s the guy from the same part of Berlin as Boateng, and might be the only coach who can manage such a mercurial figure. However, it would be unfair to shortchange him with just that, as he’s compensated for the losses of Vallejo, Hector, Russ (I’m aware he’s played this year) and David Abraham by making Makoto Hasebe (a 34-year-old model professional, whom I saw give a 20 minute mixed zone interview to about 6 Japanese journalists right after a game) into a solid CB, and getting huge contributions from newcomers like Simon Falette and Carlos Salcedo. He’s also a guy who’s keenly aware of the state of the league, not afraid to speak out against Aubameyang’s antics, while managing to come off as not a blowhard traditionalist. Is it time to give him his due?

 

 

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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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