And then there were FOUR . . . match days remaining in the Bundesliga season, that is.
After some midweek DFB cup action, the Bundesliga returns for match day 31 with several exciting derbies. While the Hertha-Bayern and the Schalke-Leverkusen match-ups are probably going to be the most-aesthetically appealing, we will first look at the relegation battles and potential upsets which are just as fascinating. We will be using this handy infographic from Bundesliga.com to make things a little more clear. As always, picks are in bold.
Suddenly and again relegation-threatened VfB Stuttgart host Dortmund. After a brilliant end to the Hinrunde and a magical start to the Rückrunde, Vfb have fallen apart with just one win in their last nine matches – a 5-1 thrashing of Hoffenheim where Nagelsmann’s three-man backline got roasted by Filip Kostic and co. on counters, and Georg Niedermeier picked up two goals from set pieces. Draws against Schalke and Ingolstadt (coming back from two goals down) were decent results and everyone loses to Bayern, and maybe getting thrashed by Gladbach and falling to a decimated Leverkusen side on the rebound are fine but losses to Hannover, Augsburg and an uninspiring draw at Darmstadt have really put Jürgen Kramny’s team in a precarious position.
After Dortmund, they still have to travel to Bremen before playing Mainz and Wolfsburg in what is arguably one of the toughest schedules for the teams battling to stay in the Bundesliga. No wins in four straight games has left them on 33 points, level with Augsburg and just two ahead of the playoff spot. The usual suspects, thought to have been exiled after Zorniger was let go, have returned: abysmal defending, hilarious own goals, a leaky midfield thanks to Serey Dié’s (who certainly has not been brilliant, see the horrific back pass assist to Sandro Wagner) injury. Tyton, whose save percentage was in the 80s in the early Rückrunde games is back down to 68% and is equally capable of making an epic howler as a show-stopping save.
During the aformentioned nine game streak, Stuttgart have shipped 19 goals and scored 13 (five came against Hoffenheim), collecting six points. Compare that to the first eight games of Kramny, where VfB got 17 points, with 16-10 goals for and against! The midfield trio of Didavi, Kostic and Gentner amassed ten goals on 48 shots in the first honeymoon period compared to just five on 37 shots since then.
The offense, humming so brilliantly in the early days under Kramny, with Filip Kostic arguably becoming one of the five best players of the first half of the Rückrunde, has fallen off. Kostic is largely blameless, as he actually has 19 key passes to 15 and two assists to three in the last eight games compare to the first eight. The likelier explanation is that their inability to replace the injured Daniel Ginczek with a bona fide striker, as Timo Werner, despite six goals on the season has wasted boatloads of huge chances in 2000 minutes and Martin Harnik and Artem Kravets – a combined three goals in 1300 minutes, is finally costing them. Didavi’s Hinrunde miracles and occasionally fluky goals, as well as 14 goals from Kostic, Lukas Rupp (quietly having an outstanding season with five goals, four assists and millions of kilometers covered) and Christian Gentner were masking the fatal flaw of not having a good finisher.
Dortmund, after falling out of the Europa League, have righted the ship and dominated Hertha to set up a Cup final against Bayern and have little to play for in their remaining four games. They can afford to rest the injured Aubameyang, in light of Adrian Ramos outSandroWagnering Lord Wagner himself and Ilkay Gündogan can continue his research in the British real estate market, while Mats Hummels has been “losing sleep over trying to decide his future every night”. #bundesligafirstworldproblems
Thomas Tuchel can and will probably start a physical lineup if we are to believe Lars Pollmann of Bleacherreport, with Sokratis, Ginter and Durm all likely to get the nod alongside youngsters such as Felix Paßlack, Christian Pulisic and Moritz Leitner.
The prediction: since I am the last man on VfB island and Dortmund won’t care about this one, Stuttgart will take it 3:2. There will definitely be goals!
Ingolstadt go up looking for revenge against the suddenly frisky Hannover, who somehow beat them 4-0 in the Hinrunde, in what has to be the flukiest result of the 2015/2016 campaign given how their respective seasons have gone. Die Schänzer are safe from relegation and should be left out of those conversations, despite a loss to Darmstadt last week, with an eight point cushion and six teams between them and Werder. They will miss Marvin Matip due to a suspension but Romain Bregerie is a capable replacement, as he proved against Schalke when he deputized for Benjamin Hübner and racked up three tackles, four interceptions, nine clearances and one Franco Di Santo in his pocket.
Hannover have taken four points against Hertha and Gladbach under the promoted youth coach Daniel Stendel and with the infusion of youngsters Waldemar Anton and Noah-Joel Sarenren-Bazee, this team finally looks alive. Manuel Schmiedebach and Artur Sobiech have also awoken from their slumber and Hiroshi Kiyotake must be the happiest man in the world (that is until he signs for either Leicester or Mainz, given their fondness for Japanese players) knowing that all his quality passes are finally not wasted.
Hannover will probably get a result here, but it’s going to be a draw, since Ingolstadt are a strong home team with 25 points already in the bag, and Pascal Groß can always deliver a ball from a set piece or otherwise that will befuddle a Hannover defense that has allowed 54 goals already. Since these are the two lowest scoring teams – needing 13.44 an 12.48 shots to score a goal respectively, go for a 1-1 tie.
Cologne vs. Darmstadt pits number ten against number eleven on the table, and thanks to key wins last week both of these sides are probably safe on 37 and 35 points, respectively. Cologne have an easier task ahead of them with Augsburg, Bremen and a diet Dortmund team in their final three, while the Lilies should take care of Frankfurt before a trip to Berlin and finishing up against the Foals at home. It’s probably more than a mild surprise that Darmstadt have had the better offense of the two, with 34 goals to 32 despite taking 2.5 fewer shots per match than the Billy Goats at 10.1 to 12.6. All of that has led to SV 98 needing just a shade under nine shots to score one goal on average, while Köln are close to 12!
Perhaps the most interesting matchup here is the two talismanic strikers, Sandro Wagner, whose 13 goals are one more than Anthony Modeste’s twelve. While it’s clear that Wagner has been the better goalscorer in the spring with eight goals to the Frenchman’s five, let’s delve deeper into their seasons via Squawka. Since Modeste has played 400 more minutes, we are using the per 90 metrics and find the following.
Wagner, the man dubbed a heading machine, is actually the more creative player, who both scores more often and creates more for his teammates despite a worse shooting percentage and arguably less talent around him – as Jonas Hector and Marcel Risse are still in the top 10 in the Bundesliga in key passes!
Darmstadt are a monster away team (fourth, just ahead of Cologne, incidentally) and Cologne have been the fourth worst team in the Rückrunde and will be without the suspended Bittencourt, so we are picking the Lilies to come away with all three points. Aytac Sulu has scored all seven of his goals in the away matches and this is the type of low-scoring affair that he could win for his side.
Wolfsburg see Augsburg pay them a visit in the meeting of two sides who are probably both exhausted from the tolls that European competition has taken on them. With Julian Draxler, Vieirinha injured and Schürrle suspended the Wolves will line up with Caligiuri, Arnold, Henrique and Bas Dost in a formation that could not have played together much. Despite being the seventh best home team and scoring 29 of their 42 goals at the Volkswagen Arena it’s going to be difficult to generate offense with such an inexperienced lineup against an FCA team that is seventh in the road rankings with 19 points from 15 games.
The visitors will of course be fighting against relegation, while the home team’s European hopes – six points behind Schalke- are probably done and dusted. To make matters worse, Wolfsburg’s defense has been a mess this year, with only four teams sporting a worse than their 8.3 shots per goals allowed ratio. Augsburg have a couple of poachers in Ja-Cheol Koo, now on eight goals and Alfred Finnbogason, five goals in ten matches, that are capable of taking advantage and they will do just that in an upset victory!
Bayern go to Berlin, in what could have been the preview of the DFB cup final against Hertha, if Adrian Ramos, Marco Reus and Henrikh Mkhitaryan had not decided to run roughshod over a Darida-less BSC. Per Twitter, Bayern Munich will make the trip without Philipp Lahm, Juan Bernat, Sebastian Rode and Jerome Boateng (via
@OrtivorOrt). #BSCFCB . Pep Guardiola’s side, although they can mathematically wrap-up the title with a Dortmund loss will have little to play for otherwise, but with an attacking quintet of Lewandowski, Müller, Costa, Thiago and Ribery should still put the fear of God into Hertha.
On the other side of the ledger, the Berlin team’s dream season has soured a bit after losing two out of three Bundesliga games and exiting the Cup. Their normally stout defense (allowing 1.2 goals per match) has capitulated twelve times in just six matches, thanks to Rune Jarstein’s miserable game against Gladbach, an injury to John Anthony Brooks and the poor play of Sebastian Langkamp. Streaks like this are natural in a volatile league such as the Bundesliga and are a quick reminder of the fragility of a team like Hertha that can have it all go wrong so quickly given their struggles to generate shots and quality chances plus an overreliance on Ibisevic and Kalou’s insane conversion rates and Jarstein’s saves. Pál Dárdai’s skills will be put to the test, with Leverkusen and the Darmstadt roadwarriors visiting before the season finale in Mainz, and despite their four point lead on the Gladbach, Mainz, Schalke trio, one could easily see the Berlin side slip to 6th or 7th in the end.
Prediction: Bayern should win this by two goals.
Schalke are unlikely to sort themselves out, with an extremely fortunate victory over Gladbach being the only thing keeping them from being winless over five games and there is little faith in Andre Breitenreiter being able to figure out a strategy given this track record this year. This time, he looks to be going with the Sane, Belhanda duo on the wings, supporting Max Meyer behind Huntelaar.
Die Werkself are getting healthy at a fortunate time, with Lars Bender and Charles Aranguiz finally starting together for the first time all year, if we are to believe the Bundesliga.com lineups. The staggering stat for Bayer is that they have scored 14 goals and conceded zero since halftime of the Augsburg match on March 5th, a game they came back to famously tie with three goals after the 60th minute. Bernd Leno has a 573 minute clean sheet streak going and Ömer Toprak is back alongside the great Jonathan Tah to replace the excellent understudy Andre Ramalho in defense. Yet, the biggest reason for the turnaround has probably been the B and B duo. Julian Brandt and Karim Bellarabi have combined for six goals and six assists in the last four games – a figure that would rank Karimian Brandtarabi in the elusive company of Raffael, Mkhitaryan, Shinji Kagawa and Lars Stindl as the only four Bundesliga players who have joined the six and six club all season!!
Expect that trend to continue with a 2-0 road win for die Werkself as Julian Brandt continues his four game scoring streak!
Gladbach against Hoffenheim is the more interesting of the Sunday fixtures, with the battle of interim starlets Schubert and Nagelsmann, certainly two of the coach of the year candidates. Perhaps they can even have a chat about their shared love of the three back system and 20-year-old center backs after the season.
Sunday early fixture presents a matchup that can be seen as a changing of the guard, perhaps as Gladbach are slowly fading away, with just 16 points from 13 games in 2016, while TSG have picked up 20 points in ten games in the Nagelsmann era! However, it would be foolish to get ahead of ourselves and pick a Hoffenheim win, since Gladbach have a few things going for them: they are a dynamite home team with eleven wins and 34 points from 15 matches and they are getting Granit Xhaka back from suspension. Hoffenheim could potentially be without two of their central defenders in Ermin Bicakcic and Fabian Schär (the goalscorer last week against Hertha), although not their best one in Niklas Süle. Still, with Nadiem Amiri’s emergence in the middle of the park and the Kevin Volland resurgence under Nagelsmann, who has gotten nine goals in ten matches out of the Kramaric, Uth duo, anything is possible. The likely outcome is a draw with over 4 goals, and we would happily take a six-goal tie a la the Hinrunde.
Mainz travel to Frankfurt after a strange loss to Cologne that looks even worse in hindsight, since the team was up 2-0 and all of its competitors lost on Matchday 30.A trip to Frankfurt, who, since the emergence of the Zombie 96ers, have the dubious honor of worst team in th league, is just what the doctor ordered. Frankfurt will try and, given their two goals scored under Niko Kovac, probably fail to score with a lineup of Huszti (who has created very well when given a chance), Aigner, Seferovic and Castaignos. Upon seeing that lineup, the Mainz defense’s appropriate reaction is something like this:
In all seriousness, Mainz’s backline of the excellent Stefan Bell and the stalwart Leon Balogun should deal with the Frankfurt attacks down the middle, while Giulio Donati and Daniel Brosinski never met a tackle they didn’t like, which is exactly the philosophy that Julian Baumgartlinger and Danny Latza believe in. Yunus Malli who had a goal and four shots, all four on target in the fall meeting where Alex Meier got sent off after 40 minutes can go off at any time and Jhon Cordoba will be a handful to deal with. Jairo Samperio is the Aytac Sulu of attackers, as he has also scored all seven of his goals away from home. Samperio to score and Mainz to win on the road are the final two predictions for Matchday 31. Until next time!