After an exhausting Christmas break, we are back with the second part of our series reviewing the Hinrunde of the Bundesliga. We covered three of the most surprising teams in the league in part one, so it’s only fitting that we balance things out by talking about some of the most disappointing teams. There are at least six viable candidates and we can quibble about the distinctions between the categories depending on how much one expected out of a retooling Dortmund and Schalke sides, but I’ve got them as this:
The obvious disappointments
Hamburg, Gladbach, Leverkusen and Wolfsburg
Under the radar disappointments
Schalke and Dortmund
Having analyzed the Royal Blues in the last post, it’s time to turn the attention to the guys in the Black and Yellow.
We were among those Dortmund enthusiasts who did not get very excited by the club’s summer in which the trio of Hummels, Miki and Gündo was (smartly) sold for a sum north 100 million. The reinforcements numbered eight names, including two elite prospects (Mor and Dembele for 22 million in total), two intriguing talents (Guerreiro – whose deal was already done during the Euros, hence the 12 million price tag, and Mikel Merino who was signed in February for 3.75m), two reclamation projects (Bartra and Rode for 20 million seemed sensible at the time) and two World Cup winners in need of a change of scenery (Götze and Schürrle) for a combined 52 million.
In terms of returns, they have been rather meager, though perhaps not entirely due to circumstances that Dortmund could control (injuries): After a rocky start and much narrow-minded criticism (a barely 19-year-old who has played under 2000 minutes of pro football!!), Dembouz got going against the rather friendly defenses of Darmstadt and Legia and even picked up his first goal against Wolfsburg. It would be another two months vs HSV for the Frenchman to register his second, but once again Legia came to the rescue and he finished the last seven matches (including UCL) with six assists and three goals. Yet it was his dribbling that set him apart from the competition and landed him in some elite company: Dembele attempted 7.1 dribbles per game or 107 total and succeeded 3.9 times or 59 times in total, putting him ahead of Leo Messi (3.4 succeeded out of 5.4 attempted per game) and Eden Hazard (4.5 successful out of 6.5) and nabbing the third spot behind Neymar (4.8\7.5) and Wilfried Zaha (4.4\7.6). If we look at those per 90 mins, with his 9.4 attempts Dembele would fall behind only the 11.1 of Adama Traore of Middlesbrough (in just 600 minutes) and actually beat Zaha’s 8 and Neymar’s 7.5. Both Kicker and Whoscored.com rank Dembele in their top 10 among all players, so it’s safe to say that his Hinrunde was extraordinary. The fact that Dembele is the club’s second leading scorer after Aubameyang and Lukasz Piszczek is third with three is as much of an accomplishment as it’s an indictment of the lack of scoring options.
Emre Mor also shows up in the dribbling category with an amazing 9.4 attempts per 90 (succeeding 5.2 times and losing 4.2 times), but the Turk has just 309 Bundesliga minutes under his belt. Aside from a couple of cameos and starts in blowouts (Darmstadt, HSV) his most memorable moment came in the match against Hertha where he rather foolishly got sent off for a ridiculous foul on Sebastian Langkamp. Perhaps it was the five fouls he suffered, or the NINE times he took an unsuccessful touch, but his frustration that was visible in other matches finally boiled over resulting in an impetuous display and a suspension. He would go on to play 68 minutes against Hamburg in his return, but just 22 more minutes after that, despite Tuchel having to deal with ten or more injured players. It seems that Mor is probably not among the first five options as an attacking midfielder if everyone is fit, with Reus, Dembele, Pulisic, Götze and Schürrle all ahead of him for the time being. While it was always going to be tough to expect a lot from an 18-year-old who has played 11 games in the Danish league, Mor is probably disappointed that he couldn’t make the most of his opportunities that he was presented with given the extent of the injuries to Reus, Schürrle and others.
Speaking of that Hertha game, it was one of two matches where Mikel Merino really got the opportunity to showcase himself, and just like against Augsburg on Matchday 16 the Spaniard excelled: he led BVB and the field with 155 and 156 touches respectively with a combined pass accuracy of 87%. In addition he was Dortmund’s leading tackler with five tackles each and he also won the most aerial duels for the Yellow and Blacks in both games. Sadly that was hardly enough to impress the coaching staff (who preferred the more experienced Marc Bartra and Matthias Ginter) alongside Sokratis. Cologne are impressed however and are looking at Merino to replace Mergim Mavraj (who left for HSV), but Osasuna are also looking to take him back on a loan. Both of these moves would be quite puzzling and would fly in the face of Tuchel’s insistence on including Nuri Sahin and Mikel Merino as options in the midfield and praising the Spaniard’s versatility. While Merino is far from ready to play meaningful minutes for Borussia at this stage of his career, given the injuries to Sven Bender (just 135 minutes in the Hinrunde) and the difficulties of Marc Bartra (probably at least 4-5 major defensive errors already in just 750 minutes) it seems bewildering that Merino didn’t at least get some of those and Matthias Ginter’s 1250 minutes, which is somehow the second most on the team behind Auba!!! It appears that Merino is a surplus requirement at this point, with Ömer Toprak joining for 12 million in the summer, but one hopes that it’s more of a loan then return for the talented Spaniard.
Injuries also derailed Raphael Guerreiro’s phenomenal start to the season, as his ability to play the number six role was a revelation to everyone including Thomas Tuchel who called him “too good to play just one position”. That magical spell in September included a man of the match performance against Wolfsburg and beautiful combination that killed off Freiburg, but a muscle injury in early October after the Leverkusen game would limit him to just one Bundesliga start (the 5-2 beatdown of Hamburg) for the rest of the year. The loss of Guerreiro would have a cascading effect for BVB:
Sebastian Rode, the former Bayern and Eintracht midfielder impressed in preseason and even won a starting spot.
That did not turn out so well, as Rode’s inability to play forward became something of a running joke among Bundesliga aficionados on Twitter. I’ll let Dustin Ward summarize:
“The starting midfield was completely ineffective at moving forward: both Rode and Castro’s average pass traveled about 2.5 yards on average away from goal, a number that is terrifying and well worse than any player across the league put up season-long last year.”
If only someone could’ve predicted that, right Dustin?
But at least he is a “dynamic player who wins a lot of duels” right, Michael Zorc?
Well, Squawka thinks otherwise:
So he contributes nothing on offense, slows down the attack and kills any progress and he sucks at duels? Well, at least he doesn’t lose the ball and makes smart decisions, right?Luca Gierl had an excellent analysis of the quintessential Rode play vs Frankfurt. In case you missed, it included Rode not taking “the risky pass” – a seven yarder to a wide open Gonzalo Castro who had 30 yds to run forward – but reversing it backwards to a surprised Matthias Ginter who promptly turned in over and Frankfurt scored.
It speaks volumes of Rode’s disappointing Hinrunde that his best effort was perhaps as an emergency RB, and the sick backheel goal against Darmstadt.
We already covered Marc Bartra’s up and down season so far, but suffice it to say, it’s been a frustrating one: one the one hand he has decent numbers with 2.8 tackles, 2.6 interceptions, 2.9 clearances and a few really nice passes ( to Guerreiro against Wolfsburg for one). Numbers don’t really tell the whole story, but he is six points below his career passing average at just 82% this year. Many of those have been errant passes that led to counterattacks and goals like the most recent one against Augsburg, where Bartra compounded his initial bad pass with poor positioning. His clearances per game at 2.9 are only trailing Sokratis, but one needs to look no further than the one against Gladbach for evidence that many of his clearances have not been successful. His positional errors against Leipzig and against Legia (seriously four goals, Marc and Roman Weidenfeller?) are sadly too visible, and his propensity to lose physical battles (to Benjamin Hübner for the second TSG goal) or twice in the first half hour to Ingolstadt (losing Almog Cohen for the first, Dario Lezcano for the second) with such frequency is inexcusable. I’m sure there were other, but even if we’re being generous that is at least 5-6 goals the Bartra has been directly responsible for and all the great passing in the world can’t make up for that, not to to mention that he has been credited with just five key passes all year. At least he is winning 39% of his duels, so that is better than Rode….
Mario Götze and André Schürrle have done OK in that department settling in at 1.4 per match. On the surface, both have produced roughly at the level as at their previous teams (Wolfsburg, Bayern), which is not terrible, but certainly not what Dortmund fans expected. Schürrle was limited to just 348 Bundesliga minutes, with a six shot seven key pass outburst in the opener against Mainz making up for most of his league production, while the excellent equalizer against Real was his non-Buli highlight. Götze apologists (of which there is no shortage) will point to his assist against Bayern and his defensive work rate that yielded dividends in games like Sporting or Hoffenheim where he picked up his lone goal. The worrying thing is that Dortmund did not sign Mario for his defense and his numbers are worse than at Bayern on that side of the ball, not to mention the fact this shots have halved to just 0.6 per game. With 10 appearances on the season it does not take a math genius to figure out that those six shots that Götze took are the same as Schürrle had in the Mainz game!!! Stats say that the dribbling is also gone with just one dribble per game from a guy who averaged two for his career and the eye test confirms it: Götze has to pretty much take a perfect first touch to beat Bundesliga level opposition, as for whatever reason, he is physically not strong or fast enough to blow by people at age 24.
Marco Reus who as we all sadly know is carrying a label on his back that says “Fragile-Handle With Care” and has played just 241 minutes this year has one goal and three assists in the Bundesliga, which is better than the one goal two assists of the Weltmeister duo. In case you wanted to take this comparison to the Champions League, Reus is also winning there with three goals and one assist to the Götze-Schürrle duo’s two goals one assist. It’s almost as if it wasn’t the greatest idea to sign these two…
A few other random player notes: Roman Bürki was having quite a nice season until an unfortunate hand injury suffered in the Bayern game that left BVB with Roman Weidenfeller, who has been the worst Bundesliga goalkeeper since. Sokratis was probably the best player for BVB until a late drop in form (perhaps caused by his injury) that saw him play below his best against Cologne (getting owned by Artjoms Rudnevs is not a good look, Papa!!) Piszczek and Schmelzer were solid as ever, with the Pole overcoming a rough start (and even having his spot taken by Passlack) to finish with three goals, while Schmelle was for the most part (discounting the incident of losing his head and shoving a referee) his usual consistent self. Julian Weigl underwent a sophomore slump of sorts – though when every sensible Bundesliga coach has figured out that he should just “blitz the QB (Weigl) with five guys, because Dortmund have no other capable\press-resistant midfielders” it’s tough to blame him. Plus even the great Sergio Busquets can have a down year, which is basically still better than 99% of CMs in the world. Gonzalo Castro had the most Gonzalo Castro Hinrunde ever: getting four assists in four blowouts then not registering a key pass until week 10 and getting injured of course. Christian “Captain America” Pulisic was more of an impact sub and changed the Ingolstadt game, and while he dominated against weaker opposition (Legia, HSV, etc) he struggled against tough physical defenders such as Schalke’s Sead Kolasinac and Benjamin Henrichs of Leverkusen. Shinji Kagawa was sadly not much of a factor in the Bundesliga this season, and it’s a worrying sign for the Japanese that he was not able to get playing time despite all of the injuries. Nuri Sahin had a brilliant 70 minutes vs Legia and a sad 30 against Gladbach, as yet another injury forced him to miss even more time. Similarly, Sven Bender, Joo-Ho Park and Erik Durm would receive incomplete grades due to barely getting over the 100 minute mark.
The final note about injuries is this excellent table by the guys at Fussballverletzungen: Frankfurt beat BVB in the days missed due to injury on average category, but Bamba Anderson (cartilage), Marc Stendera (ACL) and Marco Russ (cancer) were all missing prior to the season and are probably inflating these totals. It’s a different question that Niko Kovac has actually been able to improve his defense despite three of those aforementioned players (two CBs and a CDM) being unavailable by infusing the youngsters on loan strategy (Hector\Vallejo\Mascarell) that worked wonders for SGE.
Dortmund have fairly similar stats to last season on both sides of the ball, if we look at the expected goals\TSR Chart created by the guys at the Challengers Podcast
The shots per goals needed and conceded are almost identical with last season’s, with the latter figure being very surprising given the perception of BVB’s (at times) dreadful defense. Expected goals against per shots is even more interesting, with last year’s 10% now down to 9.3% which probably is due to Roman Bürki’s heroics in the first ten games (and definitely not because of Weidenfailer). You can even see the uptick of four percent from the time the Swiss goalie went out and the full 1.5 few shots needed since Weidenfeller took over in this pic.
This year’s attack is outperforming expectations, and that’s mostly down to Auba who is nearly doubling his XG metrics by scoring 16 goals instead of seven per Alex Rathke
Of course those two-three goals are typical of excellent attacking teams and then some (BVB outperformed Michael Caley’s model by nearly ten goals last season) and the team is on pace to get about 74 goals. Replacing Aubameyang (who will be at AFCON) will not be easy, but as Lars Pollmann suggested it could be three Bundesliga games in the worst case scenario. There is probably some truth to the obvious idea that Dortmund’s high-powered attack is fueled by Dembele and Aubameyang, as BVB have converted at nearly 19% on their open play attempts, as per Footyintheclouds! The team also leads the Bundesliga with a 14.6% conversion rate, despite taking just 14.7 shots per game, as opposed to last season’s 15.7. Total shots Ratio is down to 58% from last year’s exception 65%, probably the result of losing the big three and the inability to find a proper replacement for them, as well as injuries. That latter sentiment is perhaps the one word summary for Dortmund’s Hinrunde, which has at the very least not been short of excitement.
Tactics and Transfer what ifs are well covered in the following pieces, with which I largely agree, so I’ll save us both some time: