Prior to the start of the 2016\17 season, most experts agreed that Borussia Mönchengladbach and VfL Wolfsburg were probably going to fight each other for the fourth spot in the Bundesliga, and thus get into the Champions League. (you can read our season previews here, while Abel’s can be found here).
“Basically it looks like under Schubert, they will have a league average defense leaving it to the offense to continue to be incredibly efficient with their chances to push Gladbach above a 6th-8th place performer.”
Well, it turns out Dustin Ward was right about the defense part, but the offense did not hold up its end of the bargain. About Wolfsburg, the Statsbomb expert had two competing versions, and I’ll let you decide which one came true:
“Good Season: Didavi plays off Draxler well and a little less selfishly than he did last season. Gerhardt makes runs into the box. Using the fullbacks becomes a dangerous plan B instead of plan A and B. Gomez gets a variety of service and Wolfsburg makes the Champions League.
Bad Season: All the nice new toys get Dieterized and Rodriguez and Träsch continue to carry the ball into the final third and Gomez is used basically like Bas Dost. Didavi keeps taking long shots and Draxler’s mind wanders toward greener pastures and they hover well off Schalke and Gladbach’s pace.”
Gladbach of course were in the UCL until a terrible draw with Barcelona and Manchester City resulted in the Europa League, while Wolfsburg’s heroic run in last year’s competition died at the hands of eventual champs Real Madrid. (If only Bruno Henrique could’ve finished that chance at 2-0!!).
Reality is a cruel mistress.
Leading the disaster known as HSV by a mere three points and being tied for 15th with the miserable Werder Bremen team shows just how far these two squads have fallen. Of course, both Dieter Hecking and Andre Schubert have failed to survive the Hinrunde, though the former Wolfsburg coach was hired immediately for the Foals job in a cruel twist of fate. In the following article, we’ll take a look just what has gone wrong and what (if anything) has gone right. We’ve thought of ten talking points, and talked so much that it ran over into two parts. Here is Part 1:
1.Summer Transfers and what the Gomez?
Gladbach notably lost Granit Xhaka to Arsenal for 45m and Havard Nordveit (who might sadly be one of the worst defensive players in the EPL) also left for West Ham while Branimir Hrgota and Martin Hinteregger also moved on after unsuccessful spells. It’s probably not the best sign for the Foals that Hrgota has three goals and is a vital contributor to a strong Frankfurt side and Hinteregger has been a stalwart for Augsburg with 1333 minutes and one goal. Hrgota’s three goals would’ve led Gladbach, if it weren’t for the MD 16 goal that Thorgan Hazard scored – his fourth overall, but just his first Bundesliga goal since mid September!!!.
The losses of Xhaka and Nordveit were not supposed to be devastating with the signing of Christoph Kramer (15m) and Tobias Strobl (free) and Jannik Vestergaard’s move from Bremen for 12m was seen as a solid complementary piece to fellow Dane CB Andreas Christensen. We’ll discuss the defense and the midfield’s woes below, but it’s safe to say that neither of those signings have lit the world on fire.
Wolfsburg also lost several key players in the summer – the Naldo – Dante duo got broken up, while Bas Dost and Max Kruse were both deemed superfluous in attack and brought the club 17.5 million in transfer fees. André Schürrle was sold for 30m, and given the age and performance\history of those players above, most though that Wolfsburg had made out quite well.
That’s also true, because VfL brought in the versatile Yannick Gerhardt for 13 million from Cologne and PSV’s Jeffrey Bruma for 11.5 as their two marquee signings. The club also took some chances on a couple of youngsters (Josip Brekalo cost 6 million, while Real Madrid’s Borja Mayoral had a loan fee of 3 million) and a few cheap veterans like Daniel Didavi (who had his career year at Stuttgart) Jakub Blaszczykowski (5 million), Mario Gomez (1 million) and Philipp Wollscheid (1.5m loan from Stoke). (They also finalized Joshua Guilavogui’s loan from Atletico Madrid for 3m.) Despite most of these guys not working out – Didavi has predictably failed to stay healthy and played just 281 minutes, with Wollscheid, Brekalo and Mayoral all under 270, while Kuba played at least half of his 800 minutes at right back and was quite terrible at it.
Those looked like reasonable moves for some name players for not a lot of money and the idea was to continue to build a strong team around the genius of Julian Draxler. Well, Draxler is now at PSG for 40 million, and Wolfsburg has now brought in Yunus Malli to lead their attack, and while the former Mainz man is a nice player, going from KDB to him is emblematic of the loss of talent that the Wolves have suffered. Mario Gomez actually leads the team in minutes played and while he has nearly five expected goals the four actual goals he scored are a far cry from the 26 of last season at Besiktas. His misses and shots saved have been arguably more notorious than his goals, and he appears to be taking shots from decent locations per Alex Rathke’s research.
However, a deeper look at this shot totals and factoring in the notion that Gomez wins 3.8 aerials per match (more than double his previous career-high of 1.7) reveals a fundamental change:
Gomez has already taken 11 shots from set pieces, which is already tied for his Bundesliga career-high from 2011\12 where he took 101 shots and scored 26 goals!!! Sure, the team around him his not Bayern, but when you have a guy who used to take 75-80% of his shots from open play drop down to 63% on them with probably worse service it’s easy to see why he isn’t doing better. His XG of 5 and the 13.3% conversion rate are more of an indictment against Hecking’s terrible attacking system (based on crosses, like he’s some weird David Moyes clone) than they are a judgment on the ole Gomez button. Though, he’s probably had a few of these games like the one versus Eintracht.
2. Poor Shot Locations and Volume
Having seen what poor shooting looks like, it’s time to move forward to some shot metrics to show how poor Gladbach and Wolfsburg have been in the Hinrunde. Last season these were the third and fourth best teams of the Bundesliga in terms of shots on target and they were in the top seven in shots volume, per Footcharts. In fact, we would have to go back to 2013\14 to find either team with a negative SOT difference, with Gladbach producing -.45 in a season where they finished sixth, one spot ahead of Wolfsburg.
So how about this season so far? These two teams are both firmly in the negative and are not ranked in the top 10 in either category!
So it is not really a surprise that goals per game are under one for BOTH teams, with the previous lows being 1.38 in the last five years….
Those goals probably have to do with a number of factors, but we’ll focus on the shots first, courtesy of Whoscored.com.
Wolfsburg take 12.5 shots per game, but 5.1 come from outside of the box, with 6.7 in the penalty area. Situationally, the Wolves take 7.8 shots from open play, while 4.1 come via set pieces and 0.6 on counters.
In contrast, the 2015\16 numbers: are 14.5 total shots with 5.7 from outside the box and eight inside the penalty area. VfL recorded 10.1 open play shots to 3.8 from set pieces and just 0.6 on counters.
So they have cut down on the longer shots by about 10%, but that didn’t result in getting shots from the penalty area, as they have lost 2.3 or nearly 30% of last year’s volume, while set pieces went up by 10%! As the Boss would say: BRING ON YOUR HECKINGBALL!
For comparison Bayern and Dortmund are the highest at 17.8 and 14.7 total shots, with 6.3 and 5.2 coming from outside the box and Bayern getting 10.2 from inside the penalty are to BVB’s 8.2! Situationally, 12.4 and 9.4 from open play respectively and both around 4.5 set pieces.
In further contrast, the 16\17 version of Gladbach produces a paltry 10.9 total shots (which is near relegation level), despite a decent ratio of 3.6 outside the box (the lowest in the league!!) to 6.6 penalty area efforts. As far as shooting situations, 7.1 are taken from open play with three from set pieces and 0.7 on counters!
Their 15\16 stats : 13.4 totals and 5.3 outside and 7.5 in penalty area. A notable 9.1 open play shots, with just three from set pieces and a great 1.2 from counters. So: TWO SHOTS PER GAME FROM OPEN PLAY GONE, which makes up almost 100% of that total shots gone, in addition to half of their counters being gone = an offense that fails.
Not quite the best of Schubert, but hey maybe they both have good defenses?
3.Defenses holding their own, in spite of appearances!
24 total or 1.5 per game (Wolfsburg) and 25 goals or 1.56 per game (Gladbach) conceded isn’t much worse than last year’s 49 in 34 for VfL – 1.44 per match or the 50 for BMG at 1.47 per game. The expected goals charts have Wolfsburg at 23 and Gladbach surprisingly at just 18.9, and the expected goals against per shots numbers are also better than average.
We can see that volume has been the problem for Wolfsburg who give up 15 shots per game, nearly 3.6 more than last season’s 11.35 that was fifth in the league! Those also translate to 5.13 shots on target against to 4.47 last year, which doesn’t seem huge, until you realize that the nearly 4.5 SOT allowed had them sixth last year. The problem is that this season there are TEN teams who are under that same mark, so Wolfsburg’s 5.13 is only tied for 15th with Mainz!
Gladbach are actually allowing FEWER shots this year 11.7 or so to last year’s 13.35, and conceding 25 goals this Hinrunde to last year’s 30! Shots on target against is also eerily similar with 4.5 allowed this year to 4.65 last season.
There’s also a fun trend that we discovered while researching the Shots Against stats: This year there are EIGHT teams who allow 12 or fewer shots (FCB, BVB, RBL, SGE, S04, B04, Hertha and BMG), while in the last five seasons there were SIX in 2011\12, EIGHT in 2012\13, though six of those were giving up between eleven and twelve shots!!!, four in 2013\14, three in 2014\15 and five last year! That seems to support the increasing impact of pressing in the Bundesliga, as generally higher pressing teams concede fewer shots, though sometimes (cough Leverkusen cough) much better in quality.
Unfortunately, Gladbach and Wolfsburg might be living in the past from this aspect.
The biggest red flag for BMG is the 7.62 shots it takes opponents to score a goal, which is only ahead of a few teams with notoriously awful defenses (Werder, HSV) and manic-pressing teams like Leverkusen and Ingolstadt who will obviously allow better quality chances once their presses get broken. So you would assume that Gladbach are pressing a lot, because they are giving up so many quality chances? Well, not so fast.
4. Pressing Matters for VfL and BMG
In 2017, it’s not exactly a novel idea that high-pressing and gegenpressing are elemental parts of successful teams in football. If you watch the Bundesliga, you probably agree that pressing is arguably the buzzword and the flavor of the month. Michiel Jongma’s research on defensive actions across the different leagues reveal the German league’s focus on high-lines and constant pressure.
The interesting thing about the Bundesliga this season, is the success that the so-called pressing teams (high-pressing) have had. (We’ll forego the philosophical question whether deep sitting teams, a la Favre’s Gladbach’, count as pressing teams or not. They probably do in the spirit of the definition, but since most people use pressing to mean high-pressing a la Roger Schmidt, they probably don’t in actuality.) In order to figure out who those pressing teams are, I’ve summoned the help of Mark Thompson who provided me with the data for PPDA or Passes allowed Per Defensive Actions, a metric developed to measure pressing by Colin Trainor of Statsbomb. The lower the PPDA rating, the more intense the defense.
From that list, we can conclude that extensive pressing is not the be all and end all, as Hertha, Cologne and Freiburg have all done surprisingly well without a sustained pressing system. However, four of the top seven most active teams are all in the top six on the table, and then we left out Leverkusen who are regulars at that table. Gladbach (for whom this ramping up has been one of the early positive changes under Schubert) and Wolfsburg are right around league average in this metric, and that’s not quite good enough. Opponents are completing 78% of their passes, which is up from the 75% of last year per Statsbomb.
Wolfsburg are actually pressing less despite going from 57% possession to 49.8, i.e. having less of the ball, allowing opponents to complete 91% of passes per Dustin Ward.
Of course ceding possession is actually an excellent recipe for pressing and counter-pressing as shown by Klopp’s Dortmund teams, or RB Leipzig this year. If only someone could pass that info on to either of these teams…
Here are two extreme examples for their pressing difficulties : the 5-0 loss to Bayern where Wolfsburg had 35% possession and Gladbach’s 4-1 debacle against BVB, in which the Foals where limited to 32%. In both cases Gladbach and Wolfsburg are playing left to right:
So, pressing high up the pitch and executing it well isn’t something these teams do, and it’s part of an unsuccessful strategy.
Earlier we’ve talked about their offensive futility (perhaps generating some shots via counterpressing wouldn’t hurt either), and there’s a nice link between those two ideas with regards to issues in the midfield which we will cover (among other things) in part 2.