Gladbach and Wolfsburg fail to adjust and get left behind in the Hinrunde Part 2

This is the second part of an extensive breakdown of the troubled Hinrunde of Gladbach and Wolfsburg, you can find the first part here.

5. Regression in Midfield

Ranking Philipp Lahm as the best defender in the league probably undermines the prestigious German magazine Kicker’s reputation as the most accurate judge of Bundesliga performance, so the following may be taken with a grain of salt. Here are the 91 qualified midfielders who played a minimum of half the games – remember the higher the ranking, the worse they played:

So, as discussed previously, Wolfsburg have central midfield issues, partly because Guilavogui and Luiz Gustavo were first injured in the beginning – thus forcing Hecking to reinvent football by playing two players (Yannick Gerhardt #13 and Maxi Arnold #27) in the same exact spot for an entire half of football. 

Seriously, look at their heat maps and tell me if this isn’t the bizarro N’Golo Kante  2 for 1 deal? (in case you don’t follow the EPL: Kante is famous for accounting for the work rate and positioning of two players)

Arnold (who was the one who finally attempted to press Marc Bartra as he crossed the halfway line to play in Guerreiro for the opener) was so poor (allowing Aubameyang to waltz in for the second) that Hecking replaced him with Paul Seguin, who of course played in the exact same spot right in Gerhardt’s face and then proceeded to allow Gonzalo Castro a free run down the middle for the third BVB goal.

I won’t even get into their pressing problems in that game, but a tweet will do:

Browsing some defensive metrics, it’s quite staggering to see Daniel Caligiuri as the leading tackler for die Wölfe at 2.1 per game, with Gustavo and Guilavogui also at two-ish in 1400 combined minutes. Their CM replacements (Arnold and Seguin) have combined for just 2.3 tackles in 2000 minutes. Guilavogui’s importance really becomes obvious when it comes to interceptions, as the Frenchman has 37 total in 430 minutes (6.2 per game), SIX more than ANY OTHER WOLFSBURG PLAYER!!! (and more than any other Freiburg and Dortmund player, per Dustin Ward again!)

The defensive struggles are thus quite apparent, but it takes both sides of the ball to achieve true midfield futility:

In fairness to Yannick Gerhardt, he has performed better at left wingback and LB (which of course is weird, because it made Ismael use Ricardo Rodriguez, one of the best Bundesliga LBs as a CB or a LCB), but Arnold and Seguin have not gotten above one key pass per 90 minutes in a combined 2000 minutes. (Some guy named Julian Draxler has 2.1 in a “terrible Hinrunde”).  They say a picture is worth a thousand words, and since I’ve got several thousands written here, this work of art titled “Wolfsburg (purple) most closely resemble DARMSTADT (orange) in Key Passes” shall do. 

Borussia have a different sort of illness, one that is best described as the severe case of Sebastian Rodeitis. Its symptoms include: the total absence of risk-taking, key passes and any sort of forward progression of the ball and it manifests itself in the form of Tobias Strobl, who as we discover thanks to the wonderful work the guys at Football Radars is kind of a like a worse version of Rode! (Yup, I’m just as surprised as you are, and the news have put me in an existential tailspin…). 

The 26-year-old was not part of Julian Nagelsmann’s future plans at Hoffenheim (and coincidentally TSG are thriving since Nags excised Strobl from the lineup in favor of the versatility of Sebastian Rudy and the attacking prowess of Nadiem Amiri) and came on a free transfer to Gladbach last summer.

BMG were of course desperate to replace the departed Xhaka\Nordveit duo’s excellent mix of tough-tackling (without the red cards preferably) and deep-lying playmaking. The trouble is that both Strobl and the reacquired Christoph Kramer have utterly failed at this. In fact, from a casual comparison via Squawka we can glean that they are actually playing way more conservatively and below their past levels.

Strobl presumably was supposed to be a safety blanket of sorts, being a tidy passer and solid in possession with just enough defense to fill in whenever Dahoud or Kramer weren’t up to it. Sadly, he has been a traffic cone on defense, as anyone with a modicum of speed is able to make him look like he is 36, not 26. Strobl is often so slow that he isn’t even able to attempt a tackle, which explains why he is tenth on his own team in successful tackles with one per game, and ninth in attempts, succeeding just 56% of the time. Kramer to his credit attempts double the amount of tackles than Strobl (4.5 to 2.3) even if he ranks fourth in the dribbled past metric totals and just 25th in successful tackles with an identical 56% rate. Attached is the rankings via Whoscored, with the last two filtered to include CMs only, while the first includes all players.

On offense, Kramer famously has attempted one shot all Hinrunde, which, despite him taking 10-20 shots per year, is such an absurd number that it must be at Schubert’s request.

The four key passes all season (compared to 20-25) for Kramer and the three for Strobl (usually between 10-15) together with all the backward passing are quite damning evidence of Schubert’s aversion to progressing the ball forward. You can see what usually happens from the great passing maps of 11tegen11, of which the one against Schalke is the most extreme one, in which Gladbach CB Jannik Vestergaard attempted 92 passes in 45 minutes! Technically 51 of them were forward according to Statszone, but that’s extremely generous and you can see from the map, just how little impact these passes had. 

Overall, Gladbach finished with 702 completed passes and 73% possession, but only 123 of those passes came in the attacking third and they actually lost the shots battle 15 to 12, not to mention of course the game as well to Schalke, 4-0.

You can check some of the other ineffective pass maps here:

6.Failures in attack

Lack of pressing and counterpressing, general passivity in the buildup phase, and slow or non-existent through the middle for Gladbach, and inconsistent CMs for Wolfsburg were some of the issues that we covered so far.  One consequence of those problems is leaving their creative attacking players and\or finishers like Julian Draxler, Mario Gomez or Lars Stindl and Raffael on an island. That would lead to a dip in their output presumably, and while that’s true with Gomez (as explained above in PP!) and Draxler – who has failed to score despite putting up a career-best per 90 1.6 shots from inside the penalty area with 1.3 on target! While it would be an overstatement to say that Draxler has been good, he has not been disastrous per the advanced metrics, as he’s at over 3 expected goals, and his shot locations have generally been decent. In fact, what’s happening with the now PSG attacker is quite fascinating: he is getting almost all of his long shots on target and saved, while having a career low number of shots blocked, but most of them seem to come from right around the penalty spot, where he is also missing often!

On the other side of the ledger (hey Matt Herrmann!) Gladbach’s duo of Stindl and Raffael (a bit of a Liebling among Bundesliga aficionados) are producing roughly identical raw shot numbers.

Stindl is even converting the same amount at 12.5% as last year and Raffael is down just 1.5% from last year’s 25.5 to 24 this season. There is not much wrong in terms of the expected goals, though Stindl is down about half a goal.

The big drop comes in terms of creating for others, as Stindl’s been struggling at this, with 17 chances provided for others compared to 54 for the 15\16 campaign. Raffael’s total chances created is at a whopping 25 already, partly because he is a freaking wizard, and when you adjust for the fact that he is on pace to play 600 fewer minutes already plus his age, 25 compared to 54 is actually quite good! Stindl’s lack of creativity and some conversion randomness for forwards (Andre Hahn is converting nine percent, quite a long way from the ridiculous 33% of last season, but on the flip side Thorgan Hazard has doubled up his 12% to 26% this year!) could explain some of it, but it’s the other guys who scored so many goals last year for Gladbach that are absent: There were 30 goals scored last season by the Octet of Fabian Johnson, Mo Dahoud, Granit Xhaka, Andreas Christensen, Havard Nordtveit, Ibrahima Traore, Oscar Wendt and Patrick Herrmann, who if we sub in Kramer and Strobl for the two guys now playing in England are at FOUR so far!

When so many players are MIA, it’s usually the coach’s fault, and Schubert has found that out the hard way.

7. Coaching malpractices 

In Wolfsburg, Hecking’s failures to get anything out of Max Kruse, the immortal Lord Bendtner, Mario Gomez, André Schürrle and Julian Draxler kind of flew under the radar at the time, but of course it’s immensely funny that Gladbach have now hired him to presumably get more out of that group of eight above. He will of course try to do it via his crosses, which of course worked so tremendously in the absence of Kevin de Bruyne, as the following picture and the above-mentioned key passes into the box image illustrate. 

SERIOUSLY, someone talk to Christian Trasch and Daniel Caligiuri!

But hey, at least Gladbach have players who are good at crossing. Traore,Hazard, Raffael and Wendt all seem pretty good at it, ole Lars Stindl not so much.

In case you were wondering about the league leaders, those are Vinny and Pascal Gs, who along with Johannes Geis are among the three players with over 50% accuracy on a minimum of 45 attempts.

It’s probably a bad sign that it took me over 4000 words to say something positive about the Hecking appointment, but that’s where we are. There are also positives about Andre Schubert, but they mostly center around the cliche of the team responding to a caretaker coach’s infusion of youth after quitting on a long-time manager. While I was surprised by the excellent performances of last year’s Foals team, I was flabbergasted by the idea of extending Schubert, especially in light of the articles like Conor Garratt’s at Bayern Central which eviscerated Schubert for his incompetence on September 25th.

Ironically, Gladbach extended the coach’s contract (which was scheduled to run out in June of 2017) just two days later on September 27th. At the time, Gladbach were fourth in the league with ten points from five games. Little did we know, that the Foals would get just six more points from the next eleven games, costing Schubert his job and opening the door for Hecking.

Not a lot of tears were shed, and it was tough to argue with the decision, though injuries for example could’ve been part of the playbook for Schubert apologists.

8. Injuries

This shows the two teams among the more injury-stricken Bundesliga clubs, but when you look at BVB and Eintracht or FC Augsburg on the bottom three, it’s hard to feel bad for VfL and BMG and\or to use injuries as an excuse, though that of course won’t stop people from doing it.

A deeper look at the absences is possible, thanks to Transfermarkt and it reveals Gladbach’s injuries taking place among the attacking players, as Raffael, Ibrahima Traore, Patrick Herrmann and Josip Drmic all missed over six games at least. The Raffael\Traore injuries did play a major part, as Gladbach lost a ton of creativity (most are aware of Raffael’s Key Pass numbers, but the Guinean was contributing a career best 3.4 per 90), dribbling (combining for six per game) with those two in attack. In addition, Traore’s work ethic was an integral part of their five back system, which is supported by the fact that Gladbach won just one game (vs. Mainz) when using a four back system. They were hardly amazing in the 3-4-1-2, earning three wins, one draw and five losses with an 11-16 goal difference, but at least they were able to score nine goals, versus just three in the other formations, which is probably at least due to Traore’s dribbling and key passes into the  box.

It’s kind of a cruel joke that last Hinrunde, Gladbach had all kinds of defensive injuries and red card suspensions (Xhaka and Nordveit), forcing the coaches to play 13 different CB combos. For the fall, smaller injuries (three games or fewer) to players like Thorgan Hazard (who started the campaign in scorching form), Fabian Johnson, Andreas Christensen, Tobias Strobl and Christoph Kramer (who will miss a lot of time) didn’t help, but guys like Lars Stindl, Andre Hahn or Jonas Hofmann were healthy, but not useful.

Wolfsburg were without a good defensive CM for a while with Guilavogui and Luiz Gustavo missing a lot of games, and of course Daniel Didavi failed to stay healthy, because he is sadly the Holger Badstuber of attacking mids. They also lost Vieirinha to injury, which is probably a good thing given his performances (cue to Portugal fans who saw him play at the Euros nodding), which have been so awful that he is heading back to Greece. Long injuries to insignificant players like Sebastian Jung and Ismael Azzoui (both at 0 minutes so far) are good for driving up the days missed per day stat, but little else. Last season’s numbers are fairly similar as well.

9. Winter Moves

Gladbach have been quiet, signing an 18-year old Paraguayan and they also did this:

Wolfsburg have made some major moves already in the winter break: the sale of Julian Draxler to PSG for 40 million has allowed the Wolves to sign four players – Yunus Malli, Riechedly Bazoer, Victor Osimhen and Paul-Georges Ntep who cost a combined 33 million. Malli is a proven Bundesliga commodity, an excellent dribbler who is capable of creating offense, though he doesn’t shoot enough and is very dependent on set-pieces for his key passes\assists.

Bazoer has been touted as a wonderkid and at 20 has already played 4500 minutes in the Eredivisie, while Ntep has 5500 Ligue 1 minutes and 18 goals at 24. If you’re an optimist, Bazoer has a pretty nice looking radar, but he has also fallen out with Ajax coach Peter Bosz and has barely played this season. Where have we heard that before?

Still, advantage Wolfsburg, though I’ve a sneaky feeling that Draxler’s production (though not his attitude) will be missed at some point.

10. Looking Ahead

Valerien Ismael got his caretaker job finalized until the end of the season, and despite some improved performances in the last couple of match days, it remains to be seen whether he is actually a competent Bundesliga coach. We’ve flogged Dieter Hecking enough, but Ismael’s not been much more creative, as Spielverlagerung’s German tactics expert Tobias Escher pointed out when discussing Wolfsburg’s switch to the 3\5\2 – 5\3\2 hybrid that’s been taking the European leagues by storm. The point is that you know a trend is played out when Wolfsburg are doing it, kinda like when your weatherman starts rapping. The optimistic scenario probably includes the new boys quickly fitting in and VfL hitting the ground running, with a couple of victories against HSV, Augsburg and possibly Cologne. The home game vs. Hoffenheim is sandwiched between two brutal trips to Dortmund and Bayern, and they will still have road games against Leipzig, Schalke, Leverkusen, Eintracht and Hertha, so I’d not expect all that much in the Rückrunde.

Dieter Hecking has enjoyed the winter camp in Marbella, as the coach got to know his team a little better and it looks like the Foals have had a good time. He has experimented with the three in the back formation, using the 3-4-2-1 in both exhibition matches. There are still several long-term injuries that are going to make life difficult for Gladbach, with Herrmann, Traore and Fabian Johnson still out, and now Nico Elvedi joining them with a pelvis injury. Timo Kolodziejczak should bring some experience at CB and is expected to compete with Vestergaard and Elvedi for the two other CB spots next to Andreas Christensen (who might be on his way back to Chelsea). It does not look like BMG managed to make upgrades at the wingback positions, despite Oscar Wendt and Julian Korb being below-average options. Hopefully, Hecking will ditch the Strobl\Kramer pairing in favor of more Mo Dahoud and our suggestion is to pair him with the World Cup winner, who has recovered from his scary-looking injury. Although there have been reports of Jonas Hofmann earning penalties and Josip Drmic scoring goals in these friendlies, Hecking should stick to the Hazard, Raffael, Stindl trio. The schedule is rather favorable out of the gates, with Darmstadt and Freiburg visiting Borussia Park with trips to Leverkusen and Bremen. A two-way Europa League tie with Fiorentina  is interrupted by a match against Leipzig, then games vs. Ingolstadt and HSV might be tricky (especially if the early matches don’t go their way), after which Bayern, Hertha, Schalke and Frankfurt follow. The repeating of the 26-point Rückrunde from last season and a win against Darmstadt should easily keep Gladbach safe, though Frankfurt needed just 36 total points to snag the 16th spot last season. With six teams currently on 16 points or fewer, that number of 36 should be enough, though they might need the MD 34 victory over Darmstadt just to be on the safe side.

11 months ago
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Written by vanbasten99
About Abel Meszaros 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). Abel is faithful to BVB, but also endlessly fascinated by the emergence of new teams and talents from Germany. His first English love was the Liverpool teams of Macca and Robbie Fowler, but these days he just roots for the underdogs. He loves to talk/read/write/think about soccer! 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 at @BundesPL

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