Assuming you’re not familiar with the 1976 sports movie “The Bad News Bears” that Rolling Stone called the greatest baseball movie ever, I will quickly summarize it: the late great Walter Matthau plays an alcoholic former minor league baseball player who illegally coaches a Little League team of misfits, turning them around from complete jokes to nearly defeating the Yankees, losing seven to six in the title game.
Well Hamburger SV know a little bit about bad news in light of this Bundesliga season. After spending 35 million Euros of sugar daddy Klaus Michael Kühne’s sponsor money on transfers many previews had der Dino at the very least in the top 10, with our site being one of the optimists and picking them SIXTH! Filip Kostic arrived for 14 million and Alen Halilovic’s 5 million alongside Bobby Wood’s arrival from Union Berlin was supposed to improve a woeful offense that has been a problem for a while: Prior to Labbadia’s arrival in the 2014\15 campaign HSV scored 16 goals in 29 games before a nine goal outburst in the final five kept them barely in the league with a total of 25 tallies. The next year that number increased to 40 in 34 matches which was 12th in the Bundesliga. With a solid defense bolstered by the addition of left-back Douglas Santos and the summer signings there were even rumors that HSV would roll out the league’s deadliest counter with Müller, Halilovic and Kostic feasting on the break and feeding Bobby Wood.
We of course know that those plans quite awry, as HSV were the worst team in the league after ten games!
Head coach Bruno Labbadia lasted just five games and was fired over the phone, despite a strong showing in his last game against Bayern. It’s not that Hamburg were bad, they were historically atrocious, averaging around EIGHT shots per match and recorded NINE total shots on target in five games!! The removal of Labbadia and the insertion of former Hoffenheim coach Markus Gisdol did not yield immediate results to say the least:
Just like under Labbadia, Hamburg had managed just two goals, both of which came after BVB took a 4-0 lead in 30 minutes and the 13 they conceded was three more than under Bruno. The next six games were a complete surprise, as HSV earned eleven points and scored ten goals over that span! Their advanced metrics skyrocketed, to the point where Dustin Ward even noted an astounding stat:
Hamburg had 11 shots on target through their first 9 games this season. They have 27 over the past 5, 2nd-most in the league over that span
— Saturdays on Couch (@SaturdayOnCouch) December 17, 2016
So what changed? Who is to blame for their awful first ten games and what kind of adjustments did they make to improve? In consultation with a couple of HSV fans and by my own research, I’ve come up with the following explanation.
Personnel adjustments – aka searching for the right players!
The formation was more or less 4-2-3-1 under both coaches, with Labbadia deploying Gotuku Sakai at RB and Matthias Ostrzolek at LB (replaced after two games by Douglas Santo) with a three man platoon of Cleber, Johan Djourou and Emir Spahic at CB. Gideon Jung and Albin Ekdal both had to make emergency appearances, with the Swede getting one dreadful outing and the 22-year-old solidifying himself next to Johan Djourou in six straight appearances to close out the Hinrunde.
The two defensive midfield spots were shared by a platoon of Gideon Jung, Lewis Holtby, Aaron Hunt, Albin Ekdal and later Gotuku Sakai and Matthias Ostrzolek.
There was so little stability that in the first 10 games HSV had a different pairing of CDMs – Hunt-Jung, Hunt-Holtby, Holtby-Jung (2x), Jung-Ekdal (2x), Ekdal-Holtby (2x), Sakai-Holtby and Jung-Sakai. The trend would continue into MD 11 as Gisdol introduced former LB Ostrzolek with Sakai as CDMs that would feature for the next three games until Sakai was moved back to RB and replaced by Ekdal vs Schalke!
The four attacking players were also inconsistently used in the following combos: from LW, RW, CAM and FW
Kostic\Müller\Holtby\Gregoritsch – first used against Hoffenheim on MD 11, then against Werder, Darmstadt and Augsburg in the next three weeks until Holtby’s red card led to
Kostic\Müller\Gregoritsch\Wood against Mainz that became
Kostic\Waldschmidt\Müller\Gregoritsch on MD 16 against Schalke.
This does not include the 4-4-2 used against Cologne, where Wood and Lasogga started up top with Ostrzolek as LM and Müller at RM wit Sakai and Holtby as the two CMs or the 5-4-1 against Dortmund where Lasogga led the line.
Adding to this was the injury suffered by Rene Adler (who had a poor start to the Hinrunde), which led to Christian Mathenia starting the last six games. The 31-year-old conceded 23 goals in ten matches for a 2.3 average, while the former Darmstadt stopper let in just eight goals in six for a 1.33 average!
Hopefully I’ve spelled out the obvious point: it took at least 10-11 games for the HSV managers to find a consistent starting XI that would provide a modicum of stability. From an outsider’s point of view it’s always impossible to figure out whether the stability of a starting lineup is a contributing factor to success\failure, and there’s the risk of falling into a predictable pattern that Tobias Escher expressed at Spielverlagerung. Far be it from us to veer into the cliches of a manager “shaking things up” or “making too many changes” – depending on the outcome of the match – and the likes, but in the case of HSV there seems to be some evidence of the lineups affecting the results. (As a final side note, suspensions were also a factor as HSV have gotten four red cards and 37 yellows already, leading the league in the former category and sitting second behind Eintracht in the latter. Their injury luck was about league average per Fussballverletzungen.com)
We’ve covered the goalkeeper situation (and it’s a position that is due to a number of factors more or less impossible to fairly evaluate) and it’s not exactly a secret that the HSV defense has been abysmal. 31 goals conceded, and it’s harder to find a HSV defender who has not committed a NYE type of blooper this Hinrunde than one who has.
Mergim Mavraj’s transfer from Cologne should help at least, he leads the Bundesliga in blocked shots with 15 and clearances in 88, so transitioning to a team that has a lot of action in front of their own goal will be a familiar thing for the Albanian.
Delving into the HSV attack is perhaps a more worthy journey: Earlier in the season, we analyzed the offense after 5 games and suggested immediate surgery, for the following reasons:
- What kind of an attack has 8.8 shots per game and 1.1 shots on target or NINE TOTAL (Darmstadt have 19!!!) ? How is the leading assist man your goalkeeper Rene Adler with a 65 yard boot up the pitch vs Ingolstadt?
- 21% of HSV’s total shots come from headers, arguably an ineffective way to score, even if HSV are supposed to have great wingers and two target men in Pierre Michel Lasogga and Bobby Wood (already ranking eighth in the Bundesliga with 17 losses of possession despite not starting every game), who both average over three aerials won per game, with Lasogga leading the league with 6.7 this year.
The team leads the league in unsuccessful dribbles with 106, with Filip Kostic and Nicolai Müller ranking FIRST and FIFTH in the league with sub 37% success rates.
1.Regarding the assists, Lewis Holtby now has three, with the Müller\Kostic duo picking up two on the year, but when you’ve scored 10 of the 14 goals on the year in the last six matches you take what you can get. Thanks to a furious rally in that span, die Rothosen are up to three shots on target per game, which is now ahead of Darmstadt! It might be a bad time to point the somewhat obvious: Since 2010\11 no team has finished with a worse ratio – per Footcharts- and the results have been predictably terrible:
- Freiburg had 3.35 SOT in 10\11 but finished ninth!
- Cologne were relegated with their 3.18 in 2011\12
- Fortuna Düsseldorf went down with 3.06 in 2012\13
- Braunschweig had 3.5 on their way to the 2. Liga
- Despite a paltry 3.15 SOT Hertha eked out the 15th spot ahead of HSV (3.35) who were saved in one of the most memorable playoff games ever
- Darmstadt survived with 3.41, while Hannover were buried despite 3.71 SOT last season
The takeaway is that while poor SOT numbers are not necessarily a prerequisite for dropping, they do play a major part and are a pretty good indicator that your team is heading in the wrong direction. It’s probably safe to pencil in the Lilies for the 18th spot, but HSV are in a tough spot: 16th spot after 16 games, but Ingolstadt’s strong SOT numbers (EIGHTH in the league at 4.44\gm!) coupled with the unfortunate fact that opponents have double the conversation rate against FCI than die Schanzer (12% to 6%) will provide a huge challenge in the spring.
2. Headers still account for 19% of all Hamburg shots, but that’s not as bad as FCI – who are taking 3.4 headers out of their 12.8 for a whopping 26.5%! Lasogga and his aerial prowess were part of the rotation for games 5-10, but Michael Gregoritsch has overtaken him and PML has played just 26 minutes since the 5-2 loss to Dortmund, so it’s not that surprising to see his name come up in transfer rumors. The young Austrian is averaging 5.2 headers won and despite getting 953 minutes, he has won the second most headers in the Bundesliga! He also scored two his three goals with his head.
Gregoritsch also offers a lot more shooting – 2.4 shots per game or 3.7 per 90! – with the caveat that nearly half of those are from outside the box. Many of those however are free kicks and are at least from central locations, as Alex Rathke’s research tells us.
He is still not a good passer at just 64%, but then again HSV only have Djourou above 80%, so he fits right in I guess.
3. Checking in on dribbling and lost touches we found that Kostic\Müller were averaging 16-19 passes in the first give weeks and “The team leads the league in unsuccessful dribbles with 106, with Filip Kostic and Nicolai Müller ranking FIRST and FIFTH in the league with sub 37% success rates. Taking bad touches is another thing that HSV excel at: Kostic, Müller and Wood all average over 1.6 unsuccessful touches per game, ranking among the league worst.”
Dribbling is still a major part of HSV’s gameplan, as they attempt over twenty a game, which ranks them right up there with Bayern, BVB and Leverkusen.
Sadly the results are not as good as those other teams: HSV lead the Bundesliga with 13.2 unsuccessful dribbles, failing 64% of the time. With 117 successful dribbles – for reference, Ousmane Dembele and Julian Brandt have a combined 98 successful ones – HSV rank just 12th in the league, and it’s scary to think that with a team built around two supposedly excellent dribbles in Kostic and Müller they perform so poorly. It’s probably not a surprise to find those two among the league leaders in unsuccessful dribbles:
If you recall – Kostic lead the Bundesliga after five games with a 36% success rate, and despite the team’s overall improvement he is down all the way to 29% with Nico following him at 34.5%. So dribbling got worse, how about losing possession? Well, the unsuccessful touches are at least marginal better for the duo – 1.5 per game to 1.6 earlier, so baby steps! Bobby Wood is up to 2 a game from his 1.6 earlier, which together with an ill-timed red card and a paltry 1.4 shots per 90 ratio explains why he isn’t really a regular starter despite leading the team with four goals.
Kostic and Müller have improved by the raw numbers of course, with the Serbian leading his team with 1.6 key passes (ranking 25th in the Bundesliga) and collecting two assists since we last checked in. Müller has of course caught fire in terms of finishing with four goals and also chips in with two assists and nearly one key pass per match. They are still in the 20 passes per game range (Kostic 17.7, Nico 20.4) and the pass completion rates are still far from ideal at 64% – still a career-low for the former Mainz man and about at his 65% average for the ex-VfB winger.
There is a definite improvement in their and HSV’s play over the three different periods that I’ve broke into five game chunks (gms 1-5, 6-10 and 10-14 as I didn’t find data on the last two weeks) and you can see the passes into the box telling a nice story.
Mostly long crosses from the wings and very little action from the MIDDLE!
The right side completely disappeared in Gisdol’s first five matches, but that probably was a result of a conscious decision to play Müller more centrally. It’s also not exactly a secret that Hamburg favor the left side – a whopping 40% of their attacks run through there, the most in the Bundesliga.
In the last few weeks, they finally got some offensive contributions from that aforementioned CDM spots, with Sakai and Ostrzolek operating in that role, which allowed Lewis Holtby to be more of a number ten at times. You can see how those three have been responsible for most of the key passes into the box on here:
There is still a long ways to go in terms of figuring it out for HSV and Gisdol, but for probably the first time this season it seems like there is a decent direction.
The advanced stats
That optimism is not shared by the advanced metrics. Behold!
That chart shows HSV on the losing end of 10 of 12 matches in expected goals and through 14 games the Red Shorts were not doing so hot on the XG difference table either:
Thanks to the guys at the Challengers Podcast we can track their progress on the TSR charts in the above-outlined five week breakdown (Labbadia-Gisdol 1 and 2)
7.6% chance of a shot becoming a goal and 21 shots needed to score one were absolute disastrous numbers under Labbadia
but things got worse before they got better, as after eight games those numbers were 6.9% of a shot scoring, 33 shots needed to score one!
The twelve game mark had seen the expected goal per shot value shoot up to 7.3% and HSV only needed 15 shots, or just five more than the league average to score a goal! Expected goals were introduced here, but HSV were performing exactly at the level that the model had described with 8 actual goals to 8.7 XG scored against 27 vs 27.7 conceded.
After 16 games they are up to 8.4% and 12.4 shots needed which are converging towards the respectability of 10.5% and 10.05 – the league averages. The bad news is that at an XG of 14.6 for and 31.3 against Hamburg are right at their actual output of 14 (F) and 31 (A). Browsing the excellent Footyintheclouds website, Hamburg fans can find some solace in conversion rates – 8.1% for and 12.5% against so about two points off the league average of 10.2 on both sides! While shooting percentage is exactly at league average, save percentage is the Bundesliga’s worst at 60.6% – ten points below the league avg! The metric by which they look the worst is Open Play Shots in the Box Conversion % Against, where Hamburg allow 24% of such chances to be turned into goals – the league’s worst rate and well-above the 17.7% league average. From that it follows that opponents are feasting against HSV from open play – converting 16.7% of shots – though there is no stat on how many of those are turnovers by the back line….Despite having what one would think of as strong players vis a vis dead-ball situations (Santos, Gregoritsch, Lasogga, either CBs) set pieces are somehow an area of weakness – HSV converted just 2.2% nearly three times worse than that of the league average of 6.6%. It’s thus perhaps not a huge surprise that HSV have just one set piece goal and are tied with Schalke for the 18th spot in that regard.
So, it’s been a weird, long strange trip of a Hinrunde for the Hamburg faithful: the youthful optimism of the summer days quickly turned sour as Labbadia lost the power struggle, and Gisdol was brought in by management. Heads continued to roll even as play and results improved and Didi Beiersdorfer also lost both of his jobs, with Heribert Bruchhagen becoming the new chairman and Jens Todt the new sporting director. While it’s hard to call those moves exciting, there seems to be a clear directional shift from Hamburg from the splashy madhouse of the Beiersdorfer era to one of solid Bundesliga pedigree. While it may be harsh to criticize the club for taking on two respected leaders in Todt and Bruchhagen, the lack of ambition and their record of mediocrity shows a conservatism that might hurt them. Though one must say, it’s not exactly surprising to see Hamburg go in the conservative direction, as the so-called “progressive” one failed so miserably over the last few years.
I started with a baseball movie reference in the beginning, so it’s only fitting to end with one. In the movie Major League, the owner of the Cleveland Indians (a long-suffering traditional powerhouse in the MLB) is trying to lose on purpose so that she could move the team to Miami. They assemble a team of misfits with a crusty old coach that has no chance of winning, but of course….
Thanks for reading!