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
Let’s kick things off today with one of the Revierderby participants, the Gelsenkirchen outfit. Schalke have famously started with five losses in a row, and Markus Weinzierl’s job was at least in question, though it ultimately never ended up being more than a rumor. We covered their catastrophic start here, and arrived at the then somewhat shocking conclusion that it was probably just variance, and a couple of bad 15 minute spells\individual mistakes (Frankfurt\Bayern games). In retrospect, those five losses are a little more defensible, when we consider that they were against four of the top five, or five of the top seven teams in the table! In addition, from those three away losses, Hertha are the one team that has actually lost a match at home in the Hinrunde (but also won the other seven for 21 pts) while both TSG and SGE are unbeaten still. It’s worth noting that in the eleven games since, Schalke have collected 18 points, going 5\3\3 with 18 goals for and 9 against. It’s even more remarkable that they’ve gone winless in four matches, as tough and unfortunate losses to both RB Leipzig and Bayer ended their twelve game, two month (!!) unbeaten run before a draw at Freiburg and a surprising loss to HSV sealed things.
We used the help of some advanced stats to make the point that even during the dismal start, the Royal Blues were better than their record, so it’s only fair that we check in on them at this point. The raw stats such as goal difference and points per game show solid numbers that would have them as the fifth\sixth best team in the Bundesliga, which really isn’t that far off the expectations, once we factor in RB Leipzig. You may recall that after five games they had a + seven total shots on target difference (22 to 15) that was fourth best in the Bundesliga: that number is still the fourth best in the league at +15 (67\52) per Footballintheclouds. The offensive part of it is pretty remarkable given their disastrous injury history (more on this below).
Total shots were a pretty lackluster 10th\11th in the league at an even 60 on both sides of the ball, and I’m happy to report that S04 have made some strides in that aspect, as they are up 42 with 214 shots for and 172 against. The FOR part has seen them go up to the FIFTH highest mark in the Bundesliga (just four fewer than Leipzig), despite losing all of their attackers – they have gotten precisely ZERO minutes from their forward trio of Breel Embolo since October 15th, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar since Oct. 29th and Franco di Santo since November fourth! On top of that Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting went down for the last couple games, leading to fun things like Yevhen Konoplyanka and Fabian Reese having to lead the line vs. Freiburg and\or Max Meyer having to play alongside the Ukrainian and\or the Cameroonian as the second striker. They’ve shared the shooting wealth, as ten players average one shot per game, and have scored at least one goal, with only Nabil Bentaleb getting more than three (most of his four have been long-range bombs). Defensively they were conceding 12 per match in the first five games, and they’ve improved here as well: 112 shots in 11 games comes out to 10.18 per – that would rank them fourth behind Eintracht, RBL and Bayern, same as SOT against at 3.25 as mentioned above. Injuries and suspensions also began to pile up here towards the end, with Benedikt Höwedes unable to play all 16 games due to his fifth yellow and the combination of Naldo and Matija Nastasic both playing around 1000 minutes in the center of the defense.
The three center back system was one of Weinzierl’s tactical innovations, as he used the formation nine times after the first five matches. The former FCA head coach apparently switched the residencies of Johannes Geis and Benjamin Stambouli (quietly rated as the worst Bundesliga player by Whoscored!!) in his doghouse and the former Mainz midfielder thrived in his new deeper role. Geis even had to play makeshift CB in one game, but the uptick in his defensive actions (near 2.5 clearances and interceptions this year to 1.2 last season) did not take away from his efficiency as a playmaker : 2.4 key passes (fourth best in the league!!!), 78% completion rate 50.1 passes on average are all around his career numbers. On the wings, Sead Kolasinac has traveled the strange path of goat to squad hero after losing his starting spot to Baba Rahman after the Frankfurt game. That match is really worth rewatching, as it represents die Konigsblauen at their worst, with Naldo and Höwedes looking awful, yet still better than Junior Caicara. The Brazilian would only play 17 minutes on the season, as Alessandro Schöpf became the RWB and Nastasic moved in as the third CB alongside a resurgent and newly extended Kolasinac who was basically flawless until that fatal back pass that got Naldo sent off against Leverkusen. Yet, if there is one key move to Schalke’s impressive turnaround it’s the Schöpf\Kola duo who have combined for three goals (all by the Austrian) two key passes (one each) and four assists (all courtesy of the Bosnian) and are among the league leaders in all running\effort categories at Bundesliga stats.
Speaking of stats, it’s time to ask the question: what do the other advanced metrics, such as this excellent shooting chart courtesy of the always enjoyable Challengers Podcast say about Schalke?
They are within three goals of their expected goals totals (the best current predictive model out there) with 19.6 XG for and 21.5 XG against, versus a real life goals total of 20 to 19. The offense is understandably (injuries to attacking players) sputtering with a slightly below league average (that would be 1.3) expected goals per 90 minutes of 1.23. Despite taking 55.5% of the total shots in a game, Schalke’s shots needed for a goal, aka shots per goal scored is also a tad worse than the league avg. of ten at 10.72 and each shot succeeds about 9% of the time as expected goals per shot tells us. On the flip side, the defense is basically at the league average of 1.3 XG\90 at 1.34 and it took opponents just nine shots to score versus the league average that is nearly ten. Those numbers are obviously skewed by the bad start where they conceded one more goal (10 to 9) than in the eleven games since, so overall things are looking decent defensively on the spreadsheets as well as on the pitch. Knowing Christian Heidel from his twenty year tenure at Mainz and their forward injuries one should expect some upgrades to that position, though the word upgrade is heavily called into question by a couple of Pierre-Michel Lasogga rumors. I could certainly think of some better options, especially in light of the delightful news that the club is receiving seven million Euros from the Draxler to PSG deal, and apparently with the likes of Manolo Gabbadini from Napoli and Jonathan Cafu from Ludogorets. Those are perhaps not the most exciting names, but the winter market is notoriously a thin one for quality strikers (why would they leave if they’re doing well?) and Heidel isn’t one for overspending on panic buys. Schalke fans will have to hope for internal improvement either in the way of Konoplyanka figuring out the whole shooting thing (good luck!), Max Meyer scoring more goals – doable, since he has had over five in each of the last three seasons and is sitting on one goal so far – or one of Fabian Reese and Donis Avdijaj contributing. My money is on the latter because he has had a 50 million Euro release clause for two years, is a year older than Reese and has 42 games of Austrian Bundesliga experience with Sturm Graz, as well as quite the first ever Bundesliga goal against HSV.