Who or what is responsible for Schalke’s catastrophic start?

Schalke 04 are winless in the first five games for the first time in their storied Bundesliga history. A shocking loss to Eintracht could have been chalked up to just slipping up, as the team struggled to integrate many of the last-minute signing, and given Eintracht’s start to the year doesn’t look as bad in retrospect. There was also little shame in losing to Bayern; in fact most pundits and analysts praised die Knappen for giving FCB a serious run for their money for 80 minutes. The individual errors that led to a goal in the Frankfurt and Bayern matches (sup Naldo!) became even more prominent in an ugly game that ended with a 2-0 loss to Hertha, as Bentaleb lost the ball carelessly for the second after Stambouli took aeons to clear a ball for the first. There appeared to be some hope on the horizon, as Gerry Wittman at the BundesligaFanatic pointed out, but a rather unlucky home loss to Cologne and the defeat at Hoffenheim – despite taking the lead after four minutes – have seemingly brought on a Schalkepocalypse.

In light of preseason moves – bringing in the highly respected sporting director of Mainz, Christian Heidl and one of Germany’s brightest young coaches in former Augsburg trainer Markus Weinzierl expectations were to make the Champions League at worst. With the additions of Swiss wunderkid Breel Embolo, veteran Sevilla right back Coke, and PSG’s Benjamin Stambouli, die Knappen had spent 36 million Euros, and their three loan deals for talented players in need of regular playing time in Yevhen Konoplyanka, Nabil Bentaleb and Abdul Baba Rahman were unanimously praised. Naldo on a free transfer from Wolfsburg looked like the steal of the summer. The sale of Leroy Sané to Manchester City for 50 million Euros provided the requisite funds for those moves, and many figured that Heidl had yet again exploited the transfer market brilliantly. The popular magazine Kicker asked 200,000 fans in a poll and 43% of them picked Schalke for the Champions League, with 41.4% for the Europa League, and 2.3% were even brave enough to pick them for the title. Kicker’s main rival Sport Bild had two separate polls: the Bundesliga fans picked Schalke to finish fifth, while their own supporters ranked them third in the league.

Yet here they are 0 for 5. Attempts to explain a baffling start have ranged from poor coaching, to lack of motivation on the part of the players, to plain dumbfoundedness, to karma being a bitch (the Schalke twitter account taunted rivals Dortmund for their dismal start to the 2014/15 year) and so on.  In retrospect, including Franco di Santo and Sidney Sam among the five players needing to step up was probably not the greatest of omens. It could get even worse, as they will of course take on Borussia Mönchengladbach, themselves the victims of an 0 for 5 start last year. The four Schalke optimists remaining (counting https://twitter.com/bentmuehue maybe more than once) will point out that Gladbach turned it around to finish in fourth last season after their abysmal start.

A different, numbers-based approach to understand Schalke’s misery – Advanced Stats

Since I did not find the attempts to explain Schalke’s abysmal start satisfactory, and given my propensity to look at football/soccer through the lens of analytics – which in an era of the game influenced by increasingly public, but still imperfect information is what one resorts to given his outsider’s point of view – I will take a number-oriented look at Schalke’s Bundesliga troubles. Two caveats for why I find it useful to try the numbers route : 1. I’m not privy to the internal workings of Schalke, 2. I am more or less skeptical towards the ability to talk intelligently about the intangible aspects of a team (heart, character, motivation and other words pundits love to use).

“Looking at lots of shots by lots of teams across lots of leagues provides a good idea of how things tend to work. The best teams consistently get more shots on target than their opponents. How many of those shots end up in the back of the net can vary wildly from game to game, but by the end of the season, the teams that win the shots-on-target battles tend to win the points battles as well. Using expected goals gets us to the same place, with the added wrinkles of how likely it is for various types of shots to be scored.” http://grantland.com/the-triangle/soccer-state-of-analytics-left-handed-pitcher-problem-atletico-madrid-diego-simeone/

  1. Raw Shot Numbers – Schalke are averaging a net zero production of 12 shots for and 12 against per match, for a nice even number of 60 on both sides of the ball. (other sites have them at 61/60) This would rank them eleventh in shots for and tied for tenth with Freiburg in (fewest) allowed, certainly not great, but not terrible numbers. Last year die Knappen averaged 14.3 shots for and 14.4 against, fifth and 14th best marks respectively while finishing fifth. In 2014/15 got sixth with 12.3 shots for and 15.8 against – good for just the eleventh best mark in the league, and a league worst in total shots allowed! Even in the 13/14 season where they managed to climb to third place, their total was barely positive at 13.94 for and 13.24 against – the eighth best mark on offense and the seventh on defense. So it would seem that in terms of total shots, Schalke are not performing significantly worse overall – and/or that total shots isn’t a great indicator of success.
  2. Shots on Target – The next step in advanced stats is to look at the number of shots on target, and the Royal Blues look actually decent with a positive net ratio of 1.4 – 4.4 SOT/gm for and 3 against. The raw totals are 22 shots on target for and just 15 against (Hamburg are at SIX for and 28 against), the latter mark is good for the fourth lowest/best in the Bundesliga, with Leipzing pipping Bayern 11 to 12. Last season’s net rating is -0.09 – 4.79 for and 4.88 against, tied with Cologne for the sixth best net rating. The 14/15 and 13/14 numbers are -0.7 per match and +0.9 per match respectively, ninth and fifth best marks respectively. The takeaway, thus is that in their worst Bundesliga start ever, Schalke are looking better by the shots on target metric, than at the end of their last three campaigns! In particular, allowing just 3 shots to reach Ralf Fährmann’s net is noteworthy, as only Bayern and sometimes Dortmund were able to keep opponents under this threshold. The problem of course with shots on target is that, although it’s a better indicator than raw shots, not all shots on target are created equal. A team could have a low SOT against ratio, but give up lots of goals, due to conceding the rare high quality chance that the opposition mercilessly exploits. Expected goals is a model that can take the quality of chances into account and is thus very useful for our purposes.
  3.  Expected GoalsMetrics for Future PPG - All Full Metrics There are two notable things about the graph above: 1. It shows the predictive superiority of XG models over other metrics, and it also shows a decent enough correlation after five matches. For Schalke, thise should be some consolation: Instead of their actual goal difference of negative EIGHT (2 for and 10 against) Michael Caley’s model has them at 5 goals for and 8.1 against for the season. Here are the individual matches, in order:






While of course, football isn’t played on a spreadsheet, it’s worth pondering that Schalke should arguably have at least three points from the Cologne match at minimum, and were quite unfortunate to lose to Hoffenheim (uncalled penalties and such) and Hertha (giving away two goals from nothing). Something like four or five points would probably be a more realistic outcome of their season so far, perhaps on par with Wolfsburg, who have five points and similar Total Shots 15 per match on both sides amd Shots on Target numbers (31F-29A at a net average of +0.4). So, some of Schalke’s misery can be ascribed to running bad, but the XG maps also show a concern about shooting locations.

4. Shot Locations and Types 

Thanks to the excellent work done by the website Footballintheclouds, we can look at the types of shots that Schalke and other teams in the Bundesliga are getting. The first stat, shots in the box for and against, where Schalke have 39F and 38A, doesn’t appear to reveal too much, but does put them alongside Gladbach and Freiburg who have ten and six points respectively! Let’s also pour one out for Ingolstadt, who are sporting a + 14 rating yet have just  an opening day draw with HSV to show for their season so far! Yet, the Gladbach comparison reveals an interesting stylistic difference: The Foals have taken 76.5% of their shots in the box with their feet (26 of 34) from open play – a sign that they are getting better looks, through better passing, while Schalke had just 51% (20 of 39) from open play, suggesting an ineffective offense. The Wolfsburg comparison – die Wölfe are even worse with shots inside the box from open play with feet, at 20 of 46 – is again poignant, and questions about those three shots on target allowed per match are being asked, as Schalke conceded 24 open play shots inside the box to Wolfsburg’s 27, which are getting farther from league average sides by this metric, such as HSV (23), Hertha and Mainz (24) and closer to Hoffenheim (29), Darmstadt (32) and Werder (35). Giving up a significant amount of quality open play shots from close range can obviously contribute to teams scoring often.

5. Conversion Rate is another metric that measures the number of goals taken on shots. There are a couple of different sites compiling these stats, and the Transfermarkt data looks a bit high – which I suspect is due to the inclusion of penalties. They have Schalke at a miserable 5.6% for this year, after 14.6 in the last two years running. The heights of 18% conversion rate from 13/14 or the league-high rate of 21.6% in 2011/12 looks light years away. According to Footballintheclouds, Schalke are converting 3.3% of their shots, but conceding a whopping 16.9% for a net rating of -13.6%. Those percentages are going to regress to the mean over time: Hertha had a notable outlier of a campaign that lasted about three-quarters of the way, leading the Bundesliga with an insane +5.9 net conversion rate difference that seemed bizarre at the time.Sure, it was thanks to Rune Jarstein becoming the Bundesliga’s second best shot-stopper after Manuel Neuer for a few months, and Salomon Kalou converting chances at 29%, Ibisevic at 17% and Darida at a stunning 13%, but Hertha eventually fell off a cliff towards the end of the season.

The location of the chance conversion is ominous – 33% of the shots taken with a foot from open play inside the Schalke box are scored – that is the worst mark in the league. Another way to look at it is that given that they concede 4.8 of those a game (24 in 5 matches) they are expected to concede almost 1.6 goals per match at this pace. When your offense has just two goals all year, it’s almost impossible to win games with that kind of a recipe for disaster.

Miscellaneous factors

Having covered Schalke from an advanced stats point of view, let’s briefly mention some more factors that are contributing to the team’s disastrous start:

  • Klaas Jan Huntelaar’s gradual decline since his monumental 29 goal season in 2800 minutes in 2011/12 is evident, as he has averaged closer to 2400 minutes and 10-12 goals despite only a ten percent decrease in shots per game (from 3.0 to 2.6ish) and penalty area shots (2.4ish to 2.1ish) Analytically speaking, the likelihood that he had an exceptionally fortunate peak season in 2011/12 fueled by a high conversion rate of 24% and SIX penalties seems quite high. Guys with those kind of numbers, while still not a rarity are not the hardest thing to find, as the last couple of seasons of Salomon Kalou, Sandro Wagner, Anthony Modeste, Claudio Pizarro, Alex Meier, Vedad Ibisevic (all getting into double digits on or around 2-3 shots per match), Shinji Okazaki, Bas Dost, Max Kruse, Haris Seferovic or even *GASP* lord Franco di Santo prove. I’m frankly quite baffled as to why a club of Schalke’s resources has failed to replace him. (no, Breel Embolo so far doesn’t count)
  • Max Meyer is exhausted from the Olympics (averaging 0.4 shots per match so far) and probably a few weeks away from regaining his excellent form last year – taking 35 of your 45 shots from inside the area and getting 23 of them on target is quite remarkable!
  • The injury to Coke has hurt the team, as Junior Caicara and Sascha Riether looked awful so far, with Benedikt Höwedes looking like Schalke’s best right (left, center) back.
  • Bent made a great point on Talking Fussball about Schalke lacking wingers outside of Konoplyanka who has seen just 123 minutes of Bundesliga action this season. Eric-Maxim Choupo Moting leads the team with two dribbles per match, while last year he and Leroy Sané (and in the first three games Julian Draxler) were producing three per match. In 2014/15 there were four guys over two per game – Sidney Sam, Jefferson Farfan, Draxler and Choupo and in the 13/14 season there were six, as Kevin Prince Boateng, Leon Goretzka, Chinedu Obasi and Max Meyer all joined the dribbling party.
  • New signings making costly mistakes: Naldo has averaged 7.3 clearances in his first few Schalke games, and that’s quite problem, that he has career averages of 4.5. With that kind of a workload, he was bound to make some mistakes, and the Eintracht and Bayern games were prime examples of individual errors leading to goals. Unfortunately, with Höwedes having to play RB, they actually need him to play and perform like the solid  Bundesliga veteran that he has been throughout his career. Individual errors by Benjamin Stambouli and Nabil Bentaleb also cost the team in the Hertha and Hoffenheim games at least three goals, and while the initial response to them has been favorable – Stambouli’s work rate has been exceptional and forced Johannes Geis to the bench, and Bentaleb’s passing was on display with a magical assist to Huntelaar against Cologne – there are reports that the team has soured on at least one of them.

So, the summary is that Schalke are actually looking quite decent by most advanced metrics: the total shots ratio charts courtesy of the ChallengersPodcast further shows that with just normal luck based on their metrics, Schalke would be a team with 6-7 goals.Regarding the future, if they can fix the defense by eliminating individual errors and thereby allowing high quality chances, they could make a run at a mid-table finish when they progress to their statistical mean. Their offense, while anemic in the Bundesliga has looked more than competent against two decent European teams (Nice and RB Salzburg) as the XG and passing maps show. nice

So cheer up Schalke fans, I got the solution: just pretend that the Bundesliga = the Europa League! I take checks and credit cards, btw. Thanks for reading!

1 year 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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