Bundesliga Bulletin Volume 1 - What the Heidel, kids outsmart Boszball and how Hertha blunted Bayern's attack

Bundesliga Bulletin Volume 1

Headlines: Bayern catch BVB, but the kids outsmart Boszball

A heavily-rotated Bayern side  - Hummels was out with a cold again, Thiago started on the bench alongside Thomas Müller and Kingsley Coman -  did just enough to overcome a highly unpleasant Hertha XI to beat the visitors in the Bundesliga for the first time since September 2016. Yes, as crazy as that sounds the last time FCB overcame BSC, Xabi Alonso and Philipp Lahm were still playing, while the Berlin side gainfully employed legends like Julian Schieber, Sami Allagui and Valentin Stocker, not to mention also starting Alexander “Essias” Esswein and Liverpool ambassador Allan de Souza. There were a couple of reasons for Bayern needing a Javi Martínez header and less than stellar positioning by the usually excellent Rune Jarstein to win 1-0. As a side note, how crazy is that of all people, much-maligned Javi Martínez puts in a MOTM performance vs Liverpool, then wins a game that could decide the Bundesliga title IN THE SAME WEEK? First, the difficulties of Bayern’s ball progression in Kovac’s less than ideal structure have been well-documented and were certainly not helped by not starting Thiago and using Leon Goretzka as a number 6. While some of this is definitely affected by the excellent Hertha press, the difference in progressing the ball into the opposition half, let alone the final third, is simply staggering.

Poor Goretzka even got outdone in successful forward passes in the first half by Javi Martínez 9 to 8, though his halftime substitution was injury-related. In addition, the effect on James’ subdued performance was notable, as he was finally able to do some limited damage in the second half, after being restricted to sideways passes in his own half in the first 45 minutes.

The cascading effects on James’s creativity (though most of his chance creation came from set pieces, including the eventual winner for Javi) and Bayern’s toothless attack were obvious. FCB put up 0.63 XG according to Understat and other models and even though Michael Caley has it at 0.9 XG, it’s still a substandard performance. In fact, it’s the lowest single game XG total since the Gladbach game in the fall (0-3) and worrisome on the back of a sub 0.5 XG outing against Liverpool. On the other hand, Kovac is just gonna take the three points and Uli Hoeness thinks they are ahead of Dortmund.


Hey, Peter, the kids are alright!

Having attended the reverse fixture in late September - Dortmund coming from 0-2 down to steal it 4-2, aka the Jadon Sancho breakout party -  and re-founded the Peter Bosz fan club (aka the Boszwagon) I, along with hardcore Bundesliga fans, was looking forward to the Sunday nite match in the Westfalenstadion (sorry, still not SI Park)


Given the tumultuous few weeks, the absences of Marco Reus, and just as importantly, Lukasz Piszczek, this current iteration of BVB were arguably underdogs against the high-flying Leverkusen, the best side of the Rückrunde. Lucien Favre’s 4-2-3-1 was boosted by the return of the elegant Manuel Akanji, slotting in alongside Dan-Axel Zagadou with Hakimi and Diallo at fullbacks. As the other no. 6 next to Axel Witsel, Julian Weigl would hope to do better than he did against Bayern and show off his once famous pressing resistance and high footballing IQ against the hyperaggressive Boszball of Bayer. Up top, Mario Götze was looking to build on his 6 shot outing vs Nürnberg, while Paco Alcácer was desperate for goals, having been shutout since December 18th. For Leverkusen, Boszball has been about putting all your talented attacking players on the pitch, in a mix of Gegenpressing-inspired dominant positional play that has been able to run over (literally, Bosz’s Bayer runs and sprints more than any other Bundesliga side) the opposition. In the absence of Karim Bellarabi - kicker magazine has him with the best season average - Bosz put all-around wunderkind Kai Havertz as the nominal right winger, while opting to push Charles Aránguiz into the right-sided 8 spot and starting Julian Baumgartlinger as the six. Wendell and Dragovic’s disappointing performances against Krasnodar on Thursday -B04 gave up a plethora of counterattacking chances and crashed out on away goals in the end - meant a chance for Tin Jedvaj to go up against Jadon Sancho (thanks, BOSS!) and Sven Bender to return to his old stomping grounds.

Havertz the man

The key to Bayer’s plan was Kai Havertz, who has mostly been playing as a no. 8 next to the rejuvenated Julian Brandt in midfield, but started the match as a RW. However, with his constant inward movement, he not only opened up the flank for the very attacking-minded Mitchell Weiser, but disrupted Dortmund’s defense in the following ways: If Havertz was inside it meant that Weigl or Witsel would have to shift over, leaving Aránguiz, Brandt or the deep-dropping CF Kevin Volland open and ready to combine quickly for the potential through ball. Weiser’s forward forays needed to be checked by LB Abdou Diallo, while Raphael Guerreiro was forced to defend, not exactly the reason why he’s playing. Dortmund were forced into a “pick your poison” situation:

5 against 4 in the midfield, Weiser can run down the flank, as BVB focus on the middle

BVB defend the flank, Havertz is isolated against Weigl, opening space for Aránguiz in the halfspace

The runs of Brandt and Aránguiz occupy 4 BVB defenders, plus the threat of Weiser takes care of Guerreiro. Havertz can dribble inwards into space and shoot…

The Leverkusen equalizer is a fantastic example of Havertz’s threat and why most experts in Germany think of him as a combination between Michael Ballack and Mesut Özil.

He picks up an innocuous little pass and Dortmund have every single outfield player behind the ball. A dribble into space attracts three BVB shirts (Weigl, Götze and Guerreiro), a one-two with Volland sees him beat Zagadou with the pass, and the layoff to Volland takes care of Witsel and Diallo, Volland is free to shoot through the legs of the recovering Witsel into the near corner.

In addition, the ultra aggressive pressing scheme of Bosz, deploying 7 players in a 20-25 yard area, combined with a brutal counterpress completely thwarted any and every Dortmund attack or counterattack in the first 30 minutes.

“They were better than us,” said Lucien Favre, with customary frankness. He was right. When Dan-Axel Zagadou sidefooted in a corner to give Dortmund a first-half lead, it followed half an hour in which they barely got the ball out of their own half. “That,” sporting director Michael Zorc said with some understatement, “was of course not the plan. At home, you want to attack and you want to dominate.”


Eventually, despite Havertz going 26 of 26 in the attacking third, Dortmund found a fortunate set piece goal (to be analyzed in the mid-week edition) and used Zagadou’s playmaking to break through the press and some excellent finishing by Sancho and Götze gave BVB a 3-1 lead. The best goalkeeper in the Bundesliga, Roman Bürki pulled off 2-3 massive saves late in the game to keep the Bayer rally at bay and Dortmund escaped with 3 points, the cushion against Bayern that they will look to cling to. The result was an improvement over the ones in the last few weeks, but the process as well as the form of Achraf Hakimi, Paco Alcácer and Axel Witsel leave something to be desired, while the injuries to Marco Reus (returned to training Monday) and Lukasz Piszczek still pose lots of question marks for Lucien Favre. For Peter Bosz, it was once again frustration in Dortmund, where a fantastic game plan in the opening half hour was not rewarded, and despite winning the XG battle 1.26 to 1.07, the best team of the Rückrunde, had to settle for zero points against Dortmund.


Leipzig vs Hoffenheim - a deserved draw in El Pieceofpaperico

Of course Leipzig themselves are eminently familiar with taking no points against BVB, despite playing well in both matches. Ralf Rangnick’s side hosted his future manager Julian Nagelsmann in the Monday night fixture and while in the Hinrunde match it was the bespectacled pressing pope who outcoached the 31-year-old by mirroring Hoffenheim’s 3-4-3 shape, this time Nagelsmann pulled the surprise. Instead of the 3-4-3, he lined up not in a regular 4-3-3, as Rangnick’s 3-5-2 expected, but put the dynamic Joelinton in a man-oriented marking scheme on RBL deep-lying playmaker Diego Demme. That stifled Leipzig’s buildup and the home side were held to 0.08 XG in the first half, with Rangnick adjusting his tactics in the 36th minute by pushing Stefan Ilsanker next to Demme in midfield and then finally replacing the Austrian with American Tyler Adams at the no. 6. Nagelsmann used Florian Grillitsch in the customary “defensive mid role drops back into 3rd CB role (aka the Kevin Vogt)” and looked ready to steal three points after an aggressive pressing trap and some poor RBL structure forced a stolen ball by Joelinton The Brazilian with Belfodil and Kramaric finished the 3 on 2 to give the visitors the lead. Rangnick must have given one of his famous halftime speeches and with the deployment of Marcel Sabitzer on the right wing and the introduction of Kevin Kampl for the leading outfield player in minutes in Diego Demme (1973) unleashed a 6 to 1 shots barrage in the first 15 minutes of the second half. However, quantity appeared to have come at the cost of quality and the best chance was a Willi Orban set piece in the 53rd minute that Baumann dug out brilliantly. Rangnick’s switch to 4-2-2-2 with Adams and Kampl deep gave Leipzig some much needed structure and enabled its fullbacks to attack\cross.

In the final 15 minutes, a veritable Hungarian Bundesliga party ensued: Ádám Szalai looked to have won it with an 84th minute header, but his countryman Péter Gulácsi produced a stunning save. Not to be outdone, the newest member of the Hungarian NT, Willi Orban decided to venture forward in the 88th, catching all the TSG defenders off-guard and saving one point for the hosts. It was a big wasted opportunity to pull ahead of Gladbach for third place, but based on the second 45 minutes, Leipzig definitely had done enough to earn a point. With the hitherto goalless in 2019 Timo Werner missing the game due to a cold, Leipzig, who have allowed 20 goals in the league (five fewer than second place BVB)  will need a second goalscorer if they are to grab that third spot. So far in the Rückrunde only Yussuf Poulsen has scored more goals (4 to 3) than Willi Orban, but that’s probably not the way to go in terms of sustainability. One suspects Rangnick would rather see some goals from Matheus Cunha (completed 2 of 6 passes in an awful first half) or Jean-Kevin Augustin, who at least looked dangerous. For the league’s chance creating and XG kings, Hoffenheim, it was their 10th draw and another what could have been game in a season full of so many. The win could have closed the gap to the UCL spots to just five points, while this draw puts them in the bottom of the 5-8 race with the pesky Wolfsburg, the lethal Frankfurt (their opponents next week) and the surging Leverkusen side.


Tactical corner - Hertha’s flexible man-marking stifles Bayern

  1. Pál Dárdai’s aggressive man marking scheme and formational flexibility with a couple elite counterattacking players is HARD to play against, even for his once Hertha BSC teammate Niko Kovac.

This is the base setup of Hertha in a 5-2-2-1 that uses athletic wingbacks Valentino Lazaro and Maxi Mittelstadt to press up on Bayern’s elite fullbacks, Kimmich and Alaba, in a 3-4-3 shape. The risk that Dárdai takes with this high press is that his 3 central defenders are 1v1 in half the field vs the trio of Gnabry, Lewandowski and Ribéry:

Niklas Stark on the right has all kinds of athleticism and is courted by Bayern, while Karim Rekik, despite his hot temperament resulting in occasional red cards (exhibit A, this Saturday) can deliver some excellent line-breaking diagonal passes through the center.

In the absence of ultra-athletic LB/LCB hybrid Jordan Torunarigha, who due to his recovery speed and ability to play fullback, allows Mittelstadt the LWB and Lustenberger to get forward, Hertha’s defense hinges a lot more on the flexibility of Fabian Lustenberger. The 30-year-old has 3 caps for Switzerland and used to be Hertha’s captain until Dárdai opted for Vedad Ibisevic in 2017. To his credit, Lustenberger who played in midfield alongside his coach in 25 games in the 2007/08/09 seasons, never complained.

After not offered a new contract, he is set to leave BSC after 12 years of service in the summer for Young Boys on a free, but he has definitely not been mailing it in. Having already logged over 1600 minutes, the most since 2015\16, Lusti has been a key contributor for Hertha this season due to his positional versatility. Against the ball he often drops into the center of the defense as the third central defender (even under former manager Jos Luhukay).

On Saturday, he managed to contribute heavily to the shutting down of Robert Lewandowski, who was dispossessed a whopping EIGHT times and won just 38% of his duels, while Lustenberger was successful 64% of the time and Stark pitched in with 75%. In fact, all Hertha defenders completed at least four tackles and the visitors ended the match with THIRTY successful ones, nearly doubling their season average of 16 and the fourth highest mark on the season in any game:


Given that they played Bayern and had 35% possession for most of the game (much of this in transition) sustained build-up play was never gonna be their calling card.

As a result, Lustenberger was only able to step up to the no 6. position a few times.

One of the fun things about the Bundesliga is that there are tons of guys like “Lusti” who can heavily influence games even against the best of teams like Bayern.

Heidel OUT at Schalke

This was not the way it was supposed to go for Christian Heidel, widely regarded as the best sporting director of the Bundesliga in the past twenty years. Initially working from the offices of his car dealership, Heidel ended up taking lowly Mainz from the dregs of the 2. Bundesliga to Europe in his 24 year reign. He did so while uncovering coaching gems such as Klopp (I mean who would have been out of the box enough to give the veteran defender the coaching job in the middle of the season?) or Tuchel and making the self-described Karnivalverein (carnival club - initially a mocking moniker describing an insignificant small club that Mainz have now made into a big part of their identity) not just a household name in the Bundesliga, but perhaps its best run operation. From buying low and selling high on the Bruchweg boys of Ádám Szalai, André Schürrle) to the sales of Johannes Geis, Shinji Okazaki, Nico Müller, Yunnus Malli deals, Heidel and Mainz became synonymous with shrewd business deals, but as Mathew Burt points it it was always more than that:

“It is not just a ‘buy low, sell high’ policy run by Heidel. The scouting network is top-class, as is the club’s own academy designed to produce talent from within (à la André Schürrle).

Heidel is very skilled in the minutiae of the transfer system and the little tricks and loopholes that exist. Schürrle may have been sold to Leverkusen for €8.5 million, but his subsequent sale to Chelsea meant that thanks to Heidel, he probably brought Mainz closer to €15 million in profit.

Since his appointment Heidel has been partly responsible for increasing the annual turnover from around €3 million (1992) to an estimated €78 million (2014). Those figures also take into account overseeing the move from the 20,000 capacity Bruchweg Stadium to the new 34,000 capacity Coface Arena in 2011.”


Heidel possessed that rare leadership ability to delegate in areas where his competence was lacking - scouting was not really his forté, as he freely admits to Raphael Honigstein in the excellent Bring the Noise - a Klopp biography that if it ever was turned into a movie, Heidel would probably be in consideration for best supporting actor.  Schalke was supposed to be the logical step up and a chance to bring order to one of the Bundesliga’s notoriously disorderly clubs. The Markus Weinzierl hire was not one would call a successful, but as we know from the Jörn Andersen reign - Heidel pulled the trigger on the poorly-communicating Dane after a month and promoted U19 coach Thomas Tuchel and the rest is history - Heidel realizes his mistakes and fixes them fast, as was the case with the appointment of Domenico Tedesco.

The former Mercedes Benz engineer and first Stuttgart then later Hoffenheim youth coach was plucked from the relative obscurity of Erzgebirge Aue, where an 11 game sample size at the 2. Bundesliga level and of course finishing ahead of Julian Nagelsmann in the football coaching course was enough for Heidel to give him a chance. That magical Schalke season of 2017\18 of course began by Heidel taking some heat from the ultras, but nobody cared about the less than aesthetically pleasing football that Tedesco often employed because the Gelsenkirchen side comfortably finished SECOND behind Bayern. While there is an element of revisionist history in interpreting that statistical outlier of a season - the 10\10 penalties, the 25+ set piece goals and outperforming the expected points value of 52 to the tune of 63 points are nothing to sneeze at - that runner-up finish probably had at least as much to do with Tedesco’s magic (affectionately titled as “shithousery” by Schalke fan-Twitter) as the messes at Dortmund (Stöger-Bosz), Leipzig (Hasenhüttl’s trying second season, the sale of Keita and the European burden), the collapse of Leverkusen down the stretch (blowing the UCL qualification after missing last minute chances and then conceding vs Hannover of all teams after the 90th minute) and Hoffenheim’s miserable midseason (15 pts in 16 games from the end of November to March 1st).

Still, the church of Tedesco was in many ways built by Heidel, whose signings reflected an interesting approach as Lars Pollmann points out in his piece:he hit on the bargain aisle purchases  - Naldo who shone in his first season and Daniel Caligiuri both looked done at Wolfsburg, while the additions of Bastian Oczipka and Guido Burgstaller and Mark Uth on a free meant that the quintet cost less than 9 million - and the Salif Sané (the next time he breaks a pressing line with a pass will be the first - Benjamin Stambouli (forever known as the handsome French king of PACKING),

Amine Harit (whatever we think of his attitude) 7-8 million buys are definitely defensible. And nobody complained when Schalke actually got some money (80 million) for their youth players in Leroy Sané and Thilo Kehrer, the latter a last minute fleecing of PSG with less than year left on the young defender’s deal. However, not being able to get $$ for the inevitable departures of Max Meyer and Leon Goretzka is certainly partially on Heidel.

However, when it comes to bigger money investments, the results have been poor: 30 million on the mercurial dribbling genius known as Nabil Pentaleb (Bentaleb) and Yevhen “5 million Euros per year gets you all kinds of ball progression and all the bad shots you can eat” Konoplyanka was somehow topped by the 42 million on the “Artist Formerly Known As Sebastian Rudy” (that joke was painful for me to write) Suat Serdar (from Mainz of all places) and Omar Mascarell who have through injury or suspension have combined to provide no solution in central midfield and LB Hamza “FIFA strategy in real life = put me as a forward, because i’m fast” Mendyl. Altogether Heidel has shelled out 154 million Euros during his tenure, while netting a minus of 38 million and is currently overseeing a Schalke team that has 23 points in as many matchdays, the worst since 1982/83.

It was easier to forgive the excommunication of Bennie Höwedes by Tedesco when the team made it to the UCL, but despite Naldo’s all-Bundesliga debut season, his woeful displays resulted in an excision from the starting XI by the German-Italian head coach. The subsequent quick sale to Monaco in the winter left a bitter taste in the mouth of the majority of Schalke fans and the choice of Alexander Nübel, who is better with his feet than the last Identifikatsfigur Ralf Fährmann at the goalkeeper position again didn’t help matters. Of course were Schalke fighting for the UCL spots, probably those critics would be a lot less vocal, but that’s not where we are: Heidel actually announced his decision to step down from his post on Friday night to Tedesco and the news dropped after the lifeless display in a 3-0 loss to Mainz (oh the irony!!) that Tedesco called “the worst day of his career”. Critics like the always available Lothar Matthaus and Sky’s Schalke reporter Dirk Schlarmann were ready to dunk on Heidel for “selling out the club’s identity for a fancy looking product” - a veritable death sentence for a club whose identity is derived from the blue collar mining town of Gelsenkirchen.

The fallout of course will hit Tedesco particularly hard and one might have a hard time seeing him last past this season, with no European competition in sight (barring something silly in Manchester and onwards) seeing as the charismatic chairman Clemens Tönnies, whose relationship with Heidel has deteriorated (well, duh obviously) over this season, is up for reelection this summer. The favorites for Heidel’s jobs are the freshly fired Leverkusen lifer duo of Michael Reschke - let go by Stuttgart as a means of chairman Wolfgang Dietrich to save some face instead of firing another Reschke hired coach in Markus Weinzierl - and his protege Jonas Boldt, the babyfaced scouting hotshot that is happy to take all the credit for discovering Arturo Vidal and was the man on the ground for B04’s South American connections. His tremendous upward career path, from intern to sporting director in over a decade at Leverkusen, took a major hit last fall.  Boldt’s reputation has suffered significantly in the wake of his under the table business practices that were uncovered by Spiegel and explained by the excellent Niklas Wildhagen, to the point where B04 elected and Boldt’s mentor Rudi Völler to go with Simon Rolfes. It seems like Schalke are reluctant to offer him the director of football job outright, but his scouting experience and network could definitely come in handy and together with the experience of Reschke it makes some sense. Of course, the bar is set exceptionally low, given the other candidates out there: Horst Heldt or Magath comebacks are a hard NEIN. Given the curious timing of Heidel’s resignation - most Bundesliga clubs are already done with the scouting for the summer transfer window, many have often finalized deals (see the deals of Süle, Goretzka, Pavard to Bayern all done before March) by now - it will likely be a while that the next director of football and his staff gets a real crack at Schalke, with presumably a new coach.

Stats All-Star of the Week: Vinny Grifo

After two and a half wasted seasons at Gladbach and Hoffenheim soon to 26-year-old Vincenzo #freeVinny Grifo is back at Freiburg on loan. The Pforzheim born Italian who was working as a car mechanic while playing at Karlsruhe was discovered by Hoffenheim but bounced around at Dynamo Dresden and FSV Frankfurt, where Freiburg took note of his 7 goals and 9 assists. What followed was a torching of  the 2.Bundesliga - 14 goals and 15 assists in the season where Christian Streich’s squad beat out RB Leipzig for the league title in 2015\16. He continued his mix of devastating set pieces, amazing vision and key passes and exquisite shooting in the Bundesliga with 6 goals and 11 assists and 2.5 KPs per 90 on a team that was largely built on his creativity and Maxi Phillipp’s finishing (cue to Dortmund fans looking sad).

The dreaded Understat radar comp (sorry analytics people, I have sinned!) is worthy of a fun little what if between Grifo and the fairly successful jump that Ingolstadt’s Pascal Gross made to Brighton and the EPL. Since then, Grifo was given no meaningful minutes under Dieter Hecking (782 to be exact, but even I can’t remember his three assists) and Nagelsmann (337 minutes, the most memorables were the ones in which he put up lots of shots against a confused Leverkusen defense and a complete no-show in a rare start against Bayern where he got hooked after 51 minutes) making his lone Italy call-up all the more bizarre. Eventually, Grifo was sent out on loan to Freiburg during the Hoffenheim winter cleanup. In the five games since, his contract didn’t allow him to appear vs TSG on Matchday 19, he’s got 2 goals and 2 assists with over 3 shots and key passes per 90 and is sporting a career best XG chain of 0.8 via Understat.

When you see these kind of passes and the general creativity that is sorely lacking on a Freiburg team that relies on his or Gian Luca Waldschmidt’s ability to make something happen, you can understand that Hoffenheim have NOT included a clause for Freiburg to purchase. The TSG sporting director Alexander Rosen was adamant in his Monday interview that the team definitely has Grifo in his plans, which after the departure of Julian Nagelsmann to Leipzig are sort of up in the air. It will be interesting to see if the heavily rumored Marco Rose\Rene Maric coaching duo can rub its magic on Grifo, who is another one of the incredibly fun to watch players in the Bundesliga.

More to come later this week,