Fall fortunes turning around in the spring?

Taking stock of the league and setting up MD23

In order to understand the happenings of Matchday 23 - where for the most part, the picture with the top 4-5 teams has become clearer - and to put things into context, I thought I would take a longer look at the Bundesliga’s season so far. So in this post, I’m going to recap the Hinrunde for all 18 teams, analyzing the issues faced by them in the Rückrunde and on MD 23.

Wide open Bundesliga at the top

Based on the wild and wacky Hinrunde, the Bundesliga as a whole was perhaps enjoying its most interesting and competitive season since 2008\09 when Wolfsburg stormed from 9th place at winter break to win it all. The storylines were endless: surprise leaders Gladbach and RB Leipzig jumping ahead of the curve and becoming title contenders due to serious issues at Bayern and Dortmund. We also saw Leverkusen having both a terrible season (no team underperformed their xG more), yet still be just two points off 4th place, where the rugged pressing Schalke side of David Wagner were sitting tied with BVB. We’re going to get to these teams in the round-up as well, but as they’ve more or less been so dominant since, let’s move to mid table.

Mid table surprises

Hoffenheim were this year’s “no idea what’s going on team” - after a dismal start saw them take 6 points from 6 matches, a 5 game win streak catapulted them up the table. That winning streak started with the superb win against Bayern (2-1 win on MD 7) but by the time they capped of the Hinrunde with a comeback against Dortmund (2-1 on MD 17), TSG managed to lose 4-2 to Augsburg and 5-1 to Mainz, despite playing a man up for 45 minutes in the latter. Meanwhile Alfred Schreuder’s approach to players and their favorite positions was extremely fun for everyone: unless you were Robert Skov (inverted winger to LB), Sebastian Rudy (number 6 to RB - RWB), Kevin Akpoguma (CB to LW), Ihlas Bebou (striker to RWB), Dennis Geiger 8/10 to false 9), etc. I think the only thing missing was to play GK Oliver Baumann at like DM.

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Freiburg’s crazy start (at one point they actually led the league for a few minutes) was matched by Wolfsburg going unbeaten for NINE matches, conceding just 5 goals in the process, so to everyone’s surprised these two teams were 3rd and 4th respectively.

Wolfsburg’s results were matched by good underlying numbers (+3.82 NPXGD was 5th best), while Freiburg’s -2.24 was perhaps a bad omen: their 9 points in the next 8 games were 2 more than VfL, who were still the 3rd best NPXGD team going into the winter break. Freiburg have had a history of doing similar xG weirdness, if you recall their season which eventually resulted in Europa League participation was at -18 goal difference at -17 XGD.

Wolfsburg’s issues can pretty much be chalked up to their goals drying up - Wout Weghorst led them with 2 goals in the 8 games until the break, despite going on a 600 minute goalless drought. Their fortunes began turning around/defense collapsing after the 6-1 shellacking by Leipzig in the cup and scored just 7 goals….

Augsburg and Union who both lost by 4 goals on the opening weekend to Dortmund and Leipzig were pronounced relegation candidates. However, both Urs Fischer and Martin Schmidt have done a nice job of not only recovering, but managing to at times play excellent counterattacking football (Gladbach, Dortmund and Hoffenheim can testify).

Disappointment galore

Hertha Berlin have had a season that can only be talked about in the HSV/Stuttgart/Hannover levels of epic fail, and I think I’ll save myself from writing the 13th article on them.

https://bundesligabulletin.substack.com/p/herthas-klinsmann-gamble-in-context

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After a brilliant start, Frankfurt fell victim to both the #Abeljinx and playing 31 matches from July 25 to Dec 22.

Out with the old, in with the Beierlorzer

Mainz and Cologne both opted for a coaching change, and of course are intertwined by Achim Beierlorzer, who was bizarrely just fired by Effzeh NINE days before taking over at the Zerofives. Although knowing his connections to Rouwen Schröder from his days as the U17 coach at Greuther Fürth where Schröder worked as sporting director, one can understand why he was the preferred candidate over an uninspiring bunch that included Bruno Labbadia and Pál Dárdai, who both said no to the job. Beierlorzer’s next job was at RB Leipzig, rising from the U17 to the U19s and then taking over for the departed Alexander Zorniger 15 games and 21 points in the Rückrunde of 2015. Eventually, he became the co-trainer to Ralf Rangkick and implemented the active, high-pressing RB philosophy with a rather limited Regensburg side to 2. Bundesliga acclaim, so in that sense hiring him at a progressive club like Mainz was perhaps a better decision than going the “fireman”/safe hands route.

No luck for Fortuna

Fortuna Düsseldorf did not manage to go on a 9 points in 6 days type of run this Hinrunde and with the sales of Dodi Lukebakio and Benito Raman were always a candidate to struggle, no matter how many formations (in my Hungarian language team analysis I counted eleven) the wily veteran Friedhelm Funkel was going to try out. That was exacerbated by key injuries to midfield anchor Kevin Stöger (had 148 successful passes into the attacking third, ranking 13th in the Bundesliga) and tricky wide forward Kenan Karaman and the apparent rift between well-traveled sporting director Lutz Pfannenstiel and Funkel over the lack of perceived playing time for Lutz’s new young signings (Kownacki, Ampomah, Tekpetey, Adams) vs. the veteran coach relying on his guys that got him promoted. In Funkel’s defense it was certainly hard to blame 32-year-old Rouwen Hennings, who accounted or 11 of the team’s 18 goals. Without knowing too much of the inner workings of the club it seems like Funkel, who was on the verge of being let go last January, lost the battle vs Pfannenstiel. Incidentally, the former GK is leaving the club at his own request, officially for personal reasons this summer, though one suspects the board might have gotten tired of his transfer failings (Zack Steffen is the one exception), the rift with the beloved Funkel, and F95 being in the spotlight for the wrong reasons. It’s now up to Uwe Rösler, the 51-year-old former German manager of Wigan, Leeds and Malmö, to turn the ship around, despite never managing in the Bundesliga.

Hanging on to coaches in the bottom two

Interestingly enough, the bottom two teams at the winter break hung on to their coaches, which given the amazing jobs Florian Kohfeldt and Steffen Baumgart have done over the years was not that surprising. The idea for Kohfeldt’s team, which figured to make Europa League at least, was to play the type of attacking football Werder fans have grown accustomed to. Whether or not it was the incredible injury luck - at one point they had 12 outfield players hurt -

or the plan of counting on Yuya Osako replacing Max Kruse with some internal improvent (the Eggestein brothers, Rashica, Sargent, etc) and some last-minute veteran additions (Toprak, Langkamp, Bittencourt) bearing fruit, it all went horribly awry. Without wide fullbacks\wingbacks and solid enough CB play and a historically bad Pavlenka season (9 goals below his post shot xG), Werder were in shambles defensively, with set pieces being a major problem: by matchday 11 they had already shipped NINE such goals. Yet, even more surprisingly, they created the league’s worst xG with barely over 17 in 17 matches. Interestingly enough by MD23 they are a net positive in non pen xG diff at home but are -18 in goal difference, leading to just FIVE points at the Weserstadion!

While Kohfeldt and Werder’s football was only so in theory, Baumgart’s and Paderborn’s was at times utterly pleasing in practice as well - see the game against Leverkusen, forcing Hertha to give up 65% possession, the incredible 3-0 first half vs Dortmund. Fact is, with their minuscule payroll and squad value of 33m, they tried to play a style that was as enjoyable as it was risky: their GK stats, that is launches (passes over 40 yards) and average distances are among the lowest with the elite teams like Bayern, Leipzig, Gladbach and Dortmund.

They even attempt short passes (under five yards, so presumably under extreme pressure) at similar volume as the mid table teams, but have the worst completion% at just 27. That leads them to play in their own third, a league high 32% of the time and despite 46.7% possession overall ranking them close to 10th place Werder (49%) they hardly ever get into the opposition box with a league low 89 open play box completions. In terms of direct completions (inside 20 yards) Union is the only team worse than SCP (77 to 84), but on the other end of the spectrum, they allow by far the most at 212, with Hertha’s 172 (at the break this was 153 to Freiburg’s 126).

It would be extremely harsh to blame a team, whose record signing of 1 million once was Kevin Stöger and who had to sell their two best players in the 2. Bundesliga - Tekpetey was recalled by Schalke and sold to Düsseldorf, while Philipp Klement could make 3x the money STAYING in the 2. Liga.

https://bundesligabulletin.substack.com/p/bvb-paderborn-and-all-things-scp07-e9c

Let us not forget that this is a squad comprised of 4th and 5th division attacking players (Streli Mamba, Christopher “Jimmy” Antwi-Adjei, Kai Pröger and Dennis Srbeny was also a 4th division striker before his move to Norwich), 3rd division midfielders (Gjasula and Vasiliadis) and some Bundesliga castoffs young (Drager, Kilian, Huth) and old (Sven Michel) who all came for free. As we discussed with the excellent Paderborn blogger, Jan-Gabriel Hartel, many of these players (Vasiliadis, Collins are locks to stay in the Bundesliga and you can make cases for Strohdiek, Antwi-Adjei and Mamba as well) and Baumgart himself will have certainly put themselves in a great position for their respective futures.

In the next piece, coming out later today/early tomorrow, I’ll examine in the context of breaking down most of MD23’s matches, as to why these trends have reversed and how the top 4-5 has come to separate itself from the rest of the Bundesliga. Stay tuned!

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