The Bundesliga is back - part one, an overview

roundup and thoughts on the title race

Much like the Bundesliga, the regular analysis of the matchday’s events are coming back for this newsletter. As per usual, we’ll start with some big picture implications and work our way down to individual matches, analyzed in depth. The first portion will get us through the matches featuring the top 5, with deeper analysis in part two, focusing on in-depth tactics. Away we go:

2.5 horse race for the title aka Bayern-Dortmund wins and Leipzig drop the ball

Schalke were the actual ghosts of the Ghost Revierderby

Dortmund kicked things off with a way too comfortable win over Schalke, who somehow managed to come out looking worse after the 10 week layoff, despite a 7 match winless streak. Without Reus, Zagadou, Can and Witsel, plus Jadon Sancho replacement Gio Reyna picking up a warmup injury, the off-ball movement and the rotations of the Brand/Hazard/Haaland front three of Favre’s B team outmatched Schalke. We will get into the specifics in the match analysis\tactics section, but suffice to say, Wagner’s new found 343/541 hybrid, which he played vs Hoffenheim and Bayern in the cup after teams blew out his 442 diamond, just put too much pressure on his CBs. With the wingback on wingback approach and Dahoud-Delaney interchanging deep receptions with occasional forward runs, it left BVB’s front 3 vs the rather mediocre Sane/Todibo/Nastasic trio in a ton of space. Couple that with the now customary “Schalke keeper coughs it up under pressure”, the lack of crowd support to aid the stamina/energy levels to get back into this, and this became a laugher early in the 2nd half. More on this game in the breakdown section, in PART 2

Working class hero Pavard works his class in a workmanlike win vs workers club

Bayern were not laughing when they traveled to Köpenick, even if perhaps no team benefited less from the absence of fans as Union Berlin. Die Eiserne were also without Urs Fischer (death in the family) and Sebastian Andersson (knee problems limiting the Swedish target man to just 20 minutes) to start. With the pacy Anthony Ujah leading the line, Union lined up in their customary 523/532 shape. Without the league-leaders in aerials won, Union, who lead the league with 28 won per match, actually lost the battle in the air 21 to 25 . Fun fact: every Bayern starter won an aerial duel, including Manuel Neuer who had TWO!

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The other key to the match was Union’s compact and hard to break down shape, which conceded 68% possession, but held the Bayern juggernaut to 13 shots (3 on target) and 0.7 xG aside from the rather unlucky penalty that Neven Subotic gave away. In the end, FCB came away with an “Arbeitssieg” (workmanlike win) thanks to the heroics of Benjamin Pavard, often teased as being similar to the simple working class movie character Jeff Tuche by his France teammates.

We’ll get into the tactical matchup as well as Union’s plans to thwart Bayern’s attack and the reaction by Hansi Flick’s side in part two.

History repeats itself: Leipzig still “struggling” against Freiburg

I was not among the many people who thought Leipzig would roll over Freiburg, even if the narrative was set up that way: pitting the high-flying, dynamic RB team led by Julian Nagelsmann against the underdog Freiburg, tumbling down the table, but still in 8th due to the poor form of Schalke and Hoffenheim. It’s perhaps easy to forget that SCF, after sitting in 3rd place in late October, had gotten just 19 points from their last 16 matches. In contrast, Leipzig who were then behind Freiburg, had gained 33pts in 16 matches, with Nagelsmann on record as treating this like a 9 game tourney, similar to the Euros. And in that short format, you would probably bet on the best and most versatile Bundesliga coach in the game.

In addition, Werner and co now were getting a lot of their injured players back, albeit their CB trio of Orban\Konate\Upamecano was absent (with the first two close to returning, while Upa was suspended). Kevin Kampl would take up the spot next to Konrad Laimer - Sabitzer started on the bench just like Patrik Schick, who lost out to Yussuf Poulsen. Even if Nagelsmann would get a lot of his weapons back, work in Dani Olmo and get Timo Werner going again, Freiburg under Christian Streich, with lots of time to prepare, were always gonna be tough to break down.

Then there is the history between the two sides.

For one thing SCF have won 3 of their last 4 head to head matches, including in October, forcing Julian Nagelsmann to go on the first of his many rants and resulting in the 8--0 beatdown of Mainz. Interestingly the 3 game stretch against Leverkusen, Wolfsburg and Freiburg then yielded RBL just 2 points, and while they drew against the former two, they again failed to get past SCF with a 1-1 draw. While I understand that it isn’t how it works, but getting 5 points from these 6 games, or just 1 against Freiburg all season, this could well be the difference between being a UCL and a title contender.

Then again, that history Freiburg doing well vs Leipzig goes back further: Streich’s side famously finished ahead of Rangnick’s RBL in the 2. Bundesliga.

It’s probably not news to long-time followers of Bundesliga tactics, but Streich has long been one of the best at matching up to a specific opponent, so much so that a 2013 matchup against Thomas Tuchel’s Mainz was billed as one featuring two tactics nerds by Christian Spiller at die Zeit. It’s ironic how Streich, the outspoken, pedagogical and wonderfully empathetic man-manager, is often described as an antithesis of the Laptop-trainers and thus a polar opposite of Nagelsmann.

It’s funny how the perception is pretty far removed from reality: as the wonderful Tobias Escher pointed out in his season summary for der Spiegel, it was the 54-year-old Streich (and fellow old man river Friedhelm Funkel, since let go by F95), who had made the most formation changes last season in the Bundesliga. Of course, there’s more to tactics (and being a Laptop trainer, whatever that phrase still means) than just switching formations, Streich’s prolonged history of always getting amazing results from a squad that perennially loses their best players, could it be the case, that he might actually be the predecessor of the “Laptop-trainers” like Nagelsmann.

So how did the match turn out?

We’ll get to the tactical breakdown of this one in part two, but it was a strange game: by the numbers Nagelsmann’s team dominated

  • 2.01 xG vs 0.3, with a whopping 63 half space and 27 completed box passes for Leipzig, vs 5 and 8 for Freiburg. Freiburg created 0.04 xG from open play but scored with their lone shot on target via a fluky finish from a corner and were inches away from a Robin Koch (rumored to be moving to Leipzig) winner, ruled out by VAR. By non-shot xG the score would have been 3.4 to 0.6, yet in the end you almost had to feel (perhaps only in the Kahnemanian way of the remembering self having a stronger impact on memory than the experiencing self) that Leipzig “got lucky” not to lose

  • at the same time you felt (perhaps another cognitive bias trick in hindsight) a lack of sharpness in Werner’s decision-making, Nkunku shooting from long-range and not completing a dribble, the ineffectiveness of the Mukiele/Adams right side, Angelino completing just 70% of 85 attempted passes. More importantly, the non-headed finishing by Poulsen and poor Ademola Lookman somehow managing to bungle this superb ball by Kampl from point blank…

    In the end, with Schwolow making 7 mostly brilliant saves, Freiburg held on to the lead for a long time, and Leipzig couldn’t do much after the equalizer.

Gladbach and Leverkusen handle their business

Just very briefly on essentially two blowouts:

When Leverkusen traveled to Bremen, many Werder fans thought of the restart as their last chance to save this season. Instead, Bremen picked up where they left off: a decent 30 minutes defending in a passive 4141\541 (Vogt dropping back) with poor Rashica as a LM and afraid\unable to deal with Leverkusen’s suffocating counterpressing. Although they did manage 6 shots in the first half and Bittencourt could’ve done better (btw check that graph for some NEGATIVE post shot xG for Werder), it’s tough to win games when your 3rd pass on an outlet is always a turnover. Peter Bosz’s team were sitting really pretty before the break: having won 11 of 13 games in 2020, set to face Saarbrücken in the cup semis and halfway past Rangers in the UEL, climbing the Bundesliga table thanks to the spectacular Kai Havertz thriving in his new false 9 role. Kai Havertz’s two headed goals and the HSV\Stuttgart of a few years ago-inspired “defending” of Werder turned this into a dunk\lob fest where any cross = easy headed goal. The other notable moment was Florian Wirtz, a barely 17 yo who 5 months ago was playing at Köln’s U17 team getting a Bundesliga start. He attempted 5 dribbles and displayed a silky smooth first touch, with an overall game\physique reminiscent of Julian Brandt.

Finally, going into the restart, Eintracht were perhaps one of the teams with little to play for, unless you are Martin Keown, who thinks that, despite 538 giving them sub 1% of going down, they are in a relegation battle. At any rate Adi Hütter went on record saying that he basically has no set starting XI and is gonna rotate his players, with ten games left (they play against Werder June 2nd in a makeup game). Well, he didn’t do that much rotation, playing his now customary 4141 (with some asymmetry, as Toure was higher, Ndicka stayed back) against Gladbach. The plan presumably was to match up athletically with Toure and Ndicka against their French counterparts in Thuram\Plea. That worked for 38s or 7 minutes, at which point both Foals strikers had already scored.

The other difficulty was that Eintracht’s best player Filip Kostic was matched up vs perhaps' the Bundesliga’s toughest RB in Stevie Lainer and couldn’t do too much (no, Martin Keown, the solution is not to move him centrally). On the other side, Daichi Kamada played much more centrally. I speculated that this was to limit Elvedi’s passing - Ginter had 56 first half passes to the Swiss CB’s 27 - but it had the following cascading effect: whenever Gladbach were able to switch to the left vs the SGE press, Ramy Bensebaini would have a 2 v 1 with Thuram against Touré with the 2nd goal being exhibit A. In general, guys like Rode, Abraham and Ilsanker looked just physically outmatched and things only improved once Hütter put on André Silva and went to 2 strikers. Having Hasebe as an orchestrator and Chandler as a true wingback (Toure moved to CB) With Gladbach tiring (Thuram and Bensebaini both had cramps), Frankfurt finally managed to double their 0.45 xG in the last 10 minutes. Yet, the tough part is that it took them 80 minutes to get there. With trips to Bayern and Wolfsburg sandwiched against a Freiburg visit to the sadly empty Commerzbank Arena, I might need to write a part two:

In the grand scheme of things, the strong showings of Gladbach and Leverkusen mean that potentially both of them could still spoil the title race. Conveniently - certainly for Leipzig, for whom both are a nuisance and a little too close in the table - they play each other next week, in what’s likely to be one of the better games of the season.

Keep an eye out for part two, coming later this week with deeper tactical analysis of Bayern\Dortmund\Leipzig as well as maybe something on Hertha fading 2.9 xG and winning by 3 goals against the sinking Schreuderballers of Sinsheim.

Thanks for reading,