Why Schalke are still the worst team in the Bundesliga

an updated analysis\send off to David Wagner

With David Wagner’s sacking, I thought it would be a good idea to revisit\make public\update a piece I wrote on Schalke’s performance issues and dive into some of the underlying problems, (personnel issues and injuries xG regression on player and team level and on offense, game state luck reversing, set piece xG reverting, their pressing collapsing, lower intensity tactical adjustments and being “figured out”) all of which are still there in various forms. So let’s start with that and you can find the original piece from June in PART 2

Part 1: 2020\21 is not the same old Schalke, it’s actually worse

  1. Personnel:

While it is tempting to think of Schalke as the same team that went winless since a fine MD 18 performance against Gladbach, they really aren’t. One reason is the off-field financial problems: Schalke are also 200m or so in debt, so they were forced into selling Weston McKennie (it’s a loan to buy for Juve), couldn’t extend the loan deal of Jonjoe Kenny, nor give a new deal to Daniel Caligiuri and let Alexander Nübel go on a free to Bayern, while Michael Gregoritsch (who wasn’t lighting the world on fire) returned to Augsburg. The last-minute Ibisevic\Paciencia striker duo meant a new forward was starting. That is in addition to a brand new right side (Rudy as a makeshift RB with Boujellab and Matondo in front of him) and the returnees, who as ESPN’s Archie Rhind-Tutt points out have no reason to play for Wagner.

The once legendary Ralf Fahrmann, who barely played just 201 minutes on loan for two different teams last season looks exactly like a GK who needs to shake off some rust. He is already reportedly getting competition from Fredrik Ronnow, who Eintracht looks to trade for Markus Schubert, with the latter’s Schalke career reportedly just about over.

  1. In terms of game state luck, well unlike in the early parts of last season, they are just always behind:

  1. Set Piece luck changing: according to StatsPerform’s season analysis, Schalke finished w 9 SP goals for from 8.6 xG. With a total of 135 SP shots, we know that after scoring 3 on their first 18 shots (17%) they went 6 goals for their next 89 attempts (6%). Overall, Wagner’s team ended up conceding 16 goals from 13.7 set piece xG against, finishing with a - 7 set piece goal difference. In 2020\21 they have already shipped 2 set piece goals, in addition to conceding 5 from open play, both the worst marks in the league.

  2. Pressing worries: in the 2 matches so far, Schalke are continuing to show a lack of pressing intensity, as they have a 12.62 PPDA vs 9.97 spot last year (in this stat there was a negligible difference between the Hin and Rückrunde). In an admittedly small sample size of 2 matches, they have 16 attacking third pressures and 52 in the middle third, comfortably the fewest in the Bundesliga per fbref.com. For comparison, they recorded the third and seventh most pressure events in the attacking and middle third respectively. In terms of personnel, Benito Raman, Guido Burgstaller and Daniel Caligiuri were all in the top 30 last season for attacking third pressures. Caligiuri, who formed the right side of the diamond, is now on Augsburg and was last seen once again destroying Dortmund’s faint title hopes. Last season he had the second most successful pressures with 222 behind RB Leipzig’s machine, Konrad Laimer.

    Although he now plays deeper in a number six role, Nabil Bentaleb’s best season in terms of middle third pressures was 170 in 20 matches, well below the numbers of Serdar, McKennie, and Mascarell last season in similar minutes.

In fairness to Bentaleb, he did lead Schalke with 21 attempts and 7 successful pressures vs Bayern.

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The good news for Schalke is both Paciencia and Uth are in the 90th percentile among forwards in successful pressures, and they succeed about 27% vs the 24% rate of Burgstaller\Raman.

The bad news is that as we saw vs Bayern, they often did not get much support:

https://bundesligabulletin.substack.com/p/the-5-ways-bayern-beat-schalke

  1. In terms of the tactical system, it’s no longer that 4 diamond 2 that Wagner rolled with early last season.

As a result of the incredibly poor run and meager pressing, we already saw Wagner retreating into a timid\conservative 4231, which is just code for 5221 with Mascarell (or McKennie post-COVID) dropping deep into the back line. As explained above, they have trouble generating turnovers for chances, while the hot runs of Serdar and Harit which fueled their early success have ended via injury\poor form. It’s plausible that the versatile Rudy at RB is a downgrade to Kenny, as well.

That’s a problem, since this team is just not set up to play from behind. For one even Benjamin Stambouli, once a promising and pass-heavy DM\3rd CB hybrid under Tedesco is now a below-average LCB who is easily pressed and still lacks speed to catch up to strikers. What’s more Schalke lacking a left-footed CB (could use Oczipka, who is by far also their best progressive ball carrier, there if they had any fullbacks) creates massive problems playing out as seen below:

Neither Salif Sane, nor Ozan Kabak are good passers: both struggle under any duress, are slow decision-makers (Kabak is a good dribbler) but also just hang long balls in the air in simple spots. For comparison, in 9 matches Juan Miranda (who did play some fullback too) had similar progressive passes (advancing 10 yards) as Kabak (77 to 75), despite the Turkish CB playing 20 matches.

Schalke’s reliance on fullbacks progressing the ball via passing was insane as we see below.

So putting it all together, you’ve got a team in serious financial mess - they probably hung to Wagner because it was too expensive to fire him - with no real way of upgrading the squad. As shown above, this is a team that has failed Wagner (as much as he failed Schalke) in all aspects of the game: the players don’t seem to be playing hard for him, their pressing is ineffective, they’re no longer tactically interesting and were never about generating tons of chances. In addition to individual player performances dropping (Harit, Serdar, CBs), there is the added challenge of a mixed roster with unclear agendas (the returnees).

Best of luck to Manuel Baum and the legend that is Norbert Elgert, they’ll certainly need it!

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PART 2: The piece from June on why Schalke are the worst team in the Bundesliga

This piece examines the monumental collapse of Schalke 04 - a team once tied for 2nd place this season after the first 6 games . They have arguably been the worst Bundesliga team of 2020, with 8 points from 13 matches tied for the league worst with Paderborn. The starting point is my end of September article for Statsbomb (when they were on 13 points after 6 games), in which I praised the addition by subtraction approach (Bentaleb, Rudy, Fahrmann, Embolo, etc) of S04 and David Wagner. The early success was in my estimation due to their aggressive approach against the ball spearheaded by Burgstaller that, alongside clever match plans (using Matondo as SS vs Leipzig), the internal development of Serdar and Harit. Of course some good fortune did not hurt - things like 2 own goals by Hertha CBs, long-range and set piece goals and last-minute Harit winners - and S04 ended up going about 6 points over expectations. Their next 11 Hinrunde matches yielded 17 points, and they were tied on 30 points with rivals Dortmund. Still, there is ample evidence that Schalke’s “luck” just continued: those 17 points came vs 11 expected, with a +1 goad difference and negative 2 non penalty xG difference, with 4 key wins vs Augsburg\Union\Frankfurt\Werder where Schalke registered 4 xG vs 6 xG conceded but got all 12 points via one goal victories. The last hurrah was on matchday 18, a 2-0 beating of Gladbach which I covered here.

Since then, Schalke has gone 0-5-7 and got just 5 points (vs about 11 expected to be fair) from 12 games scoring 4 goals and shipping 26 and earning some serious HSV vibes. The major difference of course is that due to the aforementioned hot streak in the Hinrunde, they simply have too many points (and too many teams to “pass” on the way down) to be involved in the relegation battle. In this analysis, I’ll cover the main reasons for the collapse, such as:

-personnel issues and injuries

-xG regression on player and team level and on offense

-game state luck reversing, set piece xG reverting

-their pressing collapsing, lower intensity

-tactical adjustments and being “figured out”

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Injuries and personnel problems

One of the understated reasons for Schalke’s early success was their injury luck: until they lost Salif Sane and Benjamin Stambouli in late October\early November they had a full squad.

Their best passing CB, Stambouli is yet to return, while their DM turned 3rd CB in buildup Omar Mascarell suffered a season-ending injury in late February. Weston McKennie and Ozan Kabak have both missed at least 5 matches, but are not on the above image, due to having recovered. Losing the 12 Rückrunde goals due to the recent injuries to Harit and Serdar that happened post-lockdown also did not help. While the aforementioned cutting down of the squad in the summer was a plus (addition by subtraction), now you can seen the downside of the smaller squad. Essentially, Schalke had 16 players playing 800+ minutes (plus winter transfer Michael Gregoritsch who has that matchday 18 goal to show for his 713 minutes) which is similar to fellow mid-table sides who don’t play in Europe like Freiburg or Hoffenheim. What’s different is that those injuries happened to:

A. the spine of the team (Mascarell, Stambouli, Sané-Kabak) thus forcing to play makeshift defenses

B. in front of two shaky keepers - at this point you could just flip a coin between Nübel and Schubert and it would not matter or go like this:

In terms of data, if you recall I did a finding the best GK piece with the help of Aidan Reagh, in November, which had Alexander Nübel among the better goalies by the actual vs xG conceded metric.

By now, both he and deputy Markus Schubert have dropped back to being net zero keepers in the Post shot xG model of fbref.com:

While the data seems to rate the two Schalke keepers highly, one would be hard-pressed to find anybody in Gelsenkirchen happy with the departing Nübel, or Schubert, who is reportedly set to be loaned out this summer. At any rate, Schalke are actively looking for a starting GK next season with Lokomotiv Zagreb’s Ivo Grbic, former Sevilla and current PSG keeper Sergio Rico, Mark Flekken of Freiburg or Zack Steffen of Düsseldorf among the candidates.

C. their main goal contributors like Harit and Serdar, responsible for 12 of their 29 goals in the Hinrunde, who also regressed

Regression

Those 29 Hinrunde goals came on 21.5 xG and the main overperfomers were Harit and Serdar, who came crashing down both in terms of output volume and efficiency:

That’s the bad news, but as you probably guessed from the whole 4 goals scored in 12 games thing, there’s been no one to pick up the slack either. Weston McKennie leads Schalke with 2 goals on 1.35xG, while the only other player to register over 1 xG is Michael Gregoritsch, who is scoreless vs 2.3 expected. While that is probably down to some underperformance, it’s not as if Schalke are gangbusters offensively in terms of volume. Thanks to that early hot streak, they are 0.2 xG ahead of F95 for the least prolific attack in the league (31.9 to 31.7). Yet, the recent offensive metrics of 9.3 shots per are on par with the Darmstadt-Hertha teams while the 0.67xG produced per match in that 12 game stretch is so anemic that prorated for 34 games (23 xG) it’s worse than any other attack in the last 6 Bundesliga seasons.

Luck reversion on set pieces and game state

As I mentioned above, Schalke’s regression happened on a player and team level, but in game state\luck as well. Following the theory of my Statsbomb argument - Schalke were really good (or lucky) at not going behind\playing from even or ahead - we can dig deeper and investigate how they do in various different game states via Understat’s (imperfect) model:

as you can see when the score is tied Schalke are basically a net zero shots and xG team, but have a 20-15 goal difference, enough to have won those 4-5 close games by a 1 goal margin.

For comparison, Eintracht are +7 in shots and basically even in xG when the score is tied, but have scored 15 and shipped 23 for a minus 8 goal difference, enough to lose 4 close games in the Hinrunde vs Freiburg\Wolfsburg\Mainz and of course our very own Schalke 04. Currently, S04 sit on 38 points, 3 ahead of the Eagles, despite Eintracht sporting 44.74 xPTS vs the 32.73 for the Royal Blues….

Set pieces and penalties regressing to the mean

In the Statsbomb piece, I also mentioned Schalke scoring 3 times from their first 18 set piece shots, a mix of luck (they were 11th in terms of generating set piece xG per match) and really well-designed set plays. From memory I can think of the near post flicks vs Leipzig, setting picks for the aerially dominant Sané and Kabak to score in other Hinrunde matches. Anyhow, since such initial success, Schalke have scored 5 times on their next 80 attempts which is tied with Mainz and Werder for the fewest set piece goals in the Bundesliga! In addition, Schalke have drawn and converted just one penalty this season after leading the league with 7 and 10 in the previous two campaigns, while also conceding 6 pens, the second most behind Hertha.

Suffice it to say, those days of the Tedesco teams scoring 16 set piece goals and 10 penalties and winning 9 games by 1 goal are long gone I’m afraid and Wagner’s team has gotten smacked in the face by regression.

Tactical tweaks not working, intensity dropping

If I had to choose one reason why Wagner and Schalke had so much initial success, I would chalk it up to the intensity and organization of their press. In order to establish the intensity of the press, lots of people use stuff like sprints or PPDA, though in our case neither is particularly helpful as Schalke had the following numbers:

  • first 6 games: 11.5 PPDA wasn’t actually super aggressive, with 231 sprints on average, though the 18.28 PPDA vs Bayern probably skews this somewhat

  • 7.8 PPDA until MD 18 - sprints average = 240

  • in the 12 losses since they had a 9.95 PPDA -with a 232 sprints average

  • essentially they are the third most intense press (behind Leverkusen and Bayern) in the 12 game winless streak

Of course WHERE you press also matters, so I’ve decided to look at pressures in the middle vs. final third in those 3 different periods:

  • in the first 6 games they amassed 92.3 middle third pressures and 42.16 final third pressures per match

  • between MDs 7 and 18 where they outperformed expectations they had match averages of 80 middle third pressures and 42.75 in the final third

  • in their current 12 game winless run, those numbers are down to just 74 in the middle third (despite a season’s best 144 vs Dortmund in the Revierderby) and 30 in the final third

While you can see the drop-off in intensity - further supported by the reported loss of 3kms covered per match, which David Wagner himself named as one of the 6 reasons for this current run of form - organization and thus tactics surely have to be called into question. Curiously, the games in which Schalke racked up 100+ middle third and 50+ final third pressure numbers are their heaviest defeats - Leipzig, Dortmund and recently Augsburg punishing what was surely a lack of organization.

Of course the previously mentioned factors - missing the spine of the team, lack of individual skills from Harit and Serdar rescuing them, the goals and xG regression from an overperformance, some GK blunders, intensity and set pieces no longer really giving the edge - should be looked at hand in hand with HOW Wagner tries to play.

That brings us to the tactics, which as we mentioned, previously successfully relied on a game plan based on aggressive pressing in the 4-4-2 diamond, quick counter attacks to essentially keep the score level or take the lead quickly. When that faltered in the spring, there was very clearly no plan B, and even when Wagner desperately switched to five at the back against Hoffenheim and then in several post-restart matches, it lacked bite up front.

Eventually, many teams decided to just concede possession to Schalke, and press their disorganized buildup which sans Stambouli lacked a ball progressor via passing. With Harit drifting to the wings and Serdar sometimes pushing way too far up, it gave birth to such monstrosities as this 4-1-5 structure, where poor McKennie was all alone:

Their diamond having been blasted by Bayern and Leipzig in the early Rückrunde matches, Wagner turned to the 5-2-3 in the Revierderby. As mentioned in a previous post, this asked a lot of their CBs and was stretched by Dortmund’s interchanging front three.

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The brief return to a 4231\442 diamond at least saved further embarrassment, but Schalke couldn’t function as the possession team vs Augsburg, who took the lead via a quick free kick goal and then gave Schalke 71%, knowing full well that Schalke won’t be able do much with it. They were right as S04 had 5 box entries total. Against, Fortuna Schalke sat deep in a 541 block and had 4 box entries, but just 32% of the ball, as their press wasn’t able to achieve much. They had 60 pressures in their defensive third vs 74 in the middle and final third combined. I’m not sure it’s possible to explain the first 20 minutes of the match vs Schalke, unless Wagner was experimenting with the ole 3-7-0 formation and 18% possession. It was supposed to be a 3421 but CF Gregoritsch and Matondo were so incredibly deep that LWB Juan Miranda was the furthest guy forward.

Surely, at least against Union Berlin, a team who has been just as bad since the restart, they would do much better? Well, the first half ended 2.15 xG to 0.05 against Schalke, but thanks to Jonjoe Kenny’s rocket, the teams were tied at 1-1. Salif Sané ended up reprising his H96 number six role, Schöpf struggling to carry the ball forward as the left-sided 8 while Matondo was on top of the diamond. Overall, it mostly just resulted in hopeful long balls to Gregoritsch and Raman, who had no impact, much like the whole Schalke team who finished with 0.2 xG.

Where do they go from here?

Well, the bad news is that despite the on field disaster, off the field, Schalke are also in a crisis. Having been identified as one of the 13 clubs threatened by insolvency if the league did not finish, Schalke are now 200 million Euros in debt, forcing them to basically not be able to extend any expiring players and loan deals:

In addition, thanks to an ill-worded marketing fiasco, they had to fire CFO Peter Peters, after 27 years of service. It started out innocently, as, just like other Bundesliga teams, Schalke asked their season ticket holders to allow the club to postpone repayment of the funds (due to not attending matches because of COVID-19) until 2022. In fact, according to this official letter, the club were quite literally saying “Explain to us in detail, WHY YOU NEED THE MONEY NOW!”

It prompted a major shitstorm and caused 11Freunde’s excellent and usually reserved Christoph Biermann to name them “the new HSV”. I guess they can take solace in the cliche: “if you hit rock bottom, the only way to go is up”….

Thanks for reading, and let me know if you would prefer the match analyses or more team-focused pieces like this one. Take care,

Abel