First, more on Maurizio Sarri, whose quotes I highlighted last week. He studied statistics at university and collects data on every team he coaches. He is one of us stat-guys according to a friendly translation of this Sky article. His key stats: how high his defensive line is, how often his defenders pass the ball to playmakers, how often midfielders play vertical completions compared to how often they lose the ball, and then he lets his forwards roam free (“like a baby” in what is a serious head-scratcher of an Italian saying). If interested you can read a preseason profile of Sarri and Napoli in English here. Once again, go Sarri and go Napoli, and don’t concede 2 in 2 minutes again.
The big story in Europe this week was the clash of two of Europe’s best and toughest teams at the Allianz Arena as Bayern hosted Leverkusen. It was an entertaining and fascinating game that wound up as a solid 3-0 win for Bayern. Let’s take a look.
If you are reading this on mobile, I’d advise you to read the words now, then come back later on a computer because you won’t be able to use the Tableau tools near the bottom of the piece on your phone.
Leverkusen press doesn’t get to Bayern
Leverkusen eased off their frenetic pressure a bit at the end of last season, seeing opponents complete well over 70% of their passes after nearing the 60% mark in November. In their first 4 games this year, they were back at full speed: 56% passing from Hoffenheim, 62% from Hannover, and a steamrolling of Lazio. They tried to hassle Bayern with that same high pressure, but the champions coped magnificently. Bayern O v Leverkusen D is the red line way to the right here, with Leverkusen’s first two games well to the left. This shows Bayern were barely hassled in their own half.
Leverkusen’s press tries to keep you from stopping and catching your breath. Only 25% of passes went backwards against them in the first two games (only Schalke had a lower rate, thanks to facing Darmstadt). You also generally can’t go over the top of the defense, no one was tougher to complete 20+ yard forward passes against (24% completion rate coming into Saturday). So you wind up having to struggle forward using short passes with red shirts buzzing everywhere. Bayern both went over the top and found space to breathe, neutralizing the press and dominating the game. They played a typically-Bayern 36% of their passes backwards and went 37/72 on passes that moved them 20+ yards closer to goal. That percentage is one of the highest single-game totals of the young season in Germany. These long balls came mainly from David Alaba and Xabi Alonso who played in central defense and distributed magnificently.
Alonso mainly found Muller and Lewandowski toward the center of the pitch and Alaba found Costa down the left but it was Alonso who stepped up and found Costa with the long ball that led to the opening goal.
Playing long balls to a dynamic winger might not be the most innovative strategy ever but it’s been incredibly effective for Bayern in recent times. Bayern led Europe in long diagonal passes last season and have kept it up this year. These long passes left most of the Leverkusen defense useless as they were ready to harry midfielders only to see the ball go straight to the forwards.
Finding Costa deep wasn’t a one-game plan. The first two games show it has been Xabi Alonso from midfield making the deepest completions but Vidal and Alaba have made similar passes:
Costa’s speed and dribbling ability coupled with the attention teams have to pay to the middle of the pitch have allowed him to burst past his man and play balls across. With a host of incompletions have come a lot of very dangerous completions (through all 3 games, red is goal, green is shot, blue is regular completion):
It’s not a one-sided attack either, Arjen Robben is on the right and began to do damage this weekend.
This was more of a masterpiece from Bayern than anything Leverkusen did wrong. If it takes David Alaba and Xabi Alonso at center back and Arjen Robben and Douglas Costa on the wings to break your press and even then you only allow 1 open-play goal, that’s a sign of a great defense. Bayern had 14 shots to Leverkusen’s 10 so you can imagine a day where Leverkusen won, but the better side won this day and won in a repeatable way that showed the gap in quality between #1 and #3.
The other side
Part of what makes Leverkusen fun and distinctive to watch is their nonstop pace whether it be on defense or offense but at times their offense looks so chaotic it’s hard not to wonder if a little patience might help. Their defense is outstanding and has been on a Bayern and Dortmund level so far, limiting teams to just 18 completions within 20 yards of goal. When you’ve played Bayern and are still at the top, there’s nothing wrong on that side of the ball. It’s their offense that isn’t quite up to the elite level this year or last as the chart shows.
The offense is good, but hasn’t been able get into prime positions quite enough for them to leap completely into the European elite. One thing it looks like Schmidt is trying this season to fix that is throwing the fullbacks forward in attack more: Wendell and Hilbert are completing just over 10 passes per game within 30 yards of goal, up significantly from 6.9 last season. I don’t want to sound negative here: Leverkusen have been great so far and are a comfortable #3 in Germany, but the next step on the way up is moving the ball a bit deeper without compromising the ferocious defense. They lost away to Bayern, no big deal. They can take solace in their hammering of Lazio to make the UCL. That leaves everything on the table this season for Leverkusen.
-Darmstadt do not have a streak of 10 consecutive completions on the season. Wolfsburg, Gladbach, Dortmund and Bayern all have 60+ such streaks.
-Bayern have allowed just 5 streaks of 10 consecutive completions. Gladbach, Hertha and Mainz have allowed 40+ such streaks.
Describing the Bundesliga
I will put my money where my mouth is and describe the first three games using a few metrics, mainly deep completions.
Now, a few caveats. First, read this great piece at the 2+2=11 blog about how teams with lots of dangerous passes generally have possessions where they move the ball about racking up big shots. Ideally per-possession deep completions would be used here, but I haven’t reached that skill level yet when wrangling with the data. My cutoff level for a dangerous pass is closer to the goal than Will’s so it’s not as big of a problem for me as teams don’t often just pass the ball around within 20 yards of goal, but the effect is certainly still here. The x axis at the bottom is basically weighted deep completion rate, so I can count a complete pass 5 yards from goal as more valuable than one 25 yards from goal. The y axis is shots allowed per deep completion. Don’t get too wrapped up in the exact numbers, the differences between teams are more revealing.
Defensive chart here:
The trend is when you face fewer deep passes, you tend to give up more shots per completion. When teams face Bayern, they aren’t mucking about when they get into the box, they are firing a shot (see the streak stats above for how hard it is to string passes together). That makes Dortmund’s early-season performance notable for how it bucks the trend. They’ve allowed just 12 shots (though of much higher quality), basically half as many as Bayern when facing essentially the same amount of dangerous passes. It’s been 3 games and Bayern have faced tougher competition so for now it’s just something to keep an eye on going forward.
The offensive chart:
Stuttgart have 0 points from 3 games against Koln, Hamburg and Frankfurt. Daniel Didavi alone is almost equalling Stuttgart’s opponents shots, he has 19 in 242 minutes while Stuttgart have allowed just 29. Wolfsburg brought in Draxler but I wonder if Didavi would have been the better buy.
Cool new Tableau toys
I was able to set up a couple new Tableau tools using OPTA data that you guys can play around with. I was inspired by Paul Riley’s xG dashboard that so many people enjoyed so made a few passing maps people can play around with. I certainly won’t be releasing every team or updating these at any regular interval as it is not a quick process but every once in a while I might put a team or two together.
Leverkusen Pass Map (preset for every dangerous pass in the 2nd half of the Bayern game)
Bayern Pass Map (preset for every Arturo Vidal completion to Arjen Robben)
You can use these to check out where each teams completions go from their own box (unsurprisingly it’s Leverksuen using Leno to hit long balls while Bayern spread play to the wings):
or if you want to compare all passes of under 6 yards by both teams you can:
or if you want to see all 2nd half completions made by either Xabi Alonso or Vidal and received by either Lewandowski or Muller that moved Bayern 9+ yards closer to goal, you can do that:
Or if you want to see Leverkusen’s passing from centrally in their own half while winning vs trailing, you can. Unsurprisingly, they are much more aggressive when behind.
The point is, whatever you want to see, just mess with the filters and you can hopefully find it. This kind of thing helps spark ideas for me and simplifies what can be hard to follow at times on the pitch. Like I didn’t realize how stark the difference was in how the two teams play out of the back and the differences in where those really short passes are pretty interesting to me, it seems to show Leverkusen stagnating a bit while Bayern keep spaced as they close in on goal. Hopefully you find something similar that interests you. I waffled back and forth between the coloring scheme, right now it’s set at color=result of pass instead of reflecting who passed the ball.
Nothing but Germany this week, sorry I won’t neglect the other leagues the entire year but this was a busy piece. Hope you enjoy, comment below or on twitter @SaturdayOnCouch.