The Bundesliga was my gateway drug into the high-flying, groupie-gathering, time-sucking, spreadsheet-staring, decimal-point debating, fantastic world of soccer analytics. I was your run-of-the-mill World Cup and EPL viewer before deciding one day I wanted to know more about the soccer world elsewhere and simply chose the Bundesliga to follow for a year. I put $200 in a betting account and began working to beat the bookies. I read Colin Trainor here on expected goals and built my own model. I manually input shots from all these different zones and adjusted for schedule.
After three weeks, I was ready to go and bet on Freiburg to draw with Bayern Munich. When Freiburg equalized right at the end of the game I knew I was onto something. The secret to soccer was in my spreadsheets! Of course, as the sample size got larger through each Konferenz I watched I realized that one: manually inputting shots into a spreadsheet for a few hours did not reveal underlying patterns no one had found before and two: it was really hard for me to tell Stuttgart and Frankfurt apart. Every few weeks I'd find something else: I wasn't giving shots on target enough credit, blocks seemed to have some skill, what the hell were Gladbach doing? They are costing me money! That year might not have made me rich but it was a great entry level course into studying how analytics can be used in soccer.
I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for this league, which I feel has become the lone challenger to England in terms of entertainment. The Bundesliga features top atmospheres, league-wide countering speed that floored Pep Guardiola, the most goals per game, and a variety of styles among the best teams that you can't get anywhere else. Bayern, Gladbach, Leverkusen, and Wolfsburg play very distinct styles and Dortmund and Schalke are big question marks under new managers. Mid-table teams like Augsburg and Hoffenheim have distinct, fun identities and the bottom of the table featured a team that was in 2nd place in total goals, between Real Madrid and Barcelona. This preview will briefly dive into some of that to prepare for Friday's opening kick.
1. Bayern Munich
Bayern are a team that draws you in as a viewer. Pep’s work ethic and creativity means you might see something new tactically and the teams quality means there is a chance to see something jaw-dropping every game. Last season they held Werder Bremen without a shot the entire game. The year before Schalke didn’t get out of their own half for 20 minutes and we all remember those 3 minutes without Man City touching the ball in Manchester. Inverted fullbacks, diagonal chips, full-field man-to-man marking at the Camp Nou, you never know what will come next.
However, for all the quality in Munich,when Ribery and Robben were out Bayern were simply very good, not out of this world. You can see this in their shots per game:
but the point is really driven home when you see their deep completion maps. The first is away games against Augsburg, Mainz, Frankfurt and Hertha with both healthy:
the second are the home matches against the same teams when both were missing due to injury:
The size of the circle corresponds to the distance of the pass, with shorter passes getting a larger circle. Orange means goal, light blue a shot and darker blue a normal completion. Without those two it was harder for Bayern to move their passing game toward goal. The gap between Ribery and Robben and the rest is reflected here:
No one is even in their area code. Ribery completes almost twice as many as any non-Robben player and Robben essentially renders the percentiles on player cards useless.
(for explanation on player cards see below)
When those two guys click, Bayern are untouchable. Defensively, Bayern are outstanding. They completely stifle the opposition, limiting them to 200 completions per game. They don’t have the soft underbelly some pressing teams develop either, teams struggle even when they break through the high lines. This is a deep completion map of their 3 home games against Wolfsburg, Dortmund and Leverkusen.
You can get a few shots targeting Dante and Bernat on the left, but not enough to really call it a weakness. This is a great defense.
Robben looks healthy, but Ribery remains a major doubt for this season. Douglas Costa is a Ribery replacement and was terrifying in the Super Cup for stretches. Bayern will likely win the league even if he doesn’t turn out to be a similar force as Franck but Costa replacing Ribery is important for the long-term dominance of Bayern in the Bundesliga. With Thiago back fully, Vidal joining, and Hojberg returning from loan Bayern should dominate the midfield even more in the next few years but to keep rolling to titles the wide quality is crucial.
2. Borussia Dortmund
It was almost as hard to get the ball deep against Dortmund as it was against Bayern. In lots of pretty important metrics including xG, Dortmund looked second-best to Bayern. They were far from that in last years table. These three graphs help describe Dortmund’s season:
Adjusted deep completion means the closer to goal a completion is the more weight it has.
Dortmund dominated territory at elite levels but yet were right behind relegated teams Paderborn and Freiburg and when it came to converting deep touches to goals. On the other end, they were well behind wide defense-optional teams in Stuttgart and Frankfurt in allowing completions to be turned into goals. A terrible defensive backline might explain the defensive side, but that’s wasn’t the case. Passes were still very tough to complete basically everywhere.
Maybe that one green spot in the center of the pitch explains it all, but I think there was some historically bad luck here. A deep completion was 3.5x more likely to turn into a goal vs Dortmund than it was against Gladbach. Just normal conversion rates on both sides of the ball would have turned them into a +40 GD team instead of +7. Thomas Tuchel comes in for Klopp (read my thoughts on him here) and there might be some bedding in time even if I am optimistic long-term. He has two of the best attacking midfielders in the league in Reus and Mkhitaryan along with the best deep midfielder in Gundogan. Gonzalo Castro from Leverkusen gives Dortmund the chance to have a very dynamic midfield. Controlling the center of the pitch was the major constant with Tuchel at Mainz as he switched between systems, Reus/Mkhi/Castro/Gundogan will let Dortmund control it going forward. Tuchel seems to prefer the youngster Weigl to control it defensively, maybe until Sahin returns from injury.
Last year was great for the Wolves, finishing second with a +34 GD in 2nd place comfortably but I think that will be tough to reach again, even if De Bruyne stays. Let’s take another look at how teams turned deep passes into goals
Wolfsburg are nearly off the charts, 9 points ahead of 2nd place. Even if they finish at the level of the second place team they could lose 15+ goals this season. Bas Dost won’t keep up his impossible 38% shooting percentage (see map below with orange as goals)
But that’s ok as Wolfsburg have improved at the striker position, getting Max Kruse from Gladbach. Kruse is one of the best passers at the forward position, Dost one of the worst. The idea should be that while the efficiency will drop the improved involvement of the striker will create a higher volume of passes and allow them to shape a few more involved attacks instead of lightning strikes though the wings. I worry Dieter Hecking will chase Dost's goal total and give him first crack at the striker role while Kruse plays off the bench.
Outside of Atletico Madrid, Wolfsburg were probably the best team to focus attacks to a large extent down the wings. This can be seen in a sampling of where there creative players receive the ball.
De Bruyne is clearly the main playmaker but is generally receiving the ball out wide. He's not a heavy usage guy so even with him returning Wolfsburg’s attack still feels a little formless, but if he leaves there would be serious worries about Champions League. I expect a significant slip from last season, mostly from scoring fewer goals.
4 and 5, opposites attract: Gladbach and Leverkusen
Gladbach and Leverkusen make a beautiful pair. Essentially everything one does, the other does the complete opposite. These two are the ones that make the Bundesliga the beautiful, unique league it has become.
First, with the ball. Here is a map of Leverkusen’s passes from just inside the opposition half. Color and shading shows how far forward the pass is going, red=backwards.
Leverkusen is rampaging forward while Gladbach is taking their sweet time. The 26-4 difference in passes through the endline really highlights that. Shooting, it's the same story. Leverkusen are firing a shot every 17 completions, with Gladbach at twice that.
Without the ball
Here are ease of passing maps for the two teams defenses.
and then Gladbach
Gladbach are generally despised by shot-location or volume-based models and this make them one of the most important teams for stat-guys to watch. I’ve written extensively on them and how they beat models repeatedly and badly. They exposed my first manual xG model 2 years ago, and made light work of a more advanced model last year.
So go there if you want a full breakdown click the link, but even if you don't go there watch Gladbach this season: they are an important case study in the soccer analytics world. I’ll show two quick charts here:
They are extremely patient on offense to pick out passes that have a high likelihood of being turned into shots and on defense stick close to goal, making everything easy elsewhere but tough inside the box. The Foals will move into the Champions League and lose one of their elite strike pair in Max Kruse, making this a fascinating season to join in and watch. Lars Stindl, in from Hannover, is an excellent offensive midfielder to pair with Xhaka giving Gladbach a base that can create as well as any outside of Bayern or Dortmund. Drmic is not the type of involved player Kruse was, which means the incredible offensive efficiency might take a different form, one that might see more Hazard and Traore. As long as they continue to shatter xG models through their unique style of play, Gladbach remain a must-watch team.
Leverkusen are a must-watch team for the sheer speed of the game. The pressure they apply without the ball is unmatched and unrelenting (see map above) and offensively no team remaining in the top flight of European football shoots as quickly. Stefan Kiessling plays up top but is the 4th option really when it comes to taking shots, the 3 attackers in Son, Bellarabi, and burgeoning superstar Hakan Calhanoglu all take more than the striker. The “90 minutes of Hell” strategy leads to lots of incomplete passes from both teams, making the loss of their one smooth-passing midfileder Gonzalo Castro a big one (until they signed Charles Aranguiz). They were good enough last season to comfortably grab the UCL playoff spot, defeating Lazio and then getting back to 4th in what should be a fierce race would be a successful season. The non-stop drive doesn't always help, their midfield passing was very poor and you wonder if slowing down a bit on offense might help.
Leverkusen home shot map:
Schalke are a bit of a head-scratcher. They are coming off a very poor season where they focused on limiting the opposition to poor chances and then forgot to create any of their own. Andre Breitenreiter replaces Di Matteo as the manager but he isn’t the most important addition, that is Johannes Geis. Schalke had a very stagnant midfield last season with Hoger, Neustadter and Kirchoff not adding much to the attack. (biggest size=goal, next biggest=shot, smallest=completion)
Geis brings a huge improvement in dynamic passing (see below map) and took more shots per game than the other 3 combined.
Last years midfield was also easy to cut through (12th in Bundesliga) but the backline was 2nd best in league in preventing shots on dangerous passes. I’d expect a much more proactive Schalke this season. Geis could very possibly be the signing of the season but Schalke still are the least likely of the big 6 to crack back into the Champions League.
Top 6 Predictions
Bayern, 80 points
Dortmund, 72 points
Gladbach, 60 points
Leverkusen, 58 points
Wolfsburg, 57 points
Schalke, 54 points
I’ve plotted deep pass to shot conversion on the Y-axis here, with midfield passer rating on the X. Both of these are from previous articles (here and here). The TL;DR of it is: the higher up the Y-axis you go the higher the rate that passes in the final 15 yards are turned into shots, the further right on the X-axis you go, the easier it is to move the ball closer to goal in the midfield. This is a general look at which teams contest or pass well in the midfield and convert or stop deep passes from being converted. It's not necessarily a strong midfield, weak backline or vice versa, there are plenty of tactical reasons why the numbers could not reflect the talent level of a group.
First, the defenses:
Dortmund looks extremely strong here, the problem was just a huge amount of those shots turned into goals. Leverkusen and Gladbach, those mirror images, are at each end when it comes to toughness in the midfield.
Leverkusen’s frenetic attack did not reliably generate enough offense last year and that’s the main concern as they try for a 4th straight top 4 finish.
Eintracht Frankfurt and Hoffenheim
In between Barcelona and Real Madrid atop the goals/game charts we find Eintracht. Unlike those two, the goals come equally from both teams in Eintracht games. This comes from having the best average chance both for and against in the Bundesliga.
Hoffenheim are top 10 Europe-wide in both goals and shots per game and as you can see from the midfield map, play a high-risk defensive game that lends itself to great viewing.
Augsburg and Hamburg are two strong arguments against the deterministic theory that wage bill=league position. Despite having a bottom 4 wage bill, Augsburg finished ahead of Schalke and Dortmund in 5th and will play in the Europa League this season. Augsburg feature a high press and a quick trigger to shoot when they have the ball. Hojbjerg returning to Bayern and poor attacking players make another top 6 finish unlikely. I’ve written about Hamburg before but they desperately need to awaken one of the worst offenses in all of Europe. One of the richest clubs in Germany, they have escaped two relegation playoffs the last two seasons. I wrote more about last years problems here.
Something to possibly cling onto for Hamburg fans is their horrendous goal/SOT rate. This generally has no correlation from year to year with the big caveat that relegated teams generally have the worst numbers each year but don’t show up again so don't count in those correlations.
Players to Watch
I will try to avoid repetition from those listed above. A fuller explanation of the player cards comes in my Ligue 1 preview but the short version is: Passer Rating is how well a player passes taking into account difficulty of pass, deep comps are within 25 yards of goal, involvement is basically how many completions a player gets and how central he is to his team. All are per 90 and compared to players in same position.
As usual, the caveat remains that these players are the ones who performed best in these metrics, choose different metrics and you get different players. Also performance does not always equal skill level or talent. There won't be Bayern players in here as you can assume essentially everyone (except Weiser) comes out very strong in these types of measurements. The three to watch out for outside the very biggest names: Hojbjerg, Badstuber and Thiago.
Marco Reus, Dortmund
Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Dortmund
Hakan Calhaonuglu, Leverkusen
Daniel Didavi, Stuttgart
Big year returning from injury.
One youngster to watch
Kevin Volland, Hoffenheim No player had a higher % of their completions come within 25 yards of the opponents goal. Here's his completion map with estimated pass difficulty represented by circle size.
With Firmino gone, you figure he will be able to get more involved in Hoffenheim's play.
No Bundesliga striker passed the ball better than Raffael. The patient attack of Gladbach surely helps their forwards rack up good passing numbers, as more options are available when the ball is moved slowly. It's kind of strange for a Brazilian striker to play this well on a Champions League team and be so unknown, but hopefully he has some big games in the UCL to get his name out there this season.
Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang, Dortmund
Solomon Kalou, Hertha Berlin
Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Schalke
Eric Choupo-Moting, Schalke
Haris Seferovic, Frankfurt
Barely beats out last years league top goal scorer Alex Meier due to his edge in passing. Also only 23.
Ilkay Gundogan, Dortmund
Granit Xhaka, Gladbach
Zlatko Junuzovic, Werder Bremen
Junuzovic was the top non-Bayern player as far as deep completions go and was just behind di Santo when it came to top shots-taker on Bremen. The entire Bremen offense revolved around him.
Luiz Gustavo, Wolfsburg.
Milos Jojic, Koln
Ricardo Rodriguez, Wolfsburg
Paul Verhaegh, Augsburg
Augsburg lost a great young prospect in Baba to Chelsea, but kept their best fullback.
Bastian Oczipka, Frankfurt
Daniel Brosinksi, Mainz
Hopefully this has you ready for this Friday's opening kick. Tune in and enjoy the goals, the counter-attacks, the high pressing, the atmosphere and the high level of play. My final piece of advice is to learn from me: don't repeatedly bet against Bayern and Gladbach because they are due for regression in your personal xG model. Best to sit back, enjoy, and investigate the different flavors of soccer they bring us.