In: Jean-Philippe Gbamin 5m (Lens), Gerrit Holtman 3m (Braunschweig), Jonas Lössl 2.5m (Guingamp), José Rodriguez 2.15m (Galatasaray)
Out: Lorius Karius, Julian Baumgartlinger
Key Passing Combos:
Mainz quietly leapt from 11th to 6th and the Europa League last season, how did they do it? They had 10% fewer attacks than they year before and 13% fewer shots while seeing shots allowed and attacks allowed creep up a bit but the location improved massively. Mainz average shot for of 17.5 yards was only topped by Dortmund and represented an enormous leap from last years ~league average 19.3 yard shot. They are listed alongside RB Leipzig as a cut above the rest of the mid table clubs by the bookies which indicates the esteemed men behind the counter at the gambling halls expect Mainz’s attack improvement to last this season.
One Big Strength
The previously mentioned shot quality. Jhon Cordoba-13 yards, Yoshinori Muto 13.7 yards, Pablo de Blasis 16.3 yards. Mainz got ~3 shots per game from these secondary options but they were from way in close and scored 12 goals at a high conversion rate.
Yunus Malli was at 17.6 yards per shot and Jairo Samperio at 17.7 leaving only Christian Clemens as a somewhat long range bomber (just over 20 yards) among their varied attack. All 6 players mentioned took between 1.5 and 2.3 shots per 90. The shots were varied and so were the key passes, 6 players were between 1 and 1.6 with no one above that.
This spread was so varied partially because of their reliance on the counter and the fact they had the 3rd fewest completions in attacking areas in the league. Their abandonment of midfield and quality deep in the opponent half is apparent on their passing map (green=over-performing “expected completions”, red the opposite).
That’s a very distinctive looking map that I rarely see. Mainz seemed to know they were bad at controlling the ball through the attacking midfield area (all the red blocks) and skipped the area completely: only Hertha had a lower proportion of their completions in the 2nd and 3rd from the right vertical blocks. And unlike Hertha, Mainz were able to get the ball deep without heavily using the attacking midfield.
One reason to think this shot distance improvement wasn’t a one-year fluke were the pressure numbers. In a 9-game sampling, Mainz shooters had less pressure on them than any other team in the league. Lower pressure=more chance of shot going on target which gives them a good shot at keeping up their good, not amazing SOT% into next year.
Defensively the entire plan is set up to force teams wide. No teams opponents played more horizontal balls in their own half and only Hoffenheim forced opponents wide more often when on the attack.
I’m always suspicious of a countering team, but Mainz seem like a very smart countering team. With such a mess beyond the top 6, that’s probably enough for me to pencil them in at 7th.
Good Season: The varied counter attacks continue to let Mainz leap into the danger zone and find one of a number of different players without being overly reliant on one or two men. Mainz handle Europa League with aplomb and separate from the dross below them with another strong 6th-8th finish. I can mentally picture the features on Martin Schmidt, his mechanic past, and whether *that* performance at Wembley will ever be topped after Mainz move into 5th in December.
Bad Season: Turns out it wasn’t a long-term system but more a confluence of luck that happens to countering teams every once in a while. Mainz fall back toward the 12th range.
In: Filip Kostic 14m (Stuttgart), Alen Halilovic 5m (Barcelona), Bobby Wood 3.5m (Union Berlin), Luca Waldschmidt 1.3m (Frankfurt), Christian Mathenia 800K (Darmstadt)
Out: Kerem Demirbay, Ivo Ilicevic
Key Passing Combos:
The money is flowing this summer in Hamburg. A billionaire supporter has renamed the stadium, pumped in cash through a “loan” and helped give Hamburg the financial muscle to make a trio of exciting summer moves that have given much-needed fresh air to the struggling club. 3 years ago they allowed 75 goals, 2 years ago they scored just 25 and both times they survived a relegation playoff in dramatic fashion. Last years safe mediocrity was a step forward but expectations will and should be much higher than that going forward.
One Big Weakness
You can see it from the key passing combos list, it was attacking talent. A triangle involving Holtby, Ostrzolek and Ilicevic was by far the most heavily trafficked route to get the ball forward. Holtby was fine enough but Ostrzolek is no attacking fullback and Ilicevic was not a guy who should be playing 1000+ minutes in the Bundesliga, let alone being the focal point of an attack. He was receiving the ball far from goal also (52 yards on average compared to most wingers being around 48), so a player lacking creativity is put further behind the 8-ball by where the ball got to him. Ilicevic has been released and is still a free agent at age 29. The worst thing is he was a better option than other Hamburg attackers like Michael Gregoritsch (can’t hold onto the ball, long shot specialist) and Nicolai Müller (minimal production in shots/KPs). The only returning attacker who has a right to demand minutes is Aaron Hunt. Hunt led the team in KP’s, got the ball further forward and was head and shoulders above his other attackers in completing his passes.
One Big Strength
All the new attacking talent has been brought in to fix that. Kostic was out of control last season, every time he got the ball a long pass forward was on the cards. His average pass traveled almost 10 yards forward, basically double that of every other attacking player. He completed 54% of his non-corner passes (still an average of nearly 9 yards forward taking out the corners) which simply won’t cut it if you are bringing him in to be a focal point of your attack. He does have raw talent, a corner-inflated 2.7 key passes per game catches the eye, but I don’t think this was a wise use of 15 million. I’d rather have him than any of their non-Hunt guys from last year but I can see frustrating times for Hamburg fans watching him.
The signing that should have Hamburg fans salivating is Alen Halilovic. Last year at Sporting Gijon he led his team in shots/90 (41% inside the box) and completed 76% of his passes in an advanced role for a team that generally completed about 10% lower than that overall. He didn’t light up the key pass leaderboards and was playing out wide right but looks like exactly the kind of player you want to buy and help realize his upside.
Good Season: Hamburg becomes a real threat with the ball as Holtby-Halilovic-Hunt combine very well and actually deserve the cheesy Triple H nickname. Maybe Gregoritsch fits in nicely in a side with more attacking talent as a high-volume shooter with the chances they provide. A solid 8th place finish gives hope for the future.
Bad Season: Kostic crossing toward an isolated Lasogga is their main route of attack as Halilovic can’t quite physically cope as a #10. All the money doesn’t buy love as they muddle their way to a 14th place finish.
Coach Julian Nagelsmann is just 29 years old and already has a heroic relegation save on his resume after picking up 23 points in 14 games last year to keep Hoffenheim in the Bundesliga. This year the Cult of the Manager is placing too-high expectations on a team that was completely overrun last season and lost Kevin Volland, who was probably their best player.
In: Andrej Kramaric 10m (Leicester-in winter), Lukas Rupp 5m (Stuttgart), Sandro Wagner 2.8m (Darmstadt), Kerem Demirbay 1.7m (Hamburg), Benjamin Humber 800K (Ingolstadt)
Out: Kevin Volland, Janik Haberer, Tobias Strobl
Key Passing Combos:
Volland-Kramaric (11 key passes)
One Big Weakness
They could not keep opponents from pouring in on their goal. Hoffenheim allowed the 2nd most shots, the lowest average shot distance, the highest proportion of shots under 10 yards, the highest proportion of opposition total completions to come in danger zone, and the most completions in the final 30 yards. It was ugly essentially across the board as their season-long defensive numbers looked like a team with no business in the Bundesliga.
They improved slightly under Nagelsmann (though shots on target allowed actually went up 30% to nearly 7 a game) but it remains a flashing red light screaming danger coming into this season.
Hoffenheim’s uptick came in attack at the end of the year as post-Nagelsmann they had the 6th most shots on target at 5.3 per game after they were dead last at 3 per game before he took over. This happened by taking their SOT% from last in the league to 3rd despite still taking shots from distance (though from just 9 iron distance as opposed to fairway metal pre-Christmas). The fundamentals suggest another fierce relegation battle and I say we wait and see if Nagelsmann can get this team firing as a mid-table squad then he can get his card to get onto the waiting list for the next Cult of the Manager. Right now, the sample size is just too small.
Good Season: Never having to seriously sweat relegation
Bad Season: Can’t slow anyone down at all, relegated.
One to Watch: Sebastian Rudy is probably the best Hoffenheim player right now but might not have it for long if Nadiem Amiri keeps developing. Probably the biggest personnel change Nagelsmann made was giving the 19-year old big run and he looked like Hoffenheim’s best player down the stretch. He was
-2nd in shots/90
-led the team in key passes/90
-led the team in passes per 90 for attacking players
-and led the team incompletion % for attacking players.
The most common receiver of his passes was Kevin Volland and you can see from his passing map, that’s a pass moving you into dangerous positions (though really it was more sprayed toward both wings than the average indicates). For that to be the most common connection for a 19-year old who is also leading you in activity and completion% is a very promising sign. He’s a guy the big boys should be keeping a close watch on.