It's been a fascinating start in the Bundesliga. When you look at the table, maybe only Bayern, Augsburg and Mainz are about where they expected to be. And Bayern are certainly not where they want to be performance-wise. Today we will look at a few contributors or areas of play that are keying early season surprises or holding their teams back. With Bayern and Dortmund playing this weekend, I will try to save them for next week for a possible recap piece.
Leipzig's Standout Start And A Big Leak?
They are in 2nd place and while the underlying numbers might not indicate a clearly better team than Dortmund, they show this is a good enough team to finish 3rd, 2nd or even 1st? without widespread cries of "Fluke!". They've trailed for 10 minutes all year! They are absolutely peppering the goal with shots from inside the box, their 10.3 in-box shots per game are 1.3 ahead of Dortmund and only 1.7 behind league-leading Bayern while they are right there at the top with those 2 as far as shots on target go. Their 8.4 shots allowed trail only Bayern again and no one has allowed fewer shots on target than RB. They've done this by dominating the danger area on both ends of the field. Their completion% overall is low (15th in league) and possession is under 50 but in the boxes, Leipzig shines.
This has been a team effort but I want to highlight two players in particular who have caught my eye and then one I kind of scratch my head about and wonder if it's a bit of a leak.
12 players on Leipzig have played more minutes than the 21 year old but he pops up in their top 3 at both moving the ball from midfield toward the fringes of the danger zone (from outside to zones 3 and 4 here) and entering zones 1 and 2. He's alongside players who have played 300 or 400 more minutes in Diego Demme and Marcel Halstenberg, who we will talk more about later, as the best danger zone entry providers at Leipzig. Keita's strength is he has been able to get further up field to be in great position to play short passes around goal, compare his passes in red to fellow early season star Nab in Bentaleb in blue.
No player who is among the top 3 on their team plays shorter entry passes than Keita's at 19.7 yards. The only players with a higher entry pass completion % are his teammate Marcel Halstenberg and Wolfsburg superstar Julian Draxler. Basically when Ted gushed over Naby Keita like Russia Today over a shirtless Putin/Trump wrestling match, you should have listened. For good measure he leads the team in tackles and interceptions per 90 and has scored 3 goals. This guy is a star and has probably earned some of that money that Ralf Rangnick has ready to spend now that Leipzig have removed their artificial salary cap. An example of a lot of the things he does well comes in this 55 second clip where he makes 3 big plays to advance the ball very well, chips in a bit of defense, throws in a dribble and wide pass for good measure.
He doesn't see much of the ball at all. His 30 passes per game are more like a striker than a fullback. Only Gäetan Bussman (he who I wrote about as Mainz's weak link) passes the ball less often than Halstenberg from left-back. But he's played all 900 minutes, so clearly Hasenhüttl loves him for something. He has solid defensive counting stat numbers, blocking more shots than any left back. But the stat that makes you rub your eyes is his completion% entering the final 30 yards. Among players with at least 50 of those passes, no one in the Bundesliga has a higher completion%. Not Arjen Robben, not Franck Ribéry, not Julian Draxler.
Top 10: Halstenberg, Robben, Draxler, Vidal, Lahm, Müller, Kampl, Keita, Alonso, Thiago.
Such a standout stat needs recognition.
In poker parlance a leak is a consistent weakness or poor strategy in your game that limits you over time. I suspect that having Diego Demme as your main ball-handler might be a leak that could hamper Leipzig's title chase. No Leipzig player averages more passes than Demme's 64, but he is among the worst in the league at advancing the ball into attacking positions. He tries lots of long balls toward the box, and they don't turn many into key passes.
I understand a lot of Leipzig's strategy is based on quick forward passes but this still looks like one of their worst passers is playing the most passes on the team, including the most danger zone entries. He seems to be a good defender and he plays in midfield so you can't just avoid him, but a strategy adjustment I'd like is more Halstenberg and less Demme with the ball.
Other Early Standouts
Nadiem Amiri has only played 390 minutes so that might keep me from going completely head over heels for him but the motion has begun. Last year I raved about him and he has taken another step forward this year. He almost has matched last years 16 interceptions in a quarter of the minutes, is closing in on the 5 per 90 mark in shots+KP's, and is one of only 3 midfielders to have a completion % above 90%. Nice company to be alongside Thiago and Weigl. We want to see more, his minutes were limited early due to an injury but hopefully we get to see full 90s going forward as Hoffenheim look to stay up at the top of the table.
If not for Naby Keita, Kevin Kampl might be the standout midfielder in the early going. He has built on a strong season from last year and has taken on more responsibility after Bellarabi's injury. Only Pascal Groß, Mr. Volume himself, has played more entry passes into the danger zone than Kampl and he's been by far Leverkusen's most reliable and effective option to progress the ball. Fellow midfielder Charles Aranguiz has not quite been able to match Kampl's dynamism or efficiency and the midfield Schmidt was dreaming of has not come fully together. Kampl has been great however, as Leverkusen have dominated territory in a way they never previously have. Too bad that's the only thing they are dominating.
Other Early Leaks
If you look all the way to the right on that chart on completion% in final 30 yards you see Augsburg left back Konstantinos Stafylidis. He is completing 19.7% of those passes compared to league average of 45.4%. He is neck-and-neck to be the most common danger zone entry pass provider on Augsburg and those passes end the possession 80% of the time. All those incompletions don't come with huge payoff on the top end: his 5 key passes are only tied for 7th most on the team and he doesn't have an assist yet. He's giving the ball away 5 times a game with these long crosses. With quality passers like Koo, Baier, and Bobadilla around Stafylidis Augsburg are wasting lots of quality territory by having the Greek youngster fire aimlessly. Him getting forward so often seems to have left their left side weak in defense as well, Augsburg have allowed 35 chances to come from passes from their left side, compared with just 14 on the right. An example of the failed cross (though this one is not a bad pass or decision really) followed by a chance conceded is below:
Filip Kostic is similarly poor with wasteful crosses, but Hamburg seems so hopeless basically over the entire field (except for maybe fullback Douglas Santos) it feels harsh to point him out. Hamburg's shots on targets for their first nine games ran: 1-2-2-0-1-3-0-0-2. Then they had 50% of their first 9 game total with 6 against Dortmund last week. Sure they came when after they went down 3-0 in the first 37 minutes, but you have to take promising signs where you can get them if you have 2 points through nearly 30% of the season.
Wolfsburg have been maybe the biggest disappointment of the year. Dieter Hecking has already been fired, something that happens when your team is in the relegation places with Julian Draxler, Mario Gomez and preseason Champions League expectations. They are underwater in shots and shots on goal and have a glaring *potential* leak defending down their right side.
They have the most lopsided ratio of completions allowed in attacking areas, as opponents pour into the right side over and over.
In buildup, opponents move forward more often down the right side.
And are more successful moving down the right than the left.
Now is being so lopsided automatically bad? Because the VW braintrust can point to their chances allowed and say they aren't coming overwhelmingly from the right side and that when they do testing in the lab their right side performs exactly like the left. We can tell them that beating a test in a lab is one thing and real life another, but they might have a point on chances created. Maybe it's not automatically bad to have one side be so much softer and targeted much more, but it's something the new manager Valérien Ismaël should be keeping an eye on. Christian Träsch, Kuba, and Vieirinha love getting forward but maybe they don't love getting back or defending enough. One last example, from the Leverkusen game which shows the ease with which Leverkusen move the ball down, around, and toward goal on Wolfsburg's right side.
This weekend get ready for Leverkusen v Leipzig, Gladbach v Köln and Dortmund v Bayern in one of the best schedules of the year. Any questions, comments, or qualms you have post a comment here or get at me on twitter @Saturdayoncouch.
Hope you enjoyed and enjoy the games this weekend!