The Bundesliga So Far: The Upsetters
Bayern might top the table, but the chasing pack are very close behind in the German Bundesliga after seven matchdays. We’ve already covered Wolfsburg a few weeks back, so here we look at some of the other teams looking to cause an upset in 2021-22.
As we head into Matchday 8 following the latest international break, we find Bayern Munich top of the pile in the Bundesliga. Everything is as usual you might think, but this is not the case. Matchday 7 saw Bayern lose their 30-game unbeaten home run at the Allianz Arena with a 2-1 defeat to Eintracht Frankfurt. This sees Bayern top the table by only goal difference and level on points with Bayer 04 Leverkusen, with some unfancied names in the chasing pack.
One pre-season contender – Borussia Dortmund – find themselves in third, just a point off Bayern and Leverkusen, but another of the favourites, RB Leipzig, have been inconsistent and find themselves in eighth and with only 10 points from seven games. Here, we focus on the performances of some of the less fancied teams in the Bundesliga.
The Only Unbeaten Team
Every team in the Bundesliga has played seven games, but only one remains unbeaten. Not many would have guessed who this would be before a ball was kicked in 2021-22, but Sport-Club Freiburg have managed to do so for the first time ever this late into a top-flight season.
It is certainly not a coincidence, but rather a trend that has emerged over the last few years. While six of the current top eight teams in the table started the season with a new coach, Freiburg can still count on Christian Streich, who now has 296 games under his belt at the club. This tenure makes Streich the longest-serving coach currently in the Bundesliga and is symbolic of the work at Freiburg: a project built on consistency and reliability.
A lot of Freiburg’s success has been down to their defensive performances, mainly through their goalkeeper Mark Flekken. Freiburg have conceded just five goals in seven games – tied for the league low with Mainz and a club record after seven games of a single Bundesliga season. Their tally of three clean sheets this season are also only surpassed by ninth-placed Mainz (4).
Freiburg’s expected goals conceded tally of 8.1 is the fourth best in the Bundesliga currently, but even when opposition sides have been able to get shots away at their goal, they’ve been met by an in-form Flekken.
Based on our expected shots on target (xGOT) model, opponents would have been expected to score with just under eight of their shots in 2021-22 so far (7.6), nearly double the goal tally Flekken has actually conceded (4). His 3.6 goals prevented total is the highest in the Bundesliga this season, while he also tops the German top-flight rankings for save percentage 81%.
In front of Flekken, captain and club-record Bundesliga appearance-maker Christian Günter has been in good form across 2021-22. Günter has been involved in 271 of Freiburg’s open-play passing sequences this season. That’s more than any other player at the club, while he’s also leading the entire Bundesliga for chances created (20).
Bayer 04 Leverkusen
Keeping Pace with Bayern
The only side to keep pace with champions Bayern this season are Bayer Leverkusen, who are only second in the table courtesy of goal difference.
As has often been the case in recent seasons, the “Werkself” have shone with impressive attacking football, but they have so far combined that with a solid defence. Only Bayern Munich (24) have scored more goals than Leverkusen this season, but the second-placed side have also conceded just seven goals – only Freiburg and Mainz (5) have conceded fewer, while they have allowed the fourth lowest xG against from non-penalty shots (7.75).
Leverkusen have been particularly dangerous in the opening moments of matches this season. They have scored seven times in the first 15 minutes – no other Bundesliga team has scored more than four times in this period, while they have also scored the opening goal in six of their seven matches, which is a league-high tally alongside Bayern.
Three of these openers came within the first three minutes of the match, meaning Leverkusen have scored three of the four earliest goals this season. As a result, it’ll come as no surprise that that they have been in the winning position for the longest proportion of ball-in-play time (64%) this season.
While the trend in European football is increasingly moving towards a high-pressing style to win the ball as close to the opponent’s goal as possible, Bayer 04 have adopted a different approach. Leverkusen defend with a compact, deep defensive block and often win the ball close to their own goal. They’ve won the ball 206 times in their own third of the pitch (53% of their ball wins) – only Bayern have more in total (230) and percentage-wise only Hertha BSC (55%). Accordingly, Leverkusen start their sequences with the ball on average 38.8 meters from their own goal, only Hertha are starting closer to their own goal (37.6 m).
After winning possession of the ball in their own half, they start counter attacks with the aim of finding the shortest way to the opponent’s goal. Their 21 direct attacks in this season’s Bundesliga are only surpassed by Bayern (22), where a direct attack is defined as an attack that starts in their own half and ends with a shot or a touch in the opponent’s box, with at least 50% of the movement being progressive. Bayer have already scored twice from these direct attacks.
This doesn’t mean that the Leverkusen players are always running back to get into a defensive shape after a loss of possession. They just decide wisely if they are in a good position to force a high turnover or not. In their seven Bundesliga matches this season they’ve only forced 38 high turnovers, the second fewest behind Hertha BSC (27). But when they win possession from a high turnover (40 metres or closer to the opponent’s goal) they are well positioned to convert that into chances. Eight of their 38 high turnovers have ended in a shot. At 21% that’s the second-best ratio in the league behind Borussia Mönchengladbach’s 22%. More than one in ten of theirhigh turnovers end in a goal for Leverkusen (11%) – no other Bundesliga team has a goal after a high turnover to total turnover ratio that is better than 4%.
Leverkusen’s four goals after high turnovers in total are a league-high in 2021-22.
13th in the table after seven games is certainly not what Europa League participants Eintracht Frankfurt had in mind at the beginning of 2021-22. However, after victories in the Europa League (1-0 at Royal Antwerp) and in the Bundesliga (2-1 at FC Bayern), it is evident that not all is lost in Frankfurt.
After Eintracht lost their season opener 5-2 against Dortmund, they went on to draw five times in a row. Questions were starting to be asked whether new coach Oliver Glasner was really the right choice. However, after the win at Bayern, the Hessen are suddenly unbeaten in six Bundesliga games – their longest run since the beginning of the year (nine games) and the second-longest current run of all Bundesliga teams behind SC Freiburg’s seven games. Glasner also oversaw five draws in the opening six matchdays of 2020-21 while in charge of Wolfsburg, before leading them to Champions League football following a fourth-place finish. Frankfurt will be hoping similar happens this season with him in charge.
Despite the additional load of Europa League football, Frankfurt are so far proving to be in very strong physical shape. Across the seven Bundesliga matchdays so far, only DSC Arminia Bielefeld have run more kilometers per game on average (118.8 km) while only Bayern have registered more sprints per game on average (251) than Eintracht (118.4 km and 246 sprints).
Eintracht’s running performance is the basis for the intense pressing that Glasner wants from his team. Frankfurt have already initiated 131 pressing sequences this season – where the opponent has three or fewer passes and their possession ends within 40 meters of their goal – only Cologne (132) and Bayern (136) have more.
The main players in Frankfurt’s pressing are Filip Kostic and new signing Rafael Borre. Kostic has already won the ball eight times in the final third of the pitch this Bundesliga season – only Rafael Borré (9) and Thomas Müller (10) have won it back there more often. In total, only Cologne (51 times) have won the ball more often in the final third than Frankfurt (50 times).
The Big Turnaround
After 1. FC Köln only survived in the Bundesliga via a successful relegation playoff against Holstein Kiel last season, they now find themselves in sixth place after seven games of 2021-22.
The Effzeh have already collected 12 points, which is the same number as in their first 16 games of last season. The biggest personnel change at the club has been the coach. Under Steffen Baumgart, the team’s playing style has changed completely compared to the previous year, which fits perfectly with the team’s squad. It’s turned a nearly-relegated side into a team that would qualify for Europe if the season ended today.
Baumgart’s Köln players attack the opponent in an offensive press deep in the opponent’s half and thus aim to force high turnovers. The Effzeh have already turned over the ball within 40 meters of their opponent’s goal 76 times this season – only RB Leipzig have done so more often (82). On average, they’ve won the ball 44.4 meters from their own goal, while again only Leipzig have won the ball back closer to the opponent’s goal (44.5m). Their aim is to prevent the opponent from building up the ball at all. On average, Köln allow their opponents only 7.9 passes before they make a defensive action (PPDA), which is fewer than any other team in Europe’s big five leagues.
In possession of the ball, Köln played with a high direct speed upfield towards the opponent’s goal. They are one of the most direct teams in the league, and have scored twice from a direct attack already this season. Only Borussia Dortmund have done so more often (five). But the target of their high-speed attacks is not always to get close to the opponent’s goal, as their game relies heavily on crosses. This season, Köln have already made 139 crosses from open play, which is the highest tally in the Bundesliga. Six of the 12 goals Cologne have scored from open play came from a cross – with no other Bundesliga team scoring more than twice after a cross in open play. Anthony Modeste has scored half of these goals, in each case with his head. Only Stuttgart’s Marc-Oliver Kempf has also got three headed goals to his name this season, but each have come from a corner.
Köln’s forwards are served well from both sides. While left-back Jonas Hector (16 crosses) and Florian Kainz (30 crosses) deliver from the left side, the crosses from the right side of the pitch mainly come from right-back Benno Schmitz (28 crosses). In the league’s expected assists ranking, Kainz and Schmitz tied for second place (2.2 xA each) – only Bayern’s Serge Gnabry surpasses that value (2.3). Benno Schmitz has also already provided three assists in six games this season – as many as in his previous 48 Bundesliga games combined.
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