The winter break is nearly upon us so it’s time to dig in and find the best players from the first half of the season. We start at the third team and work our way to the top. The ground rules:
-No goalies. I don’t know how to judge goalies, as they don’t show repeatable skills over such a small period of time as far as saving shots (see here) so it’s kind of pointless, you can probably sort by xG2 somewhere and see the goalie who has saved his team the most goals so far. I do wonder if goalie positioning can actually lead to fewer shots on target, but that’s another topic for another day.
-11 players on each team, with a few (edit: more than a few) honorable mentions who got invited to the tryout but got mercilessly cut.
-Focus is not on goals or assists but trying to find who actually performed the best, so if you were replaying this first half of the season with all players in the same situations, these players would be the favorites for best performers again. Sorry Paco Alcacer and a surprising name or two.
-There are a few new stats I’ve been looking at to evaluate performances, kind of non-rigorous of me to introduce new and non-tested-for-stickiness stats right after writing off goalies but I’ve always been a use and feel guy, use something enough and you can feel the stickiness (note: not mathematically sound). I’ll be looking at carry yardage, Danger Zone progressions, defensive zone time to shot, yardage per minute, and deep shots compared to team and team deep completions over this 3-part series in addition to the normal zonal progression, deep completion, shot rate, etc.
-There are 33 players on these three teams:
7 Bayern, 6 Dortmund, 6 Leipzig, 5 Hoffenheim, 3 Gladbach, 2 Leverkusen, 2 Frankfurt, 1 Augsburg, and 1 from Düsseldorf
So 29 of the 33 players come from the top 6 in the league, is this too many? No, when we put pen to paper and our reputation on the line here at Saturday’s On Couch, we back winners. And I think this indicates that truly many of the teams in the Bundesliga are not playing at a high level. The money is just not there for lower table teams to spend 20-30 million on players, only 3 players went for more than 10 million euros outside of those 6 teams above. In England, Leicester alone crossed that barrier six times and teams outside the Big 6 did it 34 times. That kind of financial gap is tough to overcome.
-These teams will be released in three parts: one part for the just-missed and third-team which you are currently reading, one part for the too-few-minutes and the second-team and then one part focusing just on our first team. Starting now with the just-missed’s…these guys have played well and showed up with high hopes but it’s time for the easiest part of every coaches job. Time to cut some players and end their high hopes about getting into the Saturday On Couch team.
Sebastian Haller (Frankfurt)-A player with enormous counting stats (9 goals and 8 assists) who will be a controversial leave out. I don’t buy that he’s a true offense creator with his passing, he’s 57th in deep completions and on per pass metrics, he doesn’t sparkle. He does shoot, and shoot a lot from good positions, but not quite enough to force his way into one of these teams: 11th best quality shot-rate is behind Yussuf Poulsen, Ibisevic, Belfodil and Szalai for example. The fact the 2 other members of Frankfurt’s attack have graded out better this year causes him to just miss out.
Josip Brekalo (Wolfsburg)
Julian Brandt (Leverkusen)-Both very similar to Thorgan Hazard really, who you will see later in this article. It’s a wonder why Brandt hasn’t quite kicked on to greater things yet. Seems better than what he’s produced, there are good players around him you’d think…?
Lucas Alario (Leverkusen)
Max Kruse (Werder Bremen)
Gian-Luca Waldschmidt (Freiburg)-Dinged a bit for not being involved too much (~.3 pass per minute rate on a very low possession team), but has some very impressive indicators that hint at true difference-making potential on a better side.
Marco Richter (Augsburg)-Playing all over the Augsburg attack, his passing numbers are fantastic. Tries extremely difficult passes and completes more than you’d think: top 15 at progressing ball into Danger Zone.
Michael Gregoritsch (Augsburg)
Nicolas Gonzalez (Stuttgart)
Dodi Lukebakio (Düsseldorf)-3 shot monsters, Lukebakio and Gonzalez add in a bit more elsewhere.
Niklas Moisander (Werder Bremen)-Maybe the best passer at center back in the entire league, but Bremen’s defensive softness in the center and his struggles in the air drop him off the list.
Aaron Martin (Mainz)
Marvin Plattenhardt (Hertha Berlin)-If you put these two together with Martin’s offense and Plattenhardt’s defense then you’d have one hell of a left-back. Right now they are each half of one.
Nordi Mukiele (Leipzig)-Mukiele’s offensive numbers are better than almost every other fullback in the league and I desperately wanted to put him in, only letting Ralf’s thoughts sway me. If he doesn’t start him, I can’t quite pull the trigger but it was oh so close.
Lukas Klostermann (Leipzig)
Jonas Hoffman (Gladbach)
Amine Harit (Schalke)
Arne Maier (Hertha Berlin)-There are 4 players who are in the top 10 of completion % when advancing their team into zones 2 and 3 (the busiest attacking zones). Axel Witsel, Thiago, Achraf Hakimi and…Arne Maier. 19 years old.
Pierre Kunde (Mainz)-Mainz’s atrocious defensive numbers in the middle of the park and his rare defensive interventions tip him solidly away from the team.
Maximilian Eggestein (Werder Bremen)-Defense again…
Jonathan de Guzman (Frankfurt)
Ondrej Petrak (Nuernberg)-Raw numbers aren’t that great but he stands out among the Nuernberg generally dreck-ish numbers. Their defensive midfield has been strong as far.
John Brooks (Wolfsburg)
To the official squad, and every member is eligible for an official Saturday On Couch “I Was Named All-Bundesliga Hinrunde And All I Got Was This T-Shirt” with this classic Homer on it. So if you know Alfred Finnbogason and think he needs one of these shirts, just tell him to get in touch with me.
Luka Jovic, Alfred Finnbogason, Thorgan Hazard and Franck Ribéry
Finnbogason leads all players in Big 4 leagues with his 0.98 xG/90. Some of it’s from penalties but a solid 0.8 xG/90 and while he’s not the most graceful passer, he’s not totally useless like a Szalai or an Ibisevic, he can pass the ball into good areas competently as well…not quite as well as his fellow attack Luka Jovic. Jovic has a good case to be on an even higher team as he’s now put up back to back 900 minute seasons with ~.75 xG/90 on each. Finnbogason and Jovic are the two top shot-getters in the league so far. The only reason I relegated Jovic to the third team is I still want to make him prove to me he can do it in sustained possession. Just 28% of his passes came late in a possession (4th pass and on in a possession chain, league average of 40%). I know this is how Frankfurt play, but I have stricter standards, the counters might not always be flowing and his numbers might prove to be slightly hollower than expected. Haller’s reliance on the counter is another reason for his controversial miss.
Ribéry will be a controversial choice as he has almost zero goal production and is alongside and ahead of players with 10, 15, or even 17 goal involvements. I can hear the parents and agents yelling “Seb scored 9 and set up 8 or Thorgy put in 9 as well”…to tell those parents and agents off I will print this graph off:
Ribéry still brings the ball into dangerous areas at just obscene rates. I think his low assist and xA rate is a bit of bad luck, he has 1 assist over his past 2000 minutes which is ridiculous, he’s played like a 7 or 8 assist man. There are worrying signs against Ribéry: his shot rate has never been great, he’s losing the ball a lot more, and shots don’t come that quickly after he gets the ball, but then I come back to that danger zone progression rate and plug him in. He’s the weakest link on this team and deep down I wonder if there is some truth to the cutting criticism that I’m playing favorites with Frank and keeping Seb out of the team, but then I point to the graph and ask “Where is Seb on here huh?”
Hazard might be likely to be a bit controversial that he’s “just” on my third team due to his 9 goals and 6 assists so I figured it’s worth a little explanation. Where he falls a little short relative to other elite attackers is his shot production, only 2 of his shots this year have come within 10 yards of goal (and one of those came this last game after I did a lot of the leg work, would it have been enough to push him higher? Probably not). He was at .16 xG/90 before this weekend’s Big Chance pushed him up to around .2 xG/90 on the season. That’s basically average but it’s his assist and passing work that has won him the most plaudits this year and there I just don’t buy that it’s truly elite. He is progressing the ball into danger areas at a good rate per pass: top 25 in league, for someone who plays on average ~48 yards from goal, that is quite good. It’s still behind players like Sancho, Frantz, Dilrosun, Schulz, and Gregoritsch though. Hazard does generally pick up good yardage per touch and per minute though, but loses the ball a little too often to be called a truly great ball progressor. So you wind up with a good passer, good danger zone progressor, and a bit above average open field zone progressor who doesn’t add that much from shooting. A very good player but just third team.
Marcel Sabitzer, Diego Demme
No midfield player plays more passes per minute on a non-Bayern/Dortmund team than Demme, he’s 7th in the league in tackles from midfield and patrols an area that team attacks go to die against.
Defending goal on left.
Not only do attacks die there, but the attacks generated for Leipzig from the death of the opposition possession are dangerous: no team converts early possession to shots better than Leipzig do from this area. And unsurprisingly, Demme leads the way for Leipzig in this category. No player in the league has more midfield passes in early possession leading up to a shot than Demme’s 26. So he patrols this area, makes it a dead zone for opponents and then turns that death into Leipzig life.
Sabitzer doesn’t really “patrol” this area like Demme, more keeps an eye on it every now and then but has been a great attacking force. Among players who play this deep, only Kerem Demirbay progresses ball into danger zone more often than Sabitzer and he chips in with a good amount of shots as well. He doesn’t quite have the field range of the third Leipzig midfielder, who we will get to later, but he’s a fantastic passer up front. Leipzig’s midfield control games and two get rewarded here.
Jerome Boateng, Ermin Bicakcic, and Manuel Akanji
What I looked mainly at here was first off centerbacks from teams that dealt with passes into the danger zone well. So a low percentage get turned into shots. I figured howlers and high% shots are too low appearing to factor into this analysis but of course you are free to do so if you want. It’s a debatable position. I of course looked at how good of passers these center backs are, mainly looking at how often they can progress the ball forward without losing it. Being a good defender and just hoofing the ball aimlessly forward may have it’s uses but not on my teams, get it and play it safely forward. I also looked a duel win rate, I’ve come around to view that having a CB who can be picked on in the air is a big weakness, not sure I totally ruled anyone out due to it, just shuffled a bit around.
Akanji gets the nod over Diallo due to a slight edge in passing progression and slight edge in duels won. This is the last category I feel confident in because I don’t feel very strongly about my process to find defensive quality, which is mainly see what teams defend well and then pick their players with a lot of defensive actions/duel success. I’ve worked on PATCH-type system but haven’t got kinks out yet.
Boateng is one of only two defenders to progress 7 yards a minute (Moisander from Bremen the other) and he does it from a much more advanced position than Süle or Hummels (average position 61 yards from goal compared to 66 for his mates). Boateng has completed 53 passes into the final 3 zones, Hummels has 14, Süle 18. His fellow center backs at Dortmund are all at 13 or under and even Niklas himself at Werder Bremen is just at 41.
Nico Schulz and Mitchell Weiser
Schulz plays as a wing-back so gets dinged a bit for that and for his general lack of defense (Hoffenheim’s left side gets worked pretty good when they are defending and he’s not too active) but his action as an attacker is too strong to get cut from this squad. If you look back at the graph I had laminated to explain to the rest of the teams agents and parents why Franck is in the squad you can see why Elvedi is in: the top 5 players in the league at progressing the ball into the Danger Zone were Ribéry, Gnabry, Sancho, Robben, and…Nico Schulz. After Schulz we get Demirbay, Brandt, Reus, Rebic, Sabitzer and a few more and then we get to the next fullback-type player: Mitchell Weiser, in 13th place. Weiser couples that with being a bit of a yardage-guzzler: 7th in the league in yardage-gained per minute that doesn’t play GK/CB. His passes are often involved in shots as well, but a quick look at his defensive numbers indicates why he barely made the 3rd team. I was this close to yanking him for Mukiele, but Mukiele losing his job pushed the balance just barely to Weiser. With these type of fullbacks, you can see why we go with 3 at the back.
Alright, that’s Team Three done…two more on their way. Team Two will also see the low-minute miss outs get their due.