Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Winter Break Review: Bundesliga

Continuing the winter-break series, I move to Germany.

Most Impressive

Though they sputtered a bit toward the end with some disappointing draws, I've got to go with Bayer 04 Leverkusen. It's tough to go to another side when there is an undefeated team at the top of the table with the highest goal differential. Looking at stats, Leverkusen also topped the table in shot differential (they took 6.88 more per match than their opponents) and shot-on-target differential (3.29 more per match than their opponents).

The new manager and some players being brought in seem to have helped. At the back, Hyppia appears to still have it at 36. They've also gotten some contribution from Schwaab and the return of Reinartz. They are currently tied with Schalke for fewest goals allowed, quite a difference from last season where they finished 7th in that category. While they may well start allowing more goals, they are on pace to concede just 26, 20 fewer than they let in last season.

Up top, Stefan Kießling has put 12 in. Not only is he ahead of everybody else in a league with a lot of attacking talent, that equals his total from all of last season. While his luck is probably a bit better than last year, looking at the stats it seems to be more about getting and creating more scoring chances. He's on pace to get 30 more shots and 20 more on target than last season. I don't want to go too far with just a half season of data, but given his age, 25, it's certainly possible that he's coming into his peak.

Most Disappointing

It was looking like Bayern for a while but they have been playing great football and pulled themselves back into the race. I'll take Stuttgart. Last season they finished 3rd. Expectations weren't extremely high since they lost Mario Gomez last summer, but they should certainly not be even on points with a team in the relegation zone at this stage. It's even more amazing when you consider their solid run in the Champions League. They got out of their admittedly easy group in second place with 9 points in 6 matches. Compare that to 16 points in their 17 Bundesliga matches. Obviously the variance is high in a 6-match group format, but having seen 3 of those matches they played like a pretty good side against opposition that is significantly better than nearly all of their domestic opponents.

The reason behind their struggles is some combination of bad luck and bad play in front of goal at both ends of the pitch. They have taken 59 more shots than their opponents (3.47 per match) with 15 more on target (0.88 per match). Despite that, Stuttgart have allowed 7 more goals than they've scored. They are dead last at converting shots-on-target into goals* and only 15th best in shooting percentage against. I think luck is definitely a factor but it looks like they are struggling to replace Gomez and are not getting good enough play out of Lehmann. I'm no manager, but I would strongly consider replacing the 40-year-old netminder.

Luck or Efficiency

The first indicator of a team being lucky or unlucky that I look at is their goal differential and points. Looking at past data, there is a very strong correlation between the two and it seems that differences are all due to luck, or nearly so.

The first team that jumped out was Werder Bremen. According to the goal-differential model which adjusts goal differential for differences in difficulty in schedule (which at this point just means a small drop for the clubs that have played an extra home match and increase for those with an extra one away) they have been running over 5 and a half points below expectation. A team with their goal differential should have nearly 34 points on average and they have 28. They have 7 draws and in matches decided by a goal they have 1 win and 2 losses. So in 10 close matches they have 10 points. Considering they have won 6 matches by 2 or more goals and only lost 1 by that margin, that's not very good. Others would probably say that they need to do better in close matches, I think it comes down to getting unlucky.

While not as extreme, Hoffenheim are also running below expectation in points for a team with their goal differential. They are at 25 points and the average team with their goal differential would have nearly 30. In contrast to Bremenm, Hoffe don't have a lot of draws, but they have 4 losses by a single goal to go with their 2 wins by one and 4 draws. Given their 5 wins and no losses by 2 or more goals, they've certainly been unlucky in close matches and should have more points.

The three teams at the other side of the luck spectrum are Freiburg, who should be about 4 points closer to the relegation zone, and the two Ruhr rivals Dortmund and Schalke. Dortmund are 3 points above expectation and Schalke 2.5. Those aren't too extreme, but both clubs will need to play better or keep getting fortunate results to stay where they are. This is especially important for Dortmund who are sitting in 5th in what promises to be an intense battle for the right to play in Europe next season.

The next stage in looking at luck is to compare how teams are in the table at the moment with how they rate in my stats model. The most important inputs are shots and shots on target. As a result, big differences are often due to a team shooting very well or poorly and/or stopping a high or low percentage of their opponents' shots. Unlike with goal differential and points, there certainly is a skill component at play here. If you have good forwards and your defenders and goalkeeper are solid then you are going to be above average when it comes to converting your chances into goals and preventing the same for your opponents. Having said that, there is definitely a luck component as well. I will study this more in the future. For now I think it's safe to assume that both luck and skill play a role.

The previously discussed Stuttgart are the club performing most below expectation given their stats. After them is Werder Bremen. The model rates Bremen 2nd best, just ahead of Bayern, but they are sixth in the table. When it comes to shots, they are second behind Leverkusen in both shot and shot-on-target differential. They are 10th in the league in percentage of their shots on target that are goals. Bremen seem to have gotten good play from Wiese as they have allowed the lowest shooting percentage against them in the Bundesliga. It seems that they are in 6th position almost solely because of their bad luck when it comes to getting points in close matches.

On the fortunate side of things, Mainz is the club with the biggest difference between the table and where they are in my stats model. This appears to be a combination of running a bit above expectation in close matches and being above average in front of both goals. Schalke also seem to be in an overly fortunate position. In addition to running over expectation in close matches, they also seem to be doing overly well at converting chances and in goal. They are only 6th best in shot differential and 9th best going just by those on target, but have the 4th highest percentage of shots-on-target going in and 3rd lowest allowed for their opponents. Having said that, they have some good attacking players in Kuranyi and Farfan and Neuer is a very good goalkeeper. One would expect them to be near the top in both categories.


It will be a two-horse race between Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich for the title. I don't think Schalke will be able to keep up this pace. Hamburg and even Bremen could enter the fight, but it would take a good run plus both Leverkusen and Bayern falling off. I haven't discussed Bayern much in this article, but it seems like van Gaal has finally got his system in place and the guys playing great football. The betting markets have them as favorites to win the league at this stage. I still give a slight edge to Leverkusen, but I think it will come down to the last couple weeks.

The battle for European spots will come down to the last week. This might not be much of a prediction, but I think the Bundesliga will be the league with the most tension near the end of the season. After the top two it should be tight as I think Hamburg and Werder Bremen should put up a good fight with Schalke for the third Champions League spot. Hoffenheim and Dortmund can't be counted out either, so it will be 5 good teams fighting for those 3 positions depending on the cup result.

The bottom three now will all be relegated. My original intent when writing about the leagues during the break was to pick a club in the relegation zone to stay up and a club out of the relegation zone to get the drop. That lasted all of 1 article. Bochum, Nurnberg and Hertha Berlin are the three worst clubs in the Bundesliga and are in the bottom three spots. If you forced me to flip two I'd say Koln is the most likely to be relegated of the safe teams, with Freiburg just behind. Bochum is the only one of the bottom three that looks to have any chance of recovery.

* as I wrote in my Serie A article, this could be slightly off as there may be goals, especially own goals, that result from no shot being taken. For simplicity I will define shooting percentage as goals per shot on target.

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