David Wagner’s summer appointment at Schalke sees the collision course of two failing projects. Wagner’s previous club Huddersfield were relegated from the Premier League with a mere 16 points. His new club Schalke, tallied 30 points fewer than the season before in the Bundesliga.
In this tactical analysis, we will look at the statistics and in-game match footage to predict whether Wagner’s appointment at Schalke is likely to be foolish or inspired.
Statistical Analysis – Huddersfield
Huddersfield have amassed 11 points from 22 Premier League matches when it was announced that Wagner would leave the club by mutual consent on the 14th January 2019. At this stage, they were bottom, eight points off safety. Having achieved promotion and avoided relegation in the two years prior, there was a real feeling Wagner had taken the club as far as possible. Squeezing every ounce of the assets he had to play with.
Huddersfield were fortuitous to reach Premier League status in the first place. Their only goal en route to promotion success via the play-offs came via an opposition player rather than their own. In an analysis of the 2017/18 Premier League season, Huddersfield averaged 0.81 non-penalty expected goals per 90. In 2018/19, up until Wagner’s departure, this figure stood at 0.69. Needless to say, this was the lowest of all other Premier League teams. On the contrary, the non-penalty expected goals against for 17/18 and 18/19 were 1.28 and 1.40 respectively. Both perfectly acceptable and mid-table defensive numbers. Clearly, Huddersfield’s issue during Wagner’s tenure was creating enough goal scoring opportunities.
Looking further at Huddersfield’s 17/18 season, their ball possession and pass accuracy averages was 46.4% and 74.0%. Both mid-table. Their goalkeeper, Jonas Lössl, completed the 8th most accurate short passes per 90 of all premier league goalkeepers. In addition, their pressing and press-resistance numbers were impressive and mid-table. They allowed just 12.2 passes and were able to complete 10.0 passes per defensive action in the opposition’s half. It wasn’t that Huddersfield spent their Premier League time under Wagner camped in their own half, it was that they were unable to create chances with the possession they had.
Statistical Analysis – Schalke
Schalke’s 33 points last campaign saw them register a 14th place finish in the Bundesliga. Falling some way short of their previous 63 points and 2nd place finish the season before. Digging deeper into the statistics, they scored 37 goals only, 10 fewer than expected. They also conceded 55 goals, three more than expected. It is such an apparent unlucky deviation from actual to expected goals that often leads to managers losing their job. Ironically, Schalke notched up a very similar expected goals tally in their successful season the year before. On that occasion, however, forward Guido Burgstaller and defender Naldo had incredible finishing seasons. This amassed to Schalke scoring six more than expected.
Schalke’s 2018/19 underlying numbers are fascinating. For expected goals against, they rank 7th best. For expected goals for, they rank 14th best, averaging just 1.17 non-penalty expected goals per 90. Schalke don’t profile drastically different from Huddersfield. Whilst their talent level is much better relative to the league, they too have struggles in creating goal-scoring opportunities to build off a solid defence.
In order to evaluate how transferable Wagner’s tactics will be at his new club, we must analyse his patterns and positional attacks at Huddersfield to understand why they were unable to generate high-quality goal-scoring opportunities.
In games that Huddersfield had realistic ambitions of winning, Wagner fielded a 4-2-3-1 with plenty of rotation within the central two to split the centre backs and get on the ball. In early phases of build-up, the full-backs would provide the width by positioning themselves higher up in the midfield line. This left the wide forwards free to roam and operate centrally. Whilst Huddersfield were brave and effective at monopolising the ball between their four defenders and holding midfielders, too frequently their forward players would make runs short, asking the ball to feet. This allowed their opponents to press aggressively forcing circulation back to the goalkeeper before eventually losing the ball.
It’s the decision making of the forward players in their positioning, combined with the lack of quality to play passes through opposition lines that meant Huddersfield so often struggled to enter the opposition third.
Demanding a clean build-up from the goalkeeper to the final third increases the importance of positional attacks. Often the opponent has time to recover into an organized block by the time the ball has been progressed into the final third. Once this has been achieved, it’s imperative to have as much width as possible and pin back the opposition defenders to effectively probe and ultimately create goal-scoring opportunities.
The Full-Back – Wide Forward connection
Wagner mainly used slower, more powerful strikers in Steve Mounié and Laurent Depoitre throughout the 17/18 season. Their lack of speed and natural tendency to receive the ball with back to goal placed greater importance on attacking full-backs and wide forwards to pin the opposition’s defence. Huddersfield were never able to consistently pin an opposition defence with this combination, particularly down the left.
In order to effectively pin defenders with this combination, the full-back and wide forward must make opposite movements and operate on angles to each other down the channels and flanks. If one operates high and wide, the other must take up a deeper position infield and vice versa. These movements along with combining with a deep-lying forward can allow a team to regularly reach the byline, the golden zone in creating goal-scoring opportunities.
It’s almost impossible to predict how successful a manager will be at his next club without a large sample size of clubs previous. Huddersfield were Wagner’s first club in the top flight having only previously managed Borussia Dortmund’s second team beforehand. It’s hard to make guesses as to what extent having better players relative to competition will allow Wagner to thrive at a club.
Individual pieces of brilliance were certainly lacking at Huddersfield last year. As was a difference-maker in attacking transition who could create and score goals for himself and teammates. Having said that, regardless of player quality, there will need to be improvements in Wagner’s positional play if Schalke are to regularly create goal-scoring opportunities through systematic means next season.
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