German game embracing change

Decline in scoring underlines a shift in tactics by clubs in one of the popular leagues

German game embracing change
The moment belonged to Kai Havertz. With just a minute or so remaining at Bayer Leverkusen’s BayArena last Sunday afternoon, Havertz, a teenage midfielder, and the home team were losing to Wolfsburg in the Bundesliga. Mario Gomez, the visitors’ slick-haired, evergreen forward, had scored a quick-fire hat trick to overturn Leverkusen’s two-goal lead.

Then, as the game ticked into its dying seconds, Karim Bellarabi lofted a pass into Havertz’s path. Havertz adjusted his stride, just a little, and caught the ball as it bounced with the outside of his left foot. His shot scudded past the Wolfsburg goalkeeper and into the bottom corner, salvaging a 3-3 tie.

As he ran to the crowd to exult in the first goal of his senior career, Havertz was not the only one celebrating. In the Bundesliga’s marketing department, too, there would have been no little joy. That one moment, after all, was the perfect microcosm of how the competition likes to see itself: a fresh-faced, GIF-friendly distillation of modern German soccer’s vibrant self-image.

When the Bundesliga published its annual review in January, the league’s chief executive, Christian Seifert, wanted to draw attention to three areas in particular. The Bundesliga boasts, he said, the youngest average age of any of Europe’s major leagues.

It has, he continued, the highest attendances of any soccer league in the world, behind only the NFL in all sports. And those fans who swell its stadiums, he concluded, see more goals than their counterparts in Spain, Italy, England and France, and have done so for “the last 26 years.”

On Sunday, Havertz’s goal seemed to encapsulate all of that. He is only 17, still at school, and yet he is now widely seen as Germany’s next big thing. The BayArena was not quite full, but not far off. And the game finished as a 3-3 draw. The Bundesliga could not have asked for more had league officials scripted it. And yet there is reason to believe Germany’s self-image is not exactly crystal clear. It is no lie to say the Bundesliga has better attendance than anywhere else, or that its clubs place more faith in their young hopefuls. But the goals? Well, the goals seem to be disappearing.

“The Bundesliga, historically, is the highest scoring of the big European leagues,” said Simon Gleave, the head of analysis at the data company Gracenote Sports. “It has been the highest scoring every season since 1989, and has never been lower than second since its inception.

“But this season, goal scoring has declined to its lowest level for decades. The other four leagues are all experiencing an increase, so the Bundesliga is not only likely to lose its crown, but it could end the season as low as fourth of the five.”

The figures themselves are not, initially, all that eye-catching: from an average of around 2.9 goals a game down to around 2.76. Gracenote’s data suggests the number of shots per game has decreased marginally, down to around 22.7, and conversion rates are a little lower than is — or was — normal, too. But while it is a subtle shift, it is also a significant one, its ramifications stretching from Germany to much further afield.

“It is not a one-off,” said Markus Weinzierl, the Schalke coach, scotching the idea that it is nothing more than a blip. “It is a trend.”

Weinzierl said that he believed it could be traced, in part, to the improved athleticism of players and to the greater tactical sophistication of their coaches.

“There are fewer goals because of individual mistakes,” he said. Doubtless, that is true, but it would not explain why Germany has been uniquely afflicted, growing more parsimonious as its peers become more laissez-faire.

Perhaps, then, it is to do with style. In recent years, the Bundesliga played midwife to a philosophical approach that has swept through elite European soccer: the furious, intense pressing game pioneered by Ralf Rangnick and popularised by Juergen Klopp.

Pressing is — as another of its disciples, Roger Schmidt, told The Times of London last year — a way for “teams without as much individual quality to achieve important success.” It serves to level the playing field: By depriving better teams the time and oxygen needed to showcase their abilities, lesser lights can hold their own. That two fine exponents of pressing, Hoffenheim and RB Leipzig, are performing so well this year — both are likely to qualify for next season’s Champions League — proves the point.

To thrive in such an asphyxiated environment, as Weinzierl said, “you need a very well-organised positional game to get deep in to the opponent’s territory, and high individual class in order to create chances.”

That is rather easier said than done. In Germany, in general, now “you have the whole team as a tight unit trying to win the ball aggressively from the opposition, leaving very few spaces and little time to act,” Weinzierl said. “That means fewer goal-scoring opportunities, and thus fewer goals.”

It may be, then, that the same doctrine that initially made German soccer so visually appealing is now starting to choke it.

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