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Data Analysis: Analyzing Borussia Dortmund’s exciting attack

Germany has been a pantheon of great football movements. Many great players and coaches have come through this country and have gone on to change positions, ways of thinking about football, and just setting new bars of standard. This season is a testament to this legacy – Bayern Munich under Hansi Flick not only steamrolled Bundesliga but just about slaughtered the so-called big clubs such as Chelsea and Barcelona with score lines like 7-1 and 8-2, respectively.

While red and blue are the banners of German football, an underdog stands beneath the shadows. Ballspielverein Borussia 09 e.V. Dortmund, known as Borussia Dortmund, have time and time stood and challenged Bavarian excellence. In recent times, Dortmund has become a centre for a more recruitment-based shift in the greater spheres.

This season for Der BVB represented a transition period that has been building for some times. Recent signings have signalled the end of this transition period and the start of an ambitious period of trophy-winning.

The signings of much-touted Jude Bellingham, experienced Emre Can, and a loanee arrival from Reinier from Real Madrid is representative of a transfer window that seeks to finish the final pieces of a jigsaw.

In this data analysis, we’ll be analyzing Dortmund’s exciting attack through the lens of advanced statistics. We’re going to look at Dortmund’s attack in new ways that go much beyond goals, assists, and shots.

Analyzing Dortmund’s attacking lineup

Before we start, it bears us some time to look at who exactly Dortmund have in their attacking line-up.

At forward position, the truly designated centre-forward for Dortmund is Erling Haaland – aged 20. Down below Haaland, Marius Wolf (25), Jadon Sancho (20), and Thorgan Hazard (27) complete and compete for the winger positions.

In attacking midfield, Dortmund have a plethora of options. Immanuel Pherai (19), Sergio Gómez (19), Giovanni Reyna (17), and Reinier (18) make a very young set of attacking midfielders for Die Borussen. They also have Marco Reus available – who can also play as a winger – but is currently out injured.

In more standard central midfield roles, Mahmoud Dahoud (24), Jude Bellingham (17), Thomas Delaney (28), and Julian Brandt (24) ensure the midfield is controlled alongside fellow central defensive midfielders Axel Witsel (31), Emre Can (26), and Tobias Raschl (20).

On the full-back side, Thomas Meunier (28), Mateu Morey (20), Lukasz Piszczek (35), and Felix Passlack (22) ensure that the right-hand side of is controlled. Towards the left, Nico Schulz (27) and Marcel Schmelzer (32) control that space with Raphaël Guerreiro (26) aiding on that side as well.

While Dortmund are lacking in what they do with their full-backs, it is pretty clear to see that their midfield, wingers, and centre-forward sides are filled with experienced veterans and exciting young talent – some of whom are already in top five or top 10 in their respective positions.

In this article, we’ll keep our focus on certain individuals – players who will be the most important for Dortmund in the upcoming season. This narrows our player selections to Haaland, Sancho, Hazard, Dahoud, Reyna, and Brandt. We’ll start up-top and work our way down.

Assessing Erling Haaland’s striking ability

One of the most impactful transfer signings in Bundesliga history was Dortmund’s acquisition of Haaland from RB Salzburg. Sixteen goals and four assists in 14 games for Salzburg was translated to 13 goals and two assists in 15 games for Dortmund. Arriving halfway through the season, Haaland had 15 goal contributions in 1,063 minutes which comes out to be 70 minutes per goal contribution. In essence, it was guaranteed that Haaland was going to either score or assist in each game he played.

Analyzing his expected goals per 90 and his actual non-penalty goals per 90, we see that he quite overperformed. While only record 0.60 xG per 90, Haaland goes on to record a little bit more than one non-penalty goal per 90. Looking that over-performance more closely, we see that Haaland was the highest over-performer striker last season.

Not only was he over-performing his xG by 0.5, but he was also doing this by recording average shots per 90.  This type of over-performance is what is termed as clinical – not taking many shots but making the shots count. Haaland records near average ghost per 90 and overperforms massively on his expected goal on the shot.

This is backed up when we analyze Haaland’s productivity in the box. Haaland records five touches in the box per 90 and takes about 2.5 shots per 90. Compared to other strikers, this isn’t an outstanding performance. Younger and older strikers – some less famous than Haaland – are more productive in the box compared to the young Norwegian. 

To further look into Haaland’s profile, we’ll analyze his touches in all Bundesliga games with a statistic called possession value-added (PVA). PVA gives positive and negative credit to players based on their contributions. PVA allows us to know how certain actions increased the team’s chance of scoring. 

By putting PVA, we are able to see which touches of Haaland were influential for Dortmund. We see that Haaland’s touches in the centre of the box really increase his team’s chances of scoring. As such, we are able to understand that while Haaland might not be touch the ball a lot of times, whenever he does get the ball, he is in high scoring chances as seen here and makes the most of it as seen with the finishing charts above.

With such a clinical striker whose movement, pace, and striking ability are at the top in his age-pool, Dortmund have a proven and dangerous striker who will always be a trouble to the opposition. Now while Haaland might get the credits for his goals, someone’s got to provide him service, and that is where we will analyze the wingers and attacking midfielders.

Evaluating Dortmund’s wing and attacking midfield

Few clubs can boast of having one of the world’s best young, attacking players in the world. Dortmund is exactly that club with English heavyweight Sancho. Sancho has set the world alight with his mercurial performances as a winger at Dortmund and has been chased by the likes of Manchester United and Chelsea – all for good reasons. Alongside Sancho is Thorgan Hazard who has been a consistent winger – and as we’ll see, a bag of surprises. Finally, young Reyna has shown enough promise in his game-time at Dortmund to really strengthen his case as the next great, young talent from America.

We’ll start off with Sancho, and we’ll have a look at some exploratory analyses and then probe deeper.

In a simple analysis of xG and xA, Sancho ranks above-average from European wingers. While he doesn’t contribute as many goals, Sancho does perform in the upper echelons for expected assists.

Looking more deeply at how he assists, we see some key characteristics. We see Sancho as being the top winger at second assists per 90. While the statistic can be vague at times, a second assist generally means the action before a pass which highlights that Sancho is often involved in those passes that eventually end up, resulting in a goal. This emphasis in link-up play for Sancho can be seen at how highly Sancho ranks in deep completions per 90 – a metric that measures passes that put one’s teammates within 20 metres of goal.

Clearly, Sancho is highly involved in the ending, attacking actions and does so with a high frequency. Looking at more volume-based metrics like passes to the final third, Sancho doesn’t rank that highly. It is only when we analyze incisiveness in those passes when we see the value Sancho brings to the table.

Here I have plotted all of Sancho’s passes against all Bundesliga opposition. In this view, I have included the possession value-added metric but also a new metric called Expected Threat (xT). xT, as defined by creator Karun Singh – all credit to him for the metric and the methodology, is a metric that measures the probability of “scoring in the next five actions”. In essence, xT allows us to visualize danger and which passes are really dangerous and which aren’t. While PVA allows a more structural view of the play, xT is more focused on scoring.

In these metrics, I have shown Sancho’s most dangerous xT passes while showing PVA passes ending in the final third. Right off the bat, we see the danger with Sancho with xT. We see passes from all sides near the goal ‘lighting up’ – differing shades of red – with high values of xT. His most dangerous xT passes come from the edge of the box and creep their way into the front of the goal – an indication of just how lethal Sancho can be. This activity with xT would explain just how potent his second assist ability is.

With PVA, we see the ability of Sancho to increase Dortmund’s chances of scoring from deep with passes coming from deep and reaching near the edges of the box. This PVA creation complements Sancho’s deep completions statistic and adds a new dimension – Sancho can not only cause trouble up-close, but he can post his teammates near the goal from deep as well.

Combining with the young Sancho is 27-year old Hazard. At first glance, Hazard doesn’t strike one as ‘hot’ talent; however, a closer look at his underlying statistics reveal a box full of surprises. Hazard recorded seven goals and 13 assists in a Dortmund team where Sancho and Haaland took all the praise. Looking at his passes reveals that Hazard is an important player for this squad.

The first thing that strikes out for Hazard is just how much he creates from the half-spaces. Looking at his most dangerous xT passes, we see the most dangerous passes coming from the right half-space with plenty other passes arriving in the right half-space inside the box. In addition to this, Hazard seems much more versatile in where his passes come from. Hazard’s passes, at times, come from the centre and near the touchline.

In contrast, looking at his PVA, we see that Hazard’s most dangerous PVA passes come from his corners. This is as PVA gradually increases as we go higher up while xT significantly increases near the goal. As such, passes from the wing add more threat than increasing the chance of scoring.

Comparing both these wingers side-by-side, we see the real differences in creativity that they bring.

Here I have analyzed passes in front of goal with xT. With Hazard, we see most of his passes either go near the right-wing or are through-balls to the centre. Sancho, on the other hand, has two key passing clusters – one from the centre to the right-wing and one to a certain space on the left-hand side. Looking at the full-back structure at Dortmund and their passes going to the right can be linked to the brilliant Achraf Hakimi.

However, both wingers don’t only pass. A  key skill for them is to engage in take-ons.

Looking at how successful take-ons, we analyze them for how many of them are superfluous and how many of them actually increase the chance of scoring. We see Sancho being the more dribbler of the two with Sancho coming and taking on his man in his own half while Hazard, mostly, sticks to dribbling up-top.

In terms of the possession value, we see that both wingers really add to Dortmund’s chance when they dribbling right on the corner of the box. Sancho, being the more liberal dribbler, also has a tendency to come in central with his dribbling which adds to the danger he poses. 

The last person in this attacking department is Reyna. While he only played 355 minutes, it still merits to analyze the young attacker who has shown quality in the few minutes he has played.

Looking at Reyna’s successful passes, we see the signs of a youngster. While he doesn’t make many significant passes, it is encouraging to see that a good chunk of his passes in the final third mostly increase the chances of scoring but also increase the threat.

We see that Reyna is in a similar mould to Sancho in how he increases Dortmund’s chances of scoring through his take-ons. Both are dribblers that like to dribble on the left-hand side and just with Sancho, we see Reyna’s most dangerous take-ons occur on the left edge of the box.

It is clear that Dortmund’s attacking lineup is shaping very nicely. A clinical and efficient striker paired up with two wingers that add threat with their passes with lethal effect and a young attacking midfielder who is following in the same mould. At this point, we need to analyze the midfield that’s going to support such a great attack.

Brandt and Dahoud’s balancing role

Last but least, we’re going to analyze the more attacking-minded players of the central-midfield. This differs from the likes of Reyna and Sancho as they look to perform central midfielder activities with a tendency to attack forward.

We’re going to start from Brandt first and analyze his passes with both xT and PVA.

In terms of increasing the chances of scoring, Brandt doesn’t stand out as much with his passes tending to support Borussia’s attack and going outside than going centre. However, when we analyze those passes with threat – how likely his passes will help his team shoot in the next five actions – Brandt comes alive with his passes. Most of his dangerous passes come from deeper areas which shows Brandt playmaking ability that he has at hand.

Dahoud, on the other hand, looks to add more value through PVA than xT. His passing profile is heavily tilted towards the left – seeking to find Sancho. It is in these left-field passes, Dahoud successfully transitions the ball from the midfield near the final third, and as such, increases the chances of scoring. However, in terms of xT, Dahoud performs not so well as his passes are to set-up play.

In addition to providing value with their passes, Dahoud and Brandt also add attacking value through their defensive actions. Pressing is a characteristic of the Dortmund’s team, and as such, these actions need to be analyzed as well.

Here we see the duo’s defensive actions and how they increase Dortmund’s chances of scoring. Dahoud is more of a conservative player emphasizing a solid and progressive presence in the midfield. Brandt, however, is a pressing machine whose presses on both sides of the pitch, high up top, mean that Dortmund often can get counter-attacks from positions that are already high in increasing the chances of scoring. As such, starting their attack from there gives Dortmund a big boost.

Dortmund’s yellow-tinted big picture

We’ve seen through this extensive data analysis on just how exciting this new Dortmund attack is shaping up to be. Haaland, Sancho, Hazard, Reyna, Brandt, and Dahoud are just the names I picked to fit in one-time reading. This doesn’t even include Reinier, Emre Can, and Bellingham – all personnel that are going to make Dortmund’s attack balanced but also more intelligent.

We’ve seen all six players individually so now it’s time to put it all together and talk about how these players work in Dortmund’s system.

Looking at PVA and xT leaders, we see a more complete picture of this Dortmund side. On the PVA side, apart from Achraf Hakimi, Dortmund have kept the leaders in PVA such as Hazard, Sancho, Raphael Guerreiro, and Brandt. On the threat side, it is weird to see Hummels rank so high, but Hummels’ pass map really extends into the final third meaning that the defender is able to capture a greater xT. Nonetheless, this graphic tells us a picture of how we can expect Dortmund to attack through.

Likes of Hazard, Sancho, and Brandt will participate in the buildup and in the final actions of the attack while defenders like Hummels and Manuel Akanji will seek to increase Dortmund’s chances of scoring through their progressive passing. 

Looking at their shooting positions through the PVA statistic, we see that Dortmund normally get into good shooting positions with most of their shots coming in the centre. They are also really good at – and this is mostly due to Haaland – getting very close to the box. As such, opponents facing Dortmund have to be very careful in how they deal with Dortmund’s attack because the personnel at hand for coach Lucien Favre offer various options.

Dortmund can play a high-pressing game, play a more slow possession-based style, or play counter-attacking football. With a clinical striker, two rapid wingers, and a midfield that boasts intelligence, creativity, and pace, Dortmund’s attack is going to be exciting, to say the least. Add all of that together with a coach who sticks to attacking principles and you have the perfect recipe for great eye-catching and devastating fußball.