Austrian Bundesliga 2019/20: Using data to find a new left-back for RB Salzburg – data analysis
RB Salzburg were in the last years clearly the dominant force in Austria as they won the Austrian Bundesliga every year since the season 2013/14 and were, in this season, in the UEFA Champions League for the first time in the history of the club. There, they showed great performances in the group stage against Liverpool, Napoli and Genk.
One of the trademarks of Salzburg is clearly that every year they would look to have an almost completely new squad. They sell players to bigger European clubs in every transfer window and then build a new team with young talents. In almost every area of the squad, you can see new faces after at least two years’ time.
However, in one certain position that is not the case as the left-back Andreas Ulmer has already been a part of RB Salzburg since January 2009. The 34-year-old has since then been an important part of the team and one of the very few players who stayed for a longer time.
However, he won’t be able to play on his current level for that many more years. Even though RB Salzburg have a great replacement in Gideon Mensah who is currently on loan at Zulte Waregem, they should stil look for an alternative for two reasons. Firstly, there is no single real left-back in the squad of FC Liefering (RB Salzburg’s second team) and secondly, it would be really risky to have just one left-back in the squad as soon as Ulmer ends his career or leaves the club.
Due to that, this data analysis will look into who could be the second replacement next to Mensah for Ulmer at RB Salzburg.
What to expect from a left-back at RB Salzburg
Basically, the philosophy of the club is to be very active with and without the ball. Especially the two phases of transition are key moments for the Austrian side. As soon as they win back the ball, they try to start a counter-attack and get forward as fast as possible while they mostly immediately start a counter-pressing when they lose possession.
When they are out of possession, the squad of Marsch mainly use a high and aggressive pressing to give the opposition no chance to have a calm build-up. It’s no surprise that they have the lowest PPDA (passes per defensive action) value of all clubs in the Austrian Bundesliga with 5.56. Also, the fact that their value for the challenge intensity (tackles, duels and interceptions per minutes of the opposition’s possession) is the highest in the league with 9.2 shows us what an active style of play they have.
In possession, the full-backs and wing-backs respectively are the only ones who provide any width. The American head coach prefers a 4-4-2 or a 3-5-2 formation. When they play with a back four, the two wingers tuck in to occupy the half-spaces and that means that the full-backs are the only players on the wings.
Considering this, no matter if they play with three or four men at the back, in the periods of possession the full-backs are quite important since they have to push forward and support the midfielders and attackers.
Since Salzburg overloads the centre and the half-spaces often, the opposition defends quite narrow and stay horizontally compact. Due to that, Salzburg either want to break through the middle with the combination of short passes and deep runs or try to exploit the space on the wings with the aid of the full-backs.
Considering the basic tactical ideas of RB Salzburg, the left-back needs to be physically strong, have solid stamina and should have good technical abilities since they are quite often involved in the build-up and the attacks. We’ll now have a quick look at Ulmer’s stats to compare them to the other left-backs.
Andreas Ulmer’s metrics
Little note: In the graph above and in all the following ones as well as in the text, we always talk about the average values per 90 minutes.
As mentioned in the section above, you expect from a left-back in the philosophy of Salzburg that he supports his teammates in the advanced areas. Two metrics with which we can simply show how often and active a player is when it comes to the offensive phase are progressive runs and progressive passes. Salzburg’s captain Ulmer has quite good values for both categories with 1.54 progressive runs and 14.68 progressive passes.
However, an offensive-minded full-back who gets forward together with the midfielders and the attackers gets measured by his assists as well. The two full-backs of Liverpool, Trent Alexander-Arnold and Andy Robertson are surely the most famous examples that full-backs are nowadays often among the men with the most assists. Considering this, the provided assists and the value for the expected assists (xA) are also good values to measure the offensive qualities of full-backs. Still, you have to consider that especially in these values the style of play of the team and the teammates have a huge impact on these metrics. Ulmer tallied 0.21 assists per game with an xA value of 0.29 in the ongoing season.
However, even though RB Salzburg are a team who dominate during the most parts of the game, it’s of course still important that the player of the back four and back five respectively has solid defensive abilities. The two central factors at which we look in this data analysis are the success rate in the defensive duels and the successful defensive actions overall per 90 minutes. For both of these metrics, the 34-years-old Austrian has once again great stats as he makes 6.44 successful defensive actions per match and wins 63.4% of his defensive duels.
These statistics will be used in the following sections to find players on the same level or with even better metrics.
A quick overview of the possible players
Now, since usually RB Salzburg want to recruit young and talented players, we will look at all players who are younger than 24 and have about the same values or even better ones than Ulmer. In the light of this, we divided our search in two main categories as we firstly investigate the offensive abilities of the young left-backs to see if they fit into the offensive style of RB Salzburg and then also check on their defensive metrics.
The statistics for the offensive abilities are progressive runs and progressive passes (both values per 90 minutes). We can see a pool of 43 players from across several European leagues together with Ulmer in the following graph.
We can instantly see that Ulmer is among the very best players when it comes to the progressive passes with 14.68 but with just 1.54 progressive runs per 90 minutes, he’s lower than the average value. The players who stand out are Jakub Kiwior (MAK Zilina), Pietro Ceccaroni (Venezia FC) and Borna Sosa (Stuttgart). Giacomo Ricci (Juve Stabia), Mensah and Jordan Lotomba (the one on the right side next to Mensah from Young Boys Bern) also have values above the average line in both categories.
Now, when we look at the defensive abilities of the players, we take their overall successful defensive actions per 90 minutes and their success rate in defensive duels in percentage, as we can see in the graph below.
Ulmer’s location in this graph is no huge surprise as he is with a success rate of 63.4% in defensive duels above the average, but has just 6.44 successful defensive actions per 90 minutes. The main reason for that is that Salzburg dominate the game in the majority of their matches and due to that they don’t have to defend that often. Additionally, the (counter) pressing often leads to recoveries in the higher lines and Ulmer never rarely comes into defensive duels or has to intercept a pass. The two players who stand out in this graph are clearly once again Kiwior and St. Gallen’s Miro Muheim who is 21 years old.
Meanwhile, Mensah has clearly more successful defensive actions than the average but loses too many defensive duels. The pink point underneath Marchodee Nzita is the 22-years-old left-back Emir Karic of the Austrian Bundesliga club Altach who left Salzburg two years ago.
As the next step, we compare Mensah, Karic, Kiwior, Muheim and Elias Cobbaut who is great in all four metrics and seems to have no real weakness, to Ulmer to find out a bit more about them.
Gideon Mensah, 21 years old, Zulte-Waregem
As already mentioned, it seems pretty clear that Mensah will be the one who replaces Ulmer within the next few seasons. Due to that, it also makes great sense to send him on loan to give him appearances in Belgium’s top-flight which he needs to develop his skills.
However, the stats of the 21-years-old show that he will basically fit really well into the tactics of RB Salzburg as he wants to push forward, but also his defensive abilities are solid. One value that is quite astonishing when we look at Mensah is the success rate for his dribbles as he finishes 61.9% of them. While he has with 11.22 progressive passes a clearly worse value than Ulmer (14,68), he makes more progressive runs (2.69) compared to Ulmer’s 1.54. With the aid of these values, we can clearly see that Mensah is extremely confident on the ball but he has to work on his passing.
Emir Karic, 21 years old, Altach
Karic was part of RB Salzburg and FC Liefering (their second team) until 2018 but then he joined Altach where he developed into one of the most promising left-backs in the Austrian Bundesliga. As Altach is one of the teams in the Austrian top-flight who are mostly around the middle of the table, they are not as dominant as RB Salzburg and due to that, it’s logical that he is involved in more defensive duels than Ulmer with a value of 8.15 per 90 minutes. Also, he wins on average 64.81% of these duels and that is an even higher value than Ulmer’s.
However, Karic is also a left-back who tries to support his teammates during the attacks as he makes 12.89 progressive passes and 1.86 progressive runs per game. Also, 55.6% of his dribbles are successful and that is a solid value for a left-back.
Jakub Kiwior, 20 years old, MAK Zilina
Kiwior stood out in both graphs above even though he’s just 20 years old. However, I also have to add that he played as a centre-back and as a left-back this season. At first glance, Kiwior is with 14.09 progressive passes, 4.03 progressive runs and 10.18 successful defensive actions (all per 90 minutes) an absolutely outstanding talent.
However, you have to consider that he made just five appearances in the Slovakian top-flight as a left-back this season. He would need to show these performances in a stronger league in more games to really show his real potential and level. Still, the Polish defender seems to be a great talent who is defensively extremely solid – 6.36 interceptions per game and a success rate of 72.46 in defensive duels.
Miro Muheim, 21 years old, St. Gallen
St. Gallen’s Muheim played in 21 out of the possible 23 games in the Swiss Super League this season. He missed the two other games due to suspensions and is a regular part of the starting XI. With 10.05 successful actions per 90 minutes, he has the second-highest value of all players in this data analysis for this metric behind Kiwior.
Also, he starts per match 3.73 dribbles with a success rate of 54.9% (both values are clearly higher compared to Ulmer’s). The 21-year-old Swiss left-back plays on average just 39.07 passes per game which is a quite low value.
Elias Cobbaut, 22 years old, Anderlecht
Cobbaut is the last player in this data analysis but the one with the most experience as he has already played 82 games in the Belgian top-flight and debuted for the senior national team of Belgium last year.
Due to that, it’s no huge surprise that he has overall solid stats. While he is in no category extremely outstanding, he seems to have no weaknesses except the fact that he starts just 0.69 dribbles per game, but the main reason for that is that he played as a centre-back in several games this season.
However, he has on average 7.87 successful actions per match which is a good value and with 55.64 passes per 90, we can see that he is able to be among the players who are often on the ball during the build-up.
It will be interesting to see how long the 34-years-old Ulmer will be able to play on his current level and if RB Salzburg will get a second left-back besides Mensah. The four other players we talked about in this data analysis are all quite promising players. Even though Kiwior is a great talent according to the stats, it’s questionable how good he would perform when made to play as a left-back in the Austrian Bundesliga over a longer period.
Karic and Muheim are both great young talents who could become one of the best left-backs of their respective nations. Furthermore, the two young defenders already showed good performances in the Super League and Austrian Bundesliga respectively.
Cobbaut currently plays a central role at Anderlecht who are usually among the best teams in Belgium (not in this season) and due to that, he would probably be the one who could immediately help RB Salzburg.
If Mensah returns in this summer transfer window and he and Ulmer take turns at playing as the left-back, it’s questionable whether they will try to buy a new player. However, sooner or later they have to buy a new one as Ulmer will end his career and who knows how long they can hold Mensah.