Is the Bundesliga’s defensive focus to blame for European exit?

For the first time since 2005, Germany was not represented in the semi-finals of the UEFA Champions League or UEFA Europa League.

The bulk of the power lies in Spain – as it has done for the past decade. There are four Spanish teams flying the flag for La Liga, while there is one representative from England, Italy, the Netherlands and France. Just Germany, of all of Europe’s major footballing powers, is bereft of the chance of continental glory this season.

Are there any underlying reasons which underpin Germany’s disappointing performances this season? Football, at this level, in knockout competitions, can often come down to fine margins. The best teams don’t always come away with wins. FC Bayern Munich, the eminent team in the Bundesliga, will rue missed opportunities in the first leg for their comprehensive undoing by Real Madrid over two games.

But perhaps we can look slightly deeper without declaring that German football’s in some kind of crisis. There are genuine concerns over the tactical and technical development of the game in Germany, even from some of the most respected voices in the game.

“The lack of quality is the most important thing,” said Bayern Munich captain Philipp Lahm last month.

“If we have a 13-point lead after 25 games, it means that other well-established clubs like Schalke or Wolfsburg have not set up in such a way that they will win consistently.”

Even Joachim Löw, head coach of Germany’s national team, has criticised the Bundesliga.

“You have to say that clearly we are still behind. England and Spain are still ahead on an international level,” said Löw, whose comments have certainly ruffled the feathers of Germany’s established status quo.

“It is much better football than from years ago,” argued Rüdi Völler, the sporting director of Bayer 04 Leverkusen.

Felix Magath, former title-winning coach of Bayern Munich and VfL Wolfsburg, added: “The quality of football is on an internationally high level.”

But this season’s performances in European competition, and Germany’s hunt for a first European crown since 2013, has raised questions over the quality of the Bundesliga.

A well-constructed piece in Germany’s Süddeutsche Zeitung newspaper by Thomas Hummel lays out the Bundesliga’s obsession with defensive-first football.

“In the Bundesliga, the pattern of pressing, counter-pressing and the work against the ball prevails. In none of Europe’s big five leagues are so many long balls hit forward,” he writes.

The essence of Hummel’s argument is that German teams are consistently foregoing more structured build-up play from defence in favour of a quicker route to attack, which leads to a certain level of unpredictability and imprecision.

“Goalscoring in the Bundesliga has declined since 2013/2014,” explains Simon Gleave, Head of Analysis at Gracenote Sports.

“Even with recent higher levels of scoring, the current rate is still just below 2.8 per match. If it stays below 2.8, it will be the second time in the last three seasons that it has been so low. There have not been two out of three Bundesliga seasons with scoring below 2.8 per match for 25 years.”

Traditionally, the highest-scoring league in Europe, the Bundesliga is now third of the continent’s strongest leagues with just below 2.8 goals per match. Spain’s La Liga is unsurprisingly the highest-scoring league with slightly over 2.9 per game.

There are actually some simple explanations for the fewer number of goals scored in the Bundesliga. There are less shots being taken, while conversion rates have also declined.

“This is even more marked inside the penalty area where the current conversion rate of around 18 per cent is well down on 2012/2013 and 2013/2014 when scoring rates were 1.5 to 2 per cent higher than they have been over the past two seasons,” Gleave added.

On a tactical level, the Bundesliga is arguably as good as any of the other top European leagues. Teams are compact and aggressive against the ball, yet there is a drop in teams who can successfully execute the positional play model, which is preferred in Spain. Only Thomas Tuchel and Julian Nagelsmann adopt such a fluid and inventive game model based on intelligence and combination play.

“You have to develop your own ideas when you’re in possession,” Nagelsmann explains in an interview with The Ringer.

“It’s far more complex than coaching defensive work. [Pep] Guardiola brought a lot of development into the Bundesliga, but we all have to keep working to make sure that it continues, to make sure that we don’t just have a defensive approach. Otherwise, the league will become uninteresting, and no more goals will be scored because no one will want the ball. You have to be brave and try to do something with the ball.”

The European Championships in France gave weight to defensively sound teams, who made quick and direct transitions to attack. But teams with a greater share of the possession pulled through in the knockout stages more than those who saw less of the ball, UEFA’s Technical Report for last season’s Champions League confirmed. Pressing has been the important tactical development of the decade, but not at the expense of structures and ideas in possession.

It’s here where German football needs to evolve in the coming years. Teams like TSG 1899 Hoffenheim and Borussia Dortmund play at as high a standard as those in La Liga, but others have disappointed. If there is a continued dip in German performances, it won’t be long before the current status quo comes into question.

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