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Austria Returns: A Reminder of the Current State of Play in the Austrian Bundesliga

 

With top-flight football in Austria all set to resume next week, Stats Perform applies data to provide a quick refresher of what is shaping up to be a four-way fight for the Bundesliga title.

 

By: Philipp Ertl

Following intensive negotiations between the Austrian Bundesliga, the federation and the government, an agreement was struck to resume the league on 2nd June. Prior to that, title challengers Red Bull Salzburg will play second tier side SC Austria Lustenau in the UNIQA ÖFB Cup Final on 29th May, the first game of competitive football in the country since early March.

To help get you back up-to-speed with how the competition was shaping up prior to the enforced hiatus, Stats Perform is on hand to provide a data-driven reminder of the Bundesliga’s key talking points.

Points Deductions and a Contrast of Styles in the Title Race

The stage is set for a titanic battle for the Bundesliga title, with Salzburg’s domination of domestic football under serious threat from LASK. For the past two seasons, the league has adopted a format similar to that used in other European competitions where after each team has played each other twice, they are split into two groups resulting in the top six entering a championship round, with the remaining six participating in a Europa League play-off/relegation round.

LASK finished the regular season six points clear at the top, which under normal circumstances would have meant they would enter the championship phase with a three point lead after every team’s points had been halved and rounded-up. However the team from Linz were hit with a six point deduction for the violation of rules introduced during the Covid-19 outbreak. The penalty comes after footage emerged of the club allegedly holding prohibited training sessions during the hiatus. The club have made it clear they intend to appeal the penalty, having previously accused unnamed third-parties of ‘industrial espionage’.

The controversy adds another dimension to a closely-fought title race, especially when you take into account LASK’s outstanding form before the league paused. They were the only team to win all four of their league games following the winter break and made Bundesliga history by winning their first 11 away games – a league record.

In contrast Salzburg, who entered 2019/20 having won a record six consecutive league titles, ended a four game winless run with a 2-0 victory over Sturm Graz in their final game before the break. It was their longest run without a win since the 2011/12 season under Ricardo Moniz.

Both team’s successes have been built on different strengths. If the championship was awared based on the American Football adage “offense wins games, defence wins championships”, then LASK would be in the driving seat. Whilst Salzburg have set a new league record of 74 goals scored in just 22 games, Linz have been resolute at the back, conceding just 20 goals so far.

When we compare both team’s approaches using the Stats Perform Playing Styles Framework, we can see that both teams play at a high tempo, with LASK focusing particularly on high pressing. Salzburg also press high up the pitch, but when they are in possession they spend a higher proportion of time engaged in the build-up phase, which is defined as enjoying periods of long, controlled possession in the opposition’s half, between the halfway line and the opposition box.

Salzburg’s use of controlled possession is also reflected by the Sequence Framework. Jesse Marsch’s side have completed 164 sequences comprising of 10 or more passes during the season, significantly more than their title rivals. Their expected goals output has also been substantially higher, demonstrating their ability to generate a high volume of high quality chances.

Rapid Not To Be Discounted

LASK’s points deduction, coupled with the halving of regular season points, mean that Rapid now sit just four points off Salzburg at the top. The side from Vienna were another team who were in excellent form when the season stopped, and are unbeaten in their last nine Bundesliga games (5 wins, 4 draws). It was their best run of form since August-November 2017, when they went 10 games unbeaten.

Dietmar Kühbauer’s men have scored seven of their goals directly from the opposition’s loss of possession, the most of any team in the league. According to the Playing Styles Framework, they are engaged in a higher proportion of counter-attacking possessions than any other team in the league – and 32% above the league average. Two of their key counter attacking players are Stefan Schwab and Thomas Murg. Schwab contributes 19% of Rapid’s total distance gained as a result of passing, whilst no other player generates as much territory through dribbling during counter attacks as Murg.

Rapid also possess a striker in top form. Since joining from St. Pölten in the summer, Taxiarchis Fountas has scored 14 goals his first 19 games, a record which is similar to that of Robert Beric during 2014/15, who is considered to be the last prolific striker to wear Rapid’s colours. Fountas has exceeded his expected goals output by over five goals, a differential surpassed only by WAC’s Shon Weissman.

Weissman outperforms Haaland and Messi

Fourth placed WAC are another team who could have a say in the title race, given that they possess two players, Shon Weissman and Michael Liendl, who are leading the league’s goalscoring and assist rankings by some margin.

In his debut Bundesliga season, Weissman is five goals clear of his nearest rival, Patson Daka, in the goalscoring charts, with 22 goals from his first 21 games. He was also one goal clear of Erling Haaland before the Norwegian moved to Dortmund. But had the 19-year-old stayed in Salzburg, who would have come out on top in the golden boot race at the end of the season?

It would undoubtedly have been a close race between them, but one area where Weissman has particularly excelled has been in his Expected Goals on Target (xGOT) output.

We can use xGOT values as an indicator, over a given time period, for how well a player is shooting. For example, a player whose xGOT is exceeding their xG is executing better quality shots, given the quality of chances he has attempted shots from.

So far this season, Weissman’s xGOT has exceeded his xG output by nearly five, demonstrating his ability to increase the probably of a shot resulting in a goal based on the end location of the shot, compared to the probability of the shot location. This differential is highest of any player participating in the Bundesliga and across the big-five European leagues – pipping Lionel Messi to top spot.

Liendl and Weissman Providing a Lethal Combination

Veteran Michael Liendl has assisted nine of Shon Weissman’s 22 goals this season. In total he has contributed 15 assists during the campaign, ten of which have come from open play.

Ranking second in the league for assists is set piece specialist Peter Michorl, who has contributed ten during 19/20. His dead ball prowess is reflected by the fact that only three of his assists have come from open play, and two of those were short lay-offs for teammates to shoot from distance. Compared to Liendl, he has contributed very few passes with an expected assists value above 0.1 into dangerous locations inside the box.

Liendl’s involvement in generating chances also comes through in the sequence framework. In total, Liendl is involved in 54 of every 100 shot-ending open play sequences created by WAC, a ratio which is bettered only by Hartberg’s Rejko Rep. They are the only two players to be involved in more than half of their team’s sequences resulting in a shot.

Little to Separate Out Winners and Losers in the Fight for Survival

At the other end of the league, six teams will now be fighting it out for a single place in the Bundesliga’s end-of-season Europa League play-offs, as well as looking to secure their top flight status for 2020/21.

To highlight how tight the race could end up being, we have generated a final league table based on the points each team will have once the season resumes, and added points from the remaining fixtures based on if the results were to replicate the same outcomes from the match-ups in the regular season.

If that scenario were to happen, we would end up with three teams tied on 26 points at the top, with the other teams all tied on 20 points at the bottom. In this scenario Mattersburg would be relegated, despite having a superior goal difference, because their rivals had their regular season points rounded down (i.e they had half a point chalked off from their average regular season points).

Projected League Table: Qualification Round  – Bundesliga 2019/20

* Regular season points were rounded down when they were halved prior to the season split (meaning they are ranked above teams whose points were not rounded down)

With potential match winners spread across all the teams involved in a four-horse title race, together with a tightly congested fight for survival, it would appear that all the elements are there for the 2019/20 season to deliver a classic finish.