It isn’t an overstatement to say that Borussia Monchengladbach may be the strangest team in Europe.
Monchengladbach finished third last season in the Bundesliga behind Bayern Munich and Wolfsburg and as a result earned direct entry into the Champions League group stage. They were rewarded with being drawn into the hardest group in the tournament containing Manchester City, Juventus and Sevilla.
Given their impressive 2014-15 campaign it takes a little bit of digging to actually uncover what makes Monchengladbach such a strange club. They finished third pretty comfortably last season with a goal difference of +27 on the back of a staunch defence, which only conceded 26 goals.
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What’s odd about them is that their underlying numbers are not anywhere near this good. In fact they’ve consistently over performed their underlying numbers for the past three seasons.
Last season Monchengladbach had a Total Shots Ratio—the ratio of shots a team takes relative to the shots they both take and conceded—of 0.45, the sixth worst in the Bundesliga.
It’s almost unheard of to have a team outscore their opponents by 27 goals while averaging fewer shots than their opponents. In comparison, Manchester City and Juventus had TSRs greater than 0.6 in their respective leagues.
The immediate response to this is that maybe what Monchengladbach lacked in shot quantity they made up for in terms of shot quality. Analyst Dustin Ward looked into this exact question using Expected Goals.
ExpG calculate the probability that any given shot will be converted into a goal while taking into account factors such as distance to the goal, angle to the goal, speed of attack and part of the body. For example if a shot has a 30 percent chance of being scored it is worth 0.3 ExpG. Over the course of a large sample the ratio of a team’s ExpG and actual goals scored is usually around 1:1.
Looking at the past three seasons Ward found that Monchengladbach have scored more goals than Expected Goals every year. In 2012-13 and 2013-14 they actually outscored their Expected Goals by a higher ratio than any other team in the Bundesliga. In these seasons they averaged scoring more than 1.4 goals for every 1 ExpG.
On defence it was more of the same. They’ve conceded fewer goals than ExpG in each of these three seasons and in 2012-13 and 2014-15 they had the lowest ratio of Expected Goals conceded compared to goals conceded in the Bundesliga. In both of these seasons they conceded less than 0.6 goals for every 1 ExpG they conceded.
Teams go on lucky spurts and sometimes even outperform their underlying numbers for the course of an entire season, but to do it for three seasons in a row suggests something more than just a lucky run.
Ward argues that some tactical trends may be the cause of Monchengladbach’s consistent over-performing of their Expected Goals. This theory holds a lot of weight especially if we look at some of their pass selection statistics.
Possession-adjusted pass statistics give the number of a certain type of a pass a team would have averaged playing in a game if they’d averaged having 50 percent possession in every single game. This is to get rid of possession effects and actually look at the types of passes teams chose to play when they have the ball as opposed to just their total number of passes played, which is affected by how much of the ball they have.
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In the Bundesliga last season Monchengladbach played 458 possession-adjusted short passes per game, the most in the league. In fact Monchengladbach averaged 55 more possession-adjusted short passes per game than Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich. Monchengladbach also averaged only 10 possession-adjusted crosses per game, the second least in the Bundesliga behind Bayern Munich.
Monchengladbach play like a Champions League team, they get the results of a Champions League team and they score as many goals as a Champions League team, but for some reason they don’t shoot or create the same quality of opportunities as the average Champions League team. So what does this mean for Monchengladbach?
On the one hand statistics like Expected Goals and Total Shots Ratio aren’t perfect. Soccer analytics is an evolving field and maybe there are things that Monchengladbach does which traditional analytics are missing and need to account for. In this case maybe their poor numbers shouldn’t be a cause for concern at all.
However, Monchengladbach has had a disastrous start to their domestic campaign. Last Friday’s 3-0 loss to Hamburger SV was their fourth straight defeat to start the season. This transfer window also saw them lose a couple of key players in Max Kruse and Christoph Kramer. The season may only be a month old, but something about Monchengladbach hasn’t been working like it was when they were consistently over performing their underlying statistics.
Monchengladbach will be under a lot of pressure when they head to Sevilla on Tuesday to kick off their Champions League season, and from an analytics perspective many will be watching to see if they can repeat whatever it was that allowed them to compete with the likes of Wolfsburg and Bayern Munich last season.
Opta data used in this article.
Sam Gregory is soccer analytics writer based in London. Follow him on Twitter