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Profiling the Single Pivoteers: Expanding the data to look at Bayern's center midfielders as a whole

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Expanding the data to look at Bayern's center midfielders as as whole and identifying key patterns and the best players for which positions

Alexander Hassenstein

Last week, we looked at Bayern Munich's holding midfielders as an isolated subset of the team to determine who the best option was in the Bayern Munich holding midfielder/single pivot role. Rather then spoiling the conclusion for you, you can head on over and give it a gander. Ok, fine. The data was firmly pointing at Bastian Schweinsteiger as the man for the position.

As was addressed in the article there are some caveats with isolating it down to only performances at that position as Guardiola's midfield is extremely dynamic, and often times the central midfielders continuously alternate positions. In addition, the sample size for most players wasn't much more than 3 games worth (or in Thiago's case, less than a game), so it would behoove us to expand our sample size. Both of those in conjunction make further analysis warranted. In this, I'll address the same three main areas of performance: in possession, in attack, and in defense for the same four players (Philipp Lahm, Schweinsteiger, Javi Martinez, Thiago) in addition to Toni Kroos.

In Possession

Minutes Pass% BackZonePass% FwdZonePass% Pass/90 Touches/90 Longballs/90
Bastian Schweinsteiger 742 0.92 0.97 0.88 86.77 99.34 9.92
Javi Martinez 391 0.9 0.95 0.68 61.19 78.17 5.49
Philipp Lahm 1108 0.93 0.96 0.9 83.68 94.96 6.19
Thiago Alcantara 307 0.9 0.97 0.86 111.22 131.97 11.81
Toni Kroos 1104 0.92 0.97 0.86 84.69 100.36 9.73

In possession, the players still all rank out nearly equal in terms of passing percentage, as well as passing percentage in the defensive zone. Where the possession based differences start to creep in is in the offensive zone where Javi Martinez basically drops like a rock compared to his performances in the single. The young Spanish defensive midfielder has been used in weird roles by Pep Guardiola all season (including as a CAM) where he naturally attempts many more aggressive passes, such as against Borussia Dortmund, which probably contributes to this drop. But, it's clear in also looking at his passes per 90 and touches per 90, that Martinez is the least possession based of all the options in Guardiola's midfield. That severely limits his usefulness given the emphasis Guardiola has placed on that position as the distributive hub of the team. We've seen that manifest itself as players like Thiago and Lahm keep getting slotted in ahead of Martinez, who so far has made mostly late game cameos with an eye towards defensive stability. While that's a fantastic piece to have, it's also probably not the best situation in which to put a player as good as Javi Martinez in and expect him to remain happy.

However, what's really surprising is how similar all of Schweinsteiger, Kroos and Lahm come out in passing percentages, passes per 90, touches per 90, and even to a certain extent long-balls per 90 (Lahm attempts them less, but his ability to play them is not in question). In many ways, they are completely interchangeable from a possession perspective which bodes very well as Bayern Munich have what is going to amount to a very tough and very busy schedule as they wind closer towards April and May.

On the more aggressive side is Thiago Alcantara, whose statistics still show up in those elevated possession levels including more passes, more touches, and more longballs. It's clear that he's often the busiest of the set and given that he's usually play as the most forward and aggressive of the three central midfielders, that shouldn't be surprising. One thing that comes out from these statistics is that while Thiago completes nearly 30 more passes per 90 than the rest of his compatriots, he has identical forward zone passing percentage. We like to say Thiago is more risky in possession, but it's simply not true from a rate perspective. He may turnover possession more times in aggregate simply due to his increased passing volume, but the rate at which he turns over possession is no different than any of his counterparts which is something we should take great care to remember.

In Attack

Minutes Final Third Passes/90 Key Pases/90
Bastian Schweinsteiger 742 23.38 1.06
Javi Marti­nez 391 9.58 0
Philipp Lahm 1108 23.35 1.32
Thiago Alcantara 307 41.47 2.21
Toni Kroos 1104 28.62 1.19

In attack, the immediately clear point should be that once again, Schweinsteiger, Lahm, and Kroos are all basically carbon copies of each other. Toni Kroos may play a few more attacking passes then the other two, but that is certainly attributable to his more advanced positioning within the midfield and not to any differences in functional play. Once again, Thiago rates out as the most aggressive, playing nearly a third to twice as many attacking passes than his counterparts and contributing a key pass more per 90, while Javi Martinez comes in at the back of the pack with very little attacking involvement.

In Defense

Minutes Tackles/90 Interceptions/90 PossWon/90*
Bastian Schweinsteiger 742 1.87 0.98 3.28
Javi Marti­nez 391 3.08 2.65 2
Philipp Lahm 1108 1.08 1.08 3.51
Thiago Alcantara 307 3.52 1.51 4.87
Toni Kroos 1104 2.64 0.69 3.11

Once again, the really finite differences between all the options in the single pivot comes down to their defensive capabilities. In this measure, it's rather different than what we saw when we just looked at performances in the single pivot as Thiago actually grades out as the most defensive of the entire bunch winning possession nearly 5 times a game while Javi Martinez actually comes in the poorest. It certainly lends credence to the idea that Martinez should not be playing in a more advanced CM role while Thiago should not be playing in the single pivot. Their performances in their non-native positions are clearly not up to snuff for either of them to continue earning minutes in those roles considering how good and consistent Schweinsteiger, Lahm, and Kroos have been.

Furthermore, considering that Javi Martinez didn't grade out well above the rest in the examination of just the single pivot role, it may be time to start questioning whether Guardiola should be playing him in the midfield at all with this setup. Centerback might be the best option for him moving forward this season given the dynamism demanded of that position in this system.

Conclusion

It's rather profound that across several different indicators for skill in possession, attack, and defense associated with the single pivot that the three German in Lahm, Schweinsteiger, and Kroos all show up as being nearly identical across the board (with Kroos displaying as a slightly more attacking option). Taken in conjunction with their performances in advanced midfield positions, it's fairly clear that Bayern Munich has really mastered the aspect of a range of skillsets to fit into Pep Guardiola's midfield. Ranging from the purely defensive in Martinez to the purely offensive in Thiago, Guardiola can mix and match depending on which of those two options he needs in a given match with any of the three in Lahm, Schweinsteiger, or Kroos filling in the other two gaps. That's an extremely valuable skill and, in many ways, doesn't really give us a definitive answer as to who the best midfield options are for Bayern Munich. While Bastian Schweinsteiger was by far the best option in looking at the single pivot as an isolated subset, in looking at the whole dataset it's pretty clear that there's aren't any wrong options for Guardiola in his central midfield.