Florian Neuhaus — A Vital Piece for Marco Rose

Borussia Monchengladbach going from one of the more inconsistent teams in the top of half of the table to title challengers for a large part of the season was quite a story, and Marco Rose has a lot to do with this. The former RB Salzburg coach came into a team who lost their best player in Thorgan Hazard and replaced him with Marcus Thuram and Breel Embolo; two players, while promising, needed some refinement to turn them into players as productive as the Belgian forward. While Embolo is yet to find his feet for his new club, Thuram has turned into a star. Two full-back acquisitions in Ramy Bensebaini on the left and Stefan Lainer (who played under Rose in Salzburg) on the right also gave the team a lot more creativity down the flanks.

One of Rose’s goals was to oversee the development of the team’s younger players. It’s a job familiar to the 43-year-old, who helped his former club develop the likes of Hannes Wolf, Xaver Schlager and Takumi Minamino; who’ve all left RB Salzburg to join clubs in the top five leagues. Gladbach currently has some great young players. The already mentioned Embolo and Thuram, as well as Nico Elvedi, Dennis Zakaria, Laszlo Benes and the player we’ll be discussing today: Florian Neuhaus.

Neuhaus is a player who’s potential has been apparent since his teenage years. Neuhaus, when playing for 1860 Munich’s youth team, scored the winner in the German youth cup final with an 89th-minute winner from the halfway line in a 2–1 win over Borussia Dortmund. After making his first appearance for the senior team in 2016, Gladbach swooped in and signed the promising young midfielder the following year. Neuhaus was loaned out to Dusseldorf, where his standout performances helped the club earn promotion to the Bundesliga. Neuhaus has been one of the brightest midfield talents in Germany and was excellent during the first half of the 2018/19 season. Neuhaus topped the team for assists with seven by Christmas and looked ready to be playing at the highest level, week in week out. However, he was another player who’s form dropped off after the winter break, only going on to assist another goal.

I was intrigued to see what Rose could do with the 23-year-old, and for the first few months of the season, he underwhelmed. It wasn’t to say I thought Neuhaus was playing poorly. The former 1860 Munich midfielder was still creating a lot of chances and showing a lot of maturity and intelligence in possession. But other players quickly took the spotlight away from him. Dennis Zakaria is as good as Neuhaus on the ball while being able to offer superior physicality and defensive actions. Christoph Kramer is the most defensive-minded player out of the team’s midfielders and gives the younger players less defensive responsibility. Laszlo Benes had a real breakout season before suddenly falling down the pecking order, offering great movement and technical ability.

When the Bundesliga returned after Germany’s lockdown was lightened, Neuhaus had a chance to stake a claim on starting every week. Dennis Zakaria suffered a knee injury at the start of March, and Neuhaus was the clear first choice to fill in for him.

The 23-year-old’s performances have been excellent since the return, but before discussing why, let’s first talk about how he plays. Gladbach primarily attacks through their full-backs. Stefan Lainer is one of the team’s most constant creators at full-back, with the defender given full licence to push forward and create for the forwards. Because of creativity shouldered by other players, it provides Neuhaus with two crucial roles. The first is giving the ball to the full-backs. Gladbach looks to transition the ball as quickly as possible, either through long balls to one of the strikers, or waiting for Lainer to make one his usual darting runs forward. Neuhaus does play a part in this. The German midfielder rarely ever holds onto the ball for too long. His vision and awareness enable him to see his passing options before he even receives the ball. He’ll always look to play the ball first time into the path of Bensebaini or Wendt to help drive the ball forward. The urgency in his passing makes him challenging to press. Not only does Neuhaus play these quick balls that cause many issues for opposition midfielders, but he’s also able to dribble through players effortlessly, giving him another effective method of ball progression. Neuhaus has been one of Gladbach’s best dribblers this season, attempting 2.54 dribbles per 90 with a 73.4 success rate; only Zakaria averages the same high amount with a similar success rate.

Neuhaus’s biggest strengths are all on the side of ball progression. But he isn’t afraid to help his team in the opponent’s penalty area. Neuhaus is third in the squad for passes into the penalty area with 28, only behind Steffan Lainer and Alassane Plea. The former 1860 Munich midfielder is an adept passer who is willing to take risks if it aids in giving his team a goal. Yet, it’s the way he helps his team off the ball I find more interesting. If Gladbach needs a goal, Neuhaus will offer support in the box, through late runs to give one of the full-backs another option, or to open up space for one of the attacking players.

One area in which Neuhaus excels in is counter-attacks. When Gladbach is on the break, it brings out one of Neuhaus’s best qualities; his awareness of what’s around him. Neuhaus likes to drive the ball with speed, dragging defenders towards him and opening up space for his teammates. He did this fantastically in Borussia Monchengladbach’s 3–1 victory over Paderborn. After recovering the ball and beginning a counter-attack, Neuhaus receives the ball and quickly dashes towards the opposition box. None of the Paderborn players wanted to make a challenge since it resulted in a Gladbach set-piece. Multiple players surrounded the young German midfielder and instead of shooting, chose to play the ball to Patrick Herrmann, who had acres of room due to Neuhaus’s run. While Herrmann did waste the chance, it perfectly showed just how good of a decision-maker Neuhaus is, able to make the right choice under tough circumstances.

It’s clear Neuhaus excels during the attacking phase, but how does he perform on the defensive end? I wouldn’t say Neuhaus is terrible defensively, but he isn’t excellent either. He’s competent enough not to be a consistent liability, but doesn’t do enough to make his defensive work have any potential positive effect on selection or transfers. Neuhaus does work in the system Rose prefers. The 23-year-old plays on the left of a midfield two or three. He is very disciplined and never strays too far from his midfield partner, and usually attempts to stay on his feet and rarely rush in with a big challenge. Neuhaus puts up a respectable 19.6 pressures per 90, showing that most of his defensive actions have come through attempting to force his opponent to make mistakes. There is one specific issue with Neuhaus defensively, being ball-watching. When defending against teams who dominate the ball, Neuhaus struggles when dealing with dangerous runs from midfielders. Their recent defeat to Bayern Munich highlighted this error, where Neuhaus failed to intercept the switch-ball to the Bayern wide-player, and then allowed Goretzka to score the winning goal.

I like Florian Neuhaus a lot. He offers a unique skill set at such a young age for a midfielder, showing a lot of maturity and excellent decision making on and off the ball. I highly doubt Neuhaus will be going anywhere this summer. It’ll give him a chance to develop his strengths while also improving on the defensive side. Neuhaus has the potential to be a key player for not only his club but his national team in the future.

My Thoughts On: Statistics in Football

Nothing seems to divide the footballing world more than the use and implementation of statistics; whether it’s from clubs, television pundits or anyone on Twitter. My opinion, on the whole, has leaned more on the positive side since learning about how much they can tell you about the beautiful game.

Firstly, stats have been something I’ve wanted to grasp since first learning about it entirely. On my original blog (which I deleted right before starting this one), I first used them in a post discussing Tiemoue Bakayoko and a potential move to Manchester United (yes, that long ago). From then on, I would try and include different statistics concerning the topic at hand. Looking back, however, I don’t think I did understand what I was saying, using them for nothing more than emphasising my point, instead of challenging that view. It’s something you see a lot on twitter. Many accounts with a famous player as their avatar do love to throw out random stats about their favourite player to push their agenda further. It’s something along the lines of x player has scored more goals against the big clubs than y player. The one thing you have to remember about stats and football is they aren’t wrong, people are.

The most significant benefit of using stats in football is its method of narrowing down your needs. We’ll get onto why the general stats can never tell the full story of a player, but you can use them to figure out what a player does. Looking at a player’s total aerial duels can tell you if said player can deal with the ball in the air, while total passes can say to you who in a team is the player responsible for keeping possession. It does sound rather simple, and there are some complexities to it. However, some of the more well-known stats are still some of the most useful. Seeing how many shots a striker puts up is still something I rely on when big money moves are involved. Stats can help narrow down your options if you’re looking at who you’d like your club to sign.

Context is the most important thing to consider when stats are involved. The numbers can tell you a lot about a particular player, but it’s essential to not only look at where he ranks in his club but to watch him with your own two eyes. Let’s take Jack Grealish, for example, and I’ll explain why later. Grealish’s return to the Premier League has been stunning, and the numbers even show this. The midfielder’s making 2.7 shot assists per game, more than Trent Alexander-Arnold, David Silva and Willian. It does show that Grealish, on the whole, does create more chances in a game than some big performances for top-six sides. However, you quickly realise that the reason Grealish is creating so much is because of the style of play that Dean Smith prefers. He wants his star player to be on the ball as much as possible, to ensure his side have the best chance of avoiding the drop.

You should always look at the numbers behind the numbers (if that makes sense). James Maddison has been a high-level creator since arriving in the Premier League. Maddison is second in the league for total shot-creating actions (154), one place ahead of Grealish (141). It’s arguably the main reason why the pair are put side to side, especially with potential big moves on the horizon. But when looking into their passing, there’s one area where they massively differ. From open play, Grealish has made 102 passes that lead to a shot attempt, while Maddison has created a much lower 70 passes. The other part of Maddison’s passing game is his set-piece delivery, something where he does excel over the Villa captain. Maddison has completed 51 dead-ball passes that lead to a shot attempt, 36 ahead of Grealish. While both players are great creators, it’s evident that in the area of passing, they can offer something completely different, depending on what your team needs. Manchester United might find Jack Grealish’s versatility and creativity from open play more tempting since Fernandes handles their set-pieces. At the same time, a team like Arsenal would prefer Maddison, who could replace Ozil as the team’s primary set-piece taker.

But as I’ve learned more, I’ve also begun to sympathise they the group who are entirely against the use of numbers in sports. We’ll start with the obvious point of making a sport built on enjoyment and insane highs and boiling it down to models and figures. People watch football for the thrill, and while there are a lot of players who back up their entertaining performances with good numbers, there are a lot who don’t. Adama Traore is an absolute delight to watch sprinting down the wing and trying to take on a whole team on his own, but the numbers label him quite inefficient. Even the idea of Manchester United keeping Pogba and signing Grealish to play alongside Bruno Fernandes, Marcus Rashford and Anthony Martial sounds like a defensive nightmare for any coach, but who cares. The potential interplay, magic and spectacular goals will make people run to their seats for the first time since prime Rooney. I’ll always say that clubs should follow the o-ring theory (to summarise, it encourages clubs to focus on improving their weaknesses instead of adding to their strengths) but it’s hard to argue against the case of wanting to watch and enjoy football.

In all honesty, the only stat that I’ll always defend and encourage people to look at and use in expected goals. It’s one of the more complicated stats to understand at first, but once grasped, it can become beneficial when viewing matches and team performances. As you can probably imagine, I don’t have the time to keep up with every team’s performances in Europe. It’s why my focus is now primarily Bundesliga, Premier League and Champions League matches. Expected goals can give me a rough estimation of how teams are performing in their domestic league. I do generally keep up with who is topping leagues for shot assists, shots, aerial duels and other applicable numbers. Expected goals won’t give you the full picture, but it can give you an indication on what to look out for when next watching a team you haven’t seen for a large part of the season.

The last thing to mention regarding this subject is never to alienate people. Unless your career has an association with stats in football (data companies, writers, scouts .etc), there is simply no need to wave your superior knowledge to someone who either doesn’t understand the use of numbers or has no intention learning about it. There are still plenty of experts I follow on twitter who’s thoughts and opinions I value even if they don’t throw out xG numbers every match day. Be wary of how you’re using stats, and never include them unless you understand or have some relevance to the topic. Nothing can ever tell you more about a player than your own two eyes. If you’re ever interested in a player’s numbers, watch them in a game and see if they’re strengths remain. Never entirely rely on numbers for anything, because they will never tell you the full story.