Analysing Leon Goretzka’s first half-season at Bayern

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Bayern bosses touted Leon Goretzka as a steal. The former Schalke man came to München on a free transfer, heralded as one of the next big things in German football. Has he measured up?

In a time where bargains in football seem to be few and far between, Bayern still managed to deliver. Last January, the club announced that Leon Goretzka would land in the Allianz Arena. The midfielder ran out his contract and came to Bayern on a free transfer. Being a man who played a crucial part of Germany’s Confederations Cup win in 2017 and a key player for Schalke in the previous seasons, it was logical that Bayern should feel very pleased with themselves for not spending a dime on him.

“But where does he play?”

If you’re like me, you will have thought this when the news came. Goretzka strikes me as one of those not-quite-this-not-quite-that players. Like Thiago Alcântara, for instance. You wouldn’t say that Thiago is quite a number 10, but he is not quite a number 6 either. Goretzka seems to be of this breed. We tend to refer to these players as “central midfielders”, as opposed to “attacking midfielders” or “defensive midfielders”. Those terms carry a much clearer role with them. Central midfielders are supposed to be a bit of both.

Now, you can look at this two ways. Such a player can either be a very versatile asset or someone who doesn’t quite fit anywhere. Indeed, it lies squarely upon the player to convince the manager and the fans that they are the former.

This matter is also informed by the system the team employs. In a 4-2-3-1, for example, a central midfielder can be charged with a twofold job: assisting with defensive duties, usually in a more passive role aimed at containment, and running upfield to serve as a middleman in build-ups and transitions. A 4-3-3 could see a central midfielder have a much clearer offensive or defensive role. A system with a five-man defence would likely give a central midfielder more attacking freedom.

To carry a team forward

However a team lines up, the key element for the central midfielder is crossing the opposition’s lines. A central midfielder, by virtue of their passing or their physical prowess, would do very well to help the team overcome the opposition’s midfield on the retreat. This is why good passers make brilliant central midfielders. They know the ball can go faster than any player, and have the accuracy to place it where it can do the most damage. Toni Kroos, Andrés Iniesta, Xavi Hernández and Xabi Alonso come to mind in this respect. If you think about it, none of them stand out because of their speed or physicality. It’s what’s in their head that sets them apart.

Of course, you do have physical CMs who make a difference by virtue of their ability to power through. Arturo Vidal was one such player. Still, I don’t think Goretzka belongs in that category.

Niko Kovač has almost invariably lined Goretzka up in his preferred position. Notable exceptions include the 1:1 draw against Augsburg. Goretzka played that game as a left-back. The result was so disastrous that he even acknowledged that he had foreseen it. Every single time Kovač has lined Goretzka up anywhere other than central midfield, Bayern has dropped points.

“What do the numbers say?”

You could certainly draw the conclusion, from statistics, that Goretzka has already made a place for himself at Bayern. He was named in the squad for 14 out of the 17 Hinrunde Bundesliga games. The only times he missed out came because of injury. And out of those 14 call-ups, Goretzka went on to start 11 games. Only thrice was he substituted before full time.

In the Champions League, Goretzka made five appearances, accruing a total of 307 minutes. He did not feature in Bayern’s home draw against Ajax.

The Pokal has seen Goretzka play a total of 106 minutes across two games, once as a starter and once as a substitute.

These are not, by any means, bad numbers for a newcomer. Especially if you factor in Kovač’s early-season rotational antics. Indeed, Goretzka blew down the doors when he came in. In the process, he has collected three assists and two goals. Admittedly, this isn’t tantamount to setting the world alight, but then it’s difficult to judge a central midfielder based on goals and assists. Javi Martínez managed three of each in his debut season, and we all know how valuable he was to that iteration of Bayern.

We thus need a different set of indicators.

Pass through here

So far in the Bundesliga, Goretzka averages about 37 accurate short passes per game. Compare with Thiago Alcântara, whose average currently stands at 66. This starts to tell you the story I find with Goretzka: he is a very good player that can deliver now, but still needs work to realise his potential. Indeed, Thiago should be seen as Leon’s benchmark. And by that comparison, he still has a ways to go.

Could Goretzka’s defensive record be more competitive? Depends on what you look at.  Where Thiago is dispossessed an average of one time each game, number 18 averages at 0.8. However, Thiago intercepts almost twice as many passes. The Spaniard also doubles the young German on tackles per game.

In attack, Goretzka edges Thiago out on shots per game (1.3 against 0.9), which has yielded one more goal than number 6 has managed. They both average 0.7 key passes per game. Thiago, however, amply outclasses Goretzka in dribbling, totalling 2.6 per game against Goretzka’s 0.6.

“What do you see on the pitch?”

Making subjective comments when you’ve already pointed to a bunch of stats is risky. Not least because you’ve already presented the evidence to disprove your point if you want to make a good comment about a player with iffy stats. Alas, such is the case with Goretzka at the moment.

No, he hasn’t bee particularly excellent so far in the season. In fact, WhoScored ranks him eleventh in Bayern’s squad, which is… well, average.

However, I see two things that make me very excited.

The first is that Goretzka is enjoying some nice playing time. Progressively he made his way into Kovač’s starting eleven, especially when the manager decided to ditch his exaggerated rotation. He has even indulged in pairing Goretzka with Joshua Kimmich in the defensive midfield to great results. The players know each other from their time in Germany’s U-21 squad, and it shows. It’s clear that the management and the directives see Goretzka as a flagship player for the future, with the added bonus that he already boasts a proper reputation.

Secondly, I am enamoured with Goretzka’s attitude. Everything he does, from celebrating goals to displaying frustration, indicates that he has the right mentality to be an asset and be decisive. He is positive on the ball, seeking to thread the ball through or help the team put itself together. He enjoys being on the pitch for Bayern, plain and simple.

With that in mind, and despite his rather lacklustre stats, I think we as Bayern fans would do well to relish in Goretzka’s current capabilities, and dream of what could come. And even if he hasn’t quite shown it to full effect until now, I think he’ll be decisive sooner rather than later.