After a quiet two-month break, the Bundesliga finally gets back to business starting with RB Leipzig vs. Bayern Munich on Friday (2:30 p.m. ET, stream live on ESPN+). With only seven points separating third and ninth, and six points between 10th and relegation, the fight for places at the top and bottom of the table seems closer than ever. So who do the data and analysis favour to finish in those prized positions?
Bayern go for 11th heaven
It might come as no surprise that, based on the analytical trends of the first half of the season, the team that should become champions at the end of the campaign is none other than Bayern Munich. With Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting now looking like the most comfortable Robert Lewandowski replacement in Bavaria, Bayern have found their structure and rhythm going forward. Since throwing away a 2-0 lead away to draw 2-2 against rivals Borussia Dortmund in early October, they've won six games from six, scoring 24 goals in this time period that has coincided with Choupo-Moting being introduced into the starting XI.
Since this change, it is easier for Bayern's players to play around a No. 9 instead of getting stuck in their opponents' last line of defence. To illustrate that, since the introduction of Choupo-Moting as a starter, Bayern's rate of shot conversion into goals has increased from 13.2% to 20.5%.
Why else do they look like champions-elect? They top nearly every statistic going: goals, shots on target, big chances created and even more defensive ones such as high interceptions and ball recoveries, which is usually a good indicator. The only worry now is if Bayern can keep this momentum after the restart, especially when they have injuries to Manuel Neuer, Lucas Hernandez and Noussair Mazraoui.
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Flying into Champions League
There is more unpredictability in trying to figure out who will finish in the other Champions League spots this term than in seasons past. Leipzig and Dortmund have had a roller-coaster ride so far, with the former changing coach from Domenico Tedesco to Marco Rose. The new RasenBall boss has won seven games and lost only one in his first 10 league games, as well as qualifying for the Champions League round of 16.
In this time, they have risen to the top three in the league table, and also in shots on goal, goals, big chances and touches in the opposition box. The latter statistic usually determines how strong a team is, as the more touches you have in the opposing penalty area, the more likely it is that you will create a scoring opportunity, and that's exactly what Rose's team is doing. However, with Bundesliga top scorer Christopher Nkunku still recovering from a long-term knee injury, it remains to be seen if Leipzig can keep this up without him.
Despite Dortmund losing the most matches of the top eight, most of their statistics are comparable to Leipzig's in the top three. This gives them a solid foundation to also end up in the Champions League spots come the end of the season.
Since Edin Terzic was named permanent head coach in May, he has tried to implement a more intensive approach in BVB's press while still playing possession-based football. While this has many advantages, and has made them stronger statistically than most, they have lacked quick ball circulation and a proper link to their striker, which has been the root of their problems so far. This should improve with the likes of Marco Reus and Sebastian Haller making their way back into the team.
In the last spot for qualification, we should see Eintracht Frankfurt build on their foundations and finish in some sort of European competition. They're the best of the rest, which is why I have them in the Champions League category; coming in the top three for goals, touches in the opposition box but also in recoveries, too. Their intensive style of play under manager Oliver Glasner has already won them a Europa League title, and with the quality they have added in Mario Gotze and Randal Kolo Muani, it could push them nearer to the likes of Bayern and RB Leipzig.
What about Union and Freiburg?
The development of SC Freiburg, currently second, in the past few years has made them a top-six contender. They formed a squad and a style of play that made them dominant in each phase of play, allowing them to control their opponents in possession, in transition and while pressing.
It's only logical for Freiburg to outperform their expectations, and that's partly why they are as high as they are in the table. Not only do they outperform their expectations, though, they also outperform the data. They are league average in possessions ending in shots, a statistic in which Champions League teams generally perform well. They're midtable in chances created, touches in the opposition box and progressive passes. They're even worse at recoveries.
Despite this, they are still very strong at shots on goal, big chances created and high pressures. They also have the advantage of consistency of tactics from head coach Christian Streich as well as being a truly hard-working, unified team. While I have them down as fifth, they could challenge for that last Champions League place, too.
Sebastien Haller speaks about playing in front of Borussia Dortmund's Yellow Wall after his return to training.
And what about Union Berlin? Unfortunately, despite their strong start to the season, their drop-off just before the international break was predictable when diving into the data. We can see that the team sitting fifth in the Bundesliga table ranks bottom half in terms of shots on goal, chances created, possessions ending in shots and last in big chances created.
However, their strong sense of identity, manager Urs Fischer's mix of defensive stability, counterattacking at long balls and quality up front have helped them get where they are. Based on this, I do believe they're midtable contenders, possibly Conference League.
After their poor start, VfL Wolfsburg were one of the in-form teams just before the break. Based on the same values as above, we should see them finish in the top six instead.
Fight at the bottom
At the other end of the table, Hertha Berlin, FC Augsburg, VfB Stuttgart, VfL Bochum and Schalke 04 all are trying to improve following disappointing first halves of the season.
Stuttgart are difficult to judge as they've hired Bruno Labbadia as their new head coach and all their first-half trends and style of play could completely change. Labbadia also has a reputation of saving teams from the drop.
Hertha Berlin have what it takes to not be relegated as they're defensively stable, which is evidenced in their duels and interceptions statistics. They're also better than the other aforementioned teams when it comes to big chances and shots on goal. However, they lack quality in chances in general and advancing the ball into the final third, which has scuppered any meaningful consistency in results. They'll be in the relegation fight for the long run but should not finish lower than the relegation playoff.
Augsburg and Bochum will be the ones primarily fighting between automatic relegation and the relegation playoff. Both teams' issues are similar: both are in the bottom half of the table for shots on goal, possessions ending in goals and chance creation. Augsburg are better than Bochum when it comes to their intensity, as seen in their higher ranking in duels, aerial duels and high pressures; while Bochum are the stronger team when it comes to possessions ending in shots. Because Augsburg have better quality through the team, they should finish above Bochum in the relegation playoff.
And that leaves Schalke rock bottom. Despite slightly improved statistics since new coach Thomas Reis was appointed at the end of October, they're still the bottom three in many metrics including goals, shots on goal, getting into the final third, and the list goes on. They may have improved statistically, but they still lost three of the four games under Reis. While he can absolutely get out of relegation, there is nothing in the numbers to suggest that he will.