Deconstruction of Eintracht’s season: How did the 11th-placed team in the Bundesliga win the UEFA Europa League – and can numbers alone explain their impressive achievement?
The Europa League champions finished outside the top 10 in the Bundesliga while even having several winless streaks.
Actually, Die Adler had a streak of 6 games without a win on two occasions; that’s already a third of the league.
However, Oliver Glasner’s jungs kept themselves composed in the UEL. Although they weren’t completely unfazed by their bad performances in the Bundesliga, they were able to set them aside enough to take advantage of the opportunity the tournament presented.
The two faces of Eintracht’s season lead not only to inevitable comparisons – like what did the team do differently? Was it that different of a style? –but also prompts us to try to find an explanation behind Die Adler’s surprising European achievement.
The truth is that the team did not do anything significantly different from the game plan they executed in the Bundesliga, and the statistics back that up too.
Almost every statistic has similar numbers when comparing Eintracht’s season in both competitions.
A couple of fewer points of possession, smaller numbers in aerial duels, but with a little more effectiveness, ten passes less per game, and a smaller number of long passes; nothing slightly relevant enough to make anything out of it.
The style of the Bundesliga
Eintracht’s style of game is a very German one; The Bundesliga itself has a high intensity and a back-and-forth transitional style in which the teams trade a lot of punches with their counter-attacks.
In the Bundesliga, Oliver Glasner’s squad was second in three categories: Distance covered, intensive runs, and tackles; they were also 3rd in sprints, 4th in total crosses, and in the top ten in interceptions. This group of statistics summarized well the style of game the SGE displayed throughout the season.
The pressing set in a high to mid-block along with the physicality and intensity that Frankfurt displayed made it very hard for teams to be a threat from the build-up, which in the Europa League was more frequent to encounter.
It was Die Adler’s intensity, defensive pressing, and quick-paced offensive transitions what gave them the upper hand.
Defensively, Eintracht were 7th in tackles per game in the UEL, 8th in aerials won, 13th in shots allowed, 10th in interceptions, 4th in fouls, 5th in passes blocked, and received 13 goals; keeping track of their numbers in the Bundesliga in these categories. Substantial numbers, defensively speaking.
On offense, the swift transitions were proven to be the team’s best asset; the attacks and effort down the wings of Kostic and Knauff were key to exploit the rival defenses.
The order of pushing the play as fast as possible, whether it be with two or three quick passes or directly with a long one, was an ambition that resulted in a lost possession quite frequently; but once the team was able to link up slightly clean and run, it was almost sure they would create danger.
Statistically, according to Whoscored.com, Eintracht were the team with the most scoring chances generated from counter-attacks per game.
However, Die Adler were average or even worse than average when it comes to the rest of the offensive stats in the UEL: 16th in shots, 14th in shots on goal, they were one of the worst teams at gaining fouls; they did cross the ball more than the average, but were a little short on accuracy.
So, if the stats can’t explain it…Where’s the difference?
The right style for the right opponents
If we analyze each of Eintracht’s opponents from the knockout round, despite being the underdog on paper and man to man, at least against Betis and Barcelona, Die Adler’s strong points fit perfectly with their opponents’ weak ones, especially the two Spanish sides.
In the round of 16 against Real Betis and the quarterfinals against Barcelona, the Frankfurter faced two very similar teams that suffer from the same weaknesses.
They’re both very technical, ball-dominant squads that liked to reach the creative zone of the attack with passing combinations and relied on their geniuses in midfield to create chances, but that weren’t lethal towards goal, had very slow defensive transitions, and were incredibly vulnerable down the wings behind their full-backs.
Eintracht absolutely exploited these traits.
However, when facing teams that displayed a more similar game to theirs, the SGE struggled a bit more.
This was the case against West Ham. Die Adler came on top through the same situations and style as the previous fixtures, but with a little more problems due to The Hammers’formation and style.
Being an English club with a very English style, they were more prepared to complicate Eintracht’s style.
Against Rangers, they faced the most similar team to themselves that they had gone up against in the whole tournament, and it showed the struggle the team went through to figure the Scottish side out, on top of it being the final.
It was a constant through the Europa League
Aside from the SGE, there were also a lot of reactive teams with similar traits to Eintracht’s that made their way into the later stages of the tournament.
Finalists Rangers, West Ham, Atalanta, Braga did not only reach at least the quarterfinals, but they did so by eliminating better but more ball-dominant teams.
And just like Eintracht, the other German teams suffered this, Dortmund, Leipzig, and Leverkusen struggled against the more “German-like” teams, the more reactive teams, and thrive against clubs that did not hold the pace.
Dortmund and Leipzig were kicked out by Rangers; but prior to that, Die Roten Bullen had trashed a more combinative Real Sociedad side in the round of 32, to then have a tight battle with Gasperini’s super intense Atalanta team in the quarterfinals.
Atalanta themselves, with their man marking, high pressing, and quick transitions, eliminated Die Werkself, who had beat Betis 4-0 in the group stages.
West Ham eliminated six-times UEL champions Sevilla, who despite having traits of a more English/German team still focused the game around the possession of the ball.
The X Factor
The mental side of sports is as key as the physical side, and the snowball effect that started with the UEL being the balm to escape the Bundesliga’s bad performances became hope and joy after the game at the Camp Nou. From then on, there was a palpable feeling that it was Eintracht’s moment in time.
With direct elimination tournaments, having and taking advantage of the momentums of the game is absolutely key, and with the fans supporting as they did, it was impossible to stop that momentum.
Eintracht’s seize of the moment, heart and determination can’t be explained with numbers.