Borussia Dortmund’s recent transfer frenzy has been something to behold. The signings of Julian Brandt, Nico Schulz, and Thorgan Hazard, all within a few days of each other, have already made this an incredible transfer window, and it’s still only May. While the prospect of Brandt and Hazard supplementing an already-lethal attack with Marco Reus, Mario Götze, and Paco Alcacer will undoubtedly leave many BVB fans salivating, there are still concerns to be had, including a surprising trend that may have slipped under the radar during the second half of the season.
As it turns out, Borussia Dortmund weren’t the only ones who suffered a Rückrunde collapse. After keeping up with BVB and Bayern during the first half, Borussia Mönchengladbach fell out of the title race. Other than Alassane Pléa, no player other than Thorgan Hazard represented Gladbach’s two halves. While Hazard tore the league apart during the first half, scoring 9 goals and 6 assists, his production fell off a cliff during the second half, which he finished with only 1 goal and 4 assists. This substantial decline in production could be slightly worrying to BVB fans, despite his relatively cheap €25 million price tag. Let’s take a look at his season, and try to determine what caused his decline in production.
If it hadn’t been for Marco Reus’s domination of the league, Thorgan Hazard could realistically have been considered the Bundesliga’s MVP during the first half of the season. He collected a very impressive nine goals (three of which were penalties) and six assists in seventeen matches. This total put him fifth in the league in goals and fourth in assists, impressive by any standard. Along with the Bundesliga breakout of Hazard’s teammate Alassane Pléa, Hazard’s elite production helped Borussia Mönchengladbach stay in the title race for the time being, at times keeping Gladbach in front of Bayern Munich and right behind BVB.
All the while, his underlying numbers suggested that Hazard’s goal and assist totals were fully deserved. While he slightly over-performed his expected goals (9 goals compared to 6.95 xG), he actually under-performed his expected assists numbers by a hair (6 assists compared to 6.84 xA). In fact, he actually led the league in xA/90 during the first half. Such variations are fairly common in as sample sizes as small as a half-season, so the fact that his numbers were more or less deserved is a positive sign.
When he returned from the winter break, however, Hazard’s production declined dramatically. He only managed one goal during the entire second half of the season, despite playing in all but one of Borussia Mönchengladbach’s matches. His assist numbers were a bit more respectable, but he still only collected four assists during the second half of the season, enough to finish with 10 for the year. He seemed to be a shadow of his former self. Borussia Mönchengladbach’s form suffered as well. The foals gradually fell out of title contention before utterly collapsing in March, winning just three of their final 14 matches.
Was it Poor Finishing?
In short, not really.
Hazard has always been a pretty prolific shooter, and last season was no exception. During his torrid first half, he averaged 2.41 shots per game. Oddly enough, when his goals dried up during the second half of the season, he continued to take shots at a similar rate, averaging two per game. The major difference between the two halves was in his shot quality. While he’s always tended towards long shots, during the second half his high-danger chances, shots from inside the penalty area and especially the six-yard box, really dried up.
This change is clearly visible in his xG numbers. During the first half, Hazard averaged 0.17 xG/shot, whereas during the second half, this figure plummeted to 0.08 xG/shot. This means that Hazard wasn’t just taking fewer shots; he was disproportionately taking long shots or shots from bad angles, all of which would have a small probability of going into the net. Hazard did underperform his xG totals during the second half, but not enough to excuse his decreased production. 2.77 expected goals in 1361 minutes was clearly a sharp decline, and it likely resulted from him taking more long shots and fewer tap-ins.
The key question, of course, is what exactly caused this decline in shot quality. There are several possibilities, some of which I’ll cover further below. It could result from tactics, natural regression, or something more intangible like a lack of effort.
Gladbach’s Turn South
If Thorgan Hazard’s downturn in production was just a byproduct of Gladbach playing so poorly, rather than an indication that he was over-performing during the first half, then his second half decline shouldn’t be much to worry about. Fortunately for BVB fans, Gladbach’s dramatic second half collapse lends some credibility to this theory.
As I mentioned, Borussia Mönchengladbach could easily have been considered title challengers well into November and December. By the end of February, however, Borussia Mönchengladbach had suffered a series of poor results and had completely fallen out of the title race, and eventually slid all the way to fifth place, out the qualification zone for the Champions League. After scoring 36 goals in the first half of the season, Gladbach’s offense completely collapsed during the second half of the season, barely managing to match half their first-half goal total with 19. By April, Gladbach had fallen out of the top-four, and their manager Dieter Hecking announced his pending resignation after the end of the season.
I didn’t watch Borussia Mönchengladbach week-in and week-out during the second half, so I can’t speak first-hand as to what went wrong. The numbers show a couple glaring trends. After a stellar first half, Gladbach’s primary striker Alassane Pléa saw his production dry up even worse than Eden Hazard. Hazard’s form therefore could have suffered from playing with a poor striker.
Another possibility is that Dieter Hecking’s tactics, while helping Mönchengladbach dominate the league during the first half, lost effectiveness during the second half, and Hazard’s productivity suffered as a result. From what I’ve gathered from researching Borussia Mönchengladbach’s season, there was a lot of disagreement between the media, the fans, and the coaching staff about where different players should play.
For example, this article broke down the tactical change that Dieter Hecking made during the winter break, moving Alassane Pléa out of the center forward position and moving him to the left, with Lars Stindl playing as a false-nine. While Hazard racked up assists with Pléa at CF and Stindl sitting deep, once this change occurred, his production dried up. With these positions occupied, Hazard would have dropped deeper into a more defensive role in midfield, so it would make sense that his goalscoring numbers would decrease.
There’s another, more ‘intangible’ possibility that I think should be considered. According to many media reports, with poor results mounting in late February and early March, Hecking suffered the same “loss of the dressing room” scenario that many recent Bundesliga managers like Peter Bosz and Carlo Ancelotti have suffered. If the entire team collectively stopped caring about their results, then it makes sense that Hazard’s play would decline as well.
A Loss of #Mentality?
I’m not a big believer in intangibles. I tend to believe that if a player is good, he will play well and score goals, and if he isn’t good, he won’t. Sometimes, however, when a player has his heart set on a transfer, it can be natural for his form to dip a bit, even if it’s only by a hair. While Thorgan Hazard’s transfer to Borussia Dortmund has only recently become official, it’s been rumored for months. Hazard has come under a fair dose of criticism for allegedly “phoning it in” during the second half of the season.
Unfortunately, it’s pretty hard to measure effort. If ‘distance covered’ is considered a valid metric, then there’s some evidence that Hazard’s effort lagged a bit. During the first half, he ran about 11.3 kilometers per 90 minutes on average. This figure fell slightly to 10.7 kilometers per 90 minutes during the second half, meaning Thorgan Hazard ran about 600 fewer meters per game. While a lack of effort could explain this, it could also mean that he gradually became more fatigued throughout the season. He played almost 3000 minutes over the course of the season, so the idea that he could have simply run himself into the ground isn’t that far-fetched.
I’d like to think that as a professional footballer, he gave 100% effort for every minute that he was on the pitch, because it could indicate similar problems in the future in Dortmund. However, I think that the fact that the rest of the squad declined as well suggests that it wasn’t just Hazard, and that there was a major disconnect between the player and the coach in Mönchengladbach.
Thorgan Hazard is a talented player, and he will be a positive addition to BVB’s lineup. While it may be unreasonable to expect him to repeat his incredible first half performance, he is still clearly capable of putting up assists and goals at a solid pace. It’s highly likely that his play during the second half suffered from a general downturn in quality from his teammates, and a manager whose time seemed to have run its course. As long as Hazard is surrounded by attacking talent and has a competent manager at the helm, I have little doubt that he’ll succeed at Borussia Dortmund.