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In Defense of Donyell Malen

Malen has faced criticism for some of his performances lately. But are those criticisms warranted?

Borussia Dortmund v 1. FC Union Berlin - Bundesliga Photo by Alexandre Simoes/Borussia Dortmund via Getty Images

Donyell Malen hasn’t always been the most popular player among Borussia Dortmund fans. He arrived in West Germany in 2021, heralded as Jadon Sancho’s replacement, for the princely sum of €30m, all of which created high expectations that Malen struggled to meet. However, Malen’s performances in the second half of last season showed glimpses of a potential superstar that might be blossoming. Malen scored 9 goals and contributed 5 assists in the Rückrunde last season, and was one of Dortmund’s best performers as they came excruciatingly close to winning the Meisterschale. There was some optimism that Malen would pick up where he left off last season and continue to be one of the most lethal forwards in the Bundesliga this season.

Unfortunately, despite a bright start, Malen has not managed to maintain that excellent form, and his numbers are more like those he put up in his first season with Dortmund. Though I’m not sure what the consensus view is among Dortmund fans, I’ve seen plenty of rumblings among FTW members that suggest some fans are unhappy with what Malen has offered this season. In particular, I’ve seen a lot of complaints about his finishing, and there seems to be a view held by a decent chunk of the community that Malen is one of the biggest contributors to Dortmund’s difficulties in front of goal.

I have been surprised to see quite a few comments complaining about Donyell Malen’s performances, and have felt like the fan view of the Dutch forward has been inconsistent with both what I’m seeing on the pitch, and the numbers. That isn’t to say I’m completely thrilled with Malen’s performances this season. He isn’t performing at the same level he showed in the second half of last season. But I think he has been mostly fine, and where there are issues, I think they are a) not what everyone has been complaining about, and b) not necessarily of his own doing. I will hopefully be able to make the case in defense for Donyell Malen here, and perhaps I can convince some of you that he isn’t so bad after all!

Malen has only played about 600 minutes in the Bundesliga so far this season, and judging players based on small samples is very limited. For this reason, any conclusions should avoid making any strong claims about causality. However, given the fact that Malen has played about 80% of all possible league minutes so far this season, and most of that coming as a starter, we are able to couch some of this in wider team stats and make some useful comparisons. As with any use of analytics, it’s important to start out clear about how much we can actually conclude from the numbers, and we should also be tying all of this back into what we’re seeing on the pitch too.

Let’s get it!

It’s All About Shots (Not Finishing)

I think the source of the discontent is a belief that he is “wasteful” in front of goal, despite the fact he is currently overperforming expected goals (xG). Frankly, I think the obsession with his finishing is completely missing the point. xG over/underperformance — which serves as a crude but defensible measure of finishing — is relevant for assessing a forward’s performance, but it’s not the most important factor to consider. Generally speaking, with a big enough sample, players will average out within about 10% over or under their xG.

The two things that matter most are whether or not your forward is getting shots, and whether or not those shots are high-value. Football is a low-event, high-variance sport, and the challenge that a forward faces is not so much about converting chances at a higher rate than average, it is about consistently getting into high value positions and getting shots.

In Malen’s case, he’s still getting plenty of shots, though the value of those shots have dipped a bit. His non-penalty expected goals (npxG) has dropped from 0.15 per shot last season (and a career average of 0.14) to 0.10 so far this season. That’s not brilliant, but it’s not horrible either. It is something you want to see improve, rather than the source of all Dortmund’s woes.

Borussia Dortmund v AC Milan: Group F - UEFA Champions League 2023/24 Photo by Hendrik Deckers/Borussia Dortmund via Getty Images

I think the reason he is currently getting lower value shots is because, on average, those shots are coming from further out (18.8 yards versus last season’s 15.9 and a career average of 16.0).

That said, I think it is difficult to make inferences about who is to blame for this decline, at this point in the season. Is it a meaningful decline? I’m willing to buy that it probably is, though I’d urge caution before jumping right into those murky waters just yet. Is it because Malen is doing a bad job of getting into the right positions? Or is it a function of wider team issues? Of that I’m unsure, and I think we need more data to be sure.

Struggles All Over the Pitch

I don’t think Malen’s struggles have been in front of goal as much as they have been small declines in multiple areas, primarily in and around the opponent’s penalty area. He is actually scoring at a very similar rate to last season (though his npxG/90 has declined by a little over 30%), but he’s struggling with regards to creating offense. He has so far had zero assists this season, and his expected assisted goals (xAG) per 90 has declined by almost 45%. Further, his shot-creating actions (2.87 per 90) are significantly lower than both his career average (3.83) and last season (4.22).

I think the assists will come, but a 35% decrease in his npxG+xAG/90 is significant enough to concern me a little. At the same time, his numbers this season are consistent with his first season at Dortmund, which might suggest that he hit a purple patch last season and has just returned to normality now.

Despite the decline, I think it’s a little difficult to draw conclusions just yet, because it’s difficult to separate Malen’s struggles from the team’s struggles. Dortmund are making fewer passes into the penalty area, and Donyell Malen has taken on a much larger share of that responsibility, and while Malen’s progressive carries have dropped, it looks like a much larger share of those carries are bringing the ball into the opponent’s third, instead of the penalty area. On top of a shift in how Malen is contributing to ball progression, there has also been a drop in his progressive receptions, which suggests that his dropping deeper to contribute in earlier phases of play, taking him further away from the goal and where he is at his most valuable. I think it’s too early to conclude that this is a meaningful trend, but it does feel consistent with what I’ve felt when watching the games. If it is the case that the decline in Malen’s headline numbers is a product of him trying to help out deeper, due to Dortmund’s struggles early on, I think he deserves a bit of a break.

Evidence of this possible shift in what Malen is having to do on the pitch can also be found in where he is touching the ball. While Malen is still responsible for a significant chunk of Dortmund’s touches in the penalty area, he is averaging fewer touches in the penalty area than he was last season, as well as the opponent’s third, at the same time as taking slightly more touches in Dortmund’s third.

Looking at Malen’s struggles in isolation, however, would be unfair on the Dutch forward. Dortmund have experienced a drop in almost all of their offensive metrics this season. Malen’s decline might be a little greater than BVB’s overall decline, but I think it’s reasonable to question which is the chicken and which is the egg. I think we need to give it time, to see how much of it is due to wider team struggles. With Dortmund showing signs of improvements in form, it will be easier to work out whether the problem is with Malen or with the team.

So is Donyell Malen Garbage Now?

I think that Malen has been mostly fine this season. He has kept himself busy, and he just needs to keep plugging away (at least in terms of getting shots). Malen’s struggles are all pretty consistent with a player that is dropping deeper to try and help a team that is struggling to get the ball up the pitch into good positions, which is costing him in a bunch of areas that get a lot more attention from fans. With Dortmund starting to improve a bit now, it should soon become clear if his struggles are just a consequence of Dortmund’s struggles and him needing to drop deeper and contribute elsewhere.

I also think it’s possible (likely?) that the hot streak at the end of last season was just that, and that this version of Malen is closer to his actual level. He’s a decent forward that chips in in a bunch of areas to help the team.

It’s probably a bit of both, but we need more time and more data to figure out exactly how much each factor is contributing. Malen continues to be a net positive contributor to Dortmund’s offense, though. Soccerment’s Expected Offensive Value Added (xOVA), which measures the contribution players are making to increasing the value of offensive plays (taking the sum of expected goals and open play expected assists, and subtracting the expected assists received, to get a measure of how much the individual is contributing themselves), has Donyell Malen ranked 4th in the Dortmund squad.

Sport-Club Freiburg v Borussia Dortmund - Bundesliga Photo by Sebastian El-Saqqa - firo sportphoto/Getty Images

Unfortunately, I think another factor is that Donyell Malen is just the kind of player that attracts more negative attention from fans because he doesn’t “look right” when he has the ball at his feet. Malen has an awkwardness to his game that puts people off, and while he’s a decent player, he’s not so remarkable that they can look past the football ick that they feel when they watch him. He’s a little dumpy, he’s a below-average athlete for a wide forward, and at times his movement and actions in possession look a little clumsy. We all have an image of a silky smooth ball player that we expect to see at the top level, especially in offensive players, and when a player doesn’t conform to that expectation, I think we tend to be extra critical of everything they do. When some lad that is smooth as butter smacks one right down the keeper’s pipe or knocks a pass way too far in front of a teammate, it doesn’t stick in our mind in the same way the slightly weird Malen’s mistakes do.

Despite all this, the fact is that Malen does generally make decent contributions in offense, and he’s a busy player in multiple phases of the game. Even if his performances are not on par with the really high bar he set in the second half of last season, he is still doing enough to be useful, and he doesn’t warrant as much criticism as he receives. I hope folks can cut him some slack.

Your Thoughts?

Is all of this complete nonsense? Does Malen actually need to be sent to the glue factory? Let someone else that isn’t me know, I guess. Or let me know in the comments, if you really must!