In the week following FC Basel’s defeat to Grasshoppers on February 4th, 2023, the club’s leadership decided to relieve club legend Alex Frei of his duties as head coach.
After 19 games in the Super League, the team was in 7th place out of 10 in the standings and only 3 points separated FCB from the team currently destined for relegation play-offs. This situation does not correspond at all to the expectations of FC Basel, which ten years before was able to beat some of the European greats, with the same Alex Frei as their goal scorer.
Now the question is what remains of Frei’s half season on the FCB bench? Did the management not have enough patience with their coach? or was the task too big to handle for the coach?
This blog tries to answer these questions with the help of publicly available statistics (from fotmob.com). It should be said that the available data does not include all facets of football, but is mainly limited to information about shots (on goal). (Besides, numbers are only one way of evaluation and serve as an additional tool for personal assessment).
First of all, let’s look at the standings at the time of the dismissal. Using the sum of expected goals from all the games this season, the expected points, expected goal differential and expected league position were calculated with the help of Tony ElHabr’s Tutorial on calculating expecting points: https://tonyelhabr.rbind.io/posts/epl-xpts-simulation-1/
Over the course of the 19 games under Frei, FC Basel has scored at least 6 points less than would be expected based on the number of scoring chances created and allowed. With 7th place, the team lingers two places behind the expected league position. Only FCZ (5 places) and Luzern (3 places) remain even more places behind expectations. But even 5th place in the table would still be a big disappointment and does not meet the expectations of FC Basel.
So it is certain that in the 19 games a few more points would have been possible, but 5 wins, 7 draws and 7 defeats are not enough by far. Now the question remains: What are the reasons why FCB remains behind the expectations of the Expected Points, the fans and the sporting management?
What is the cause of the poor results?
The differences between expected goals and goals scored paint a fairly clear picture (fig. 2). Combining offense and defense, Basel is below league average and roughly on par with Servette. At the same time, the defensive results are even slightly better than the opponents‘ chances would suggest (second best value after YB). On the offensive side, however, effectiveness falls by the wayside, with the team having the second-largest negative difference between expected and actual goals after FCZ.
Defense & Goalkeeper Performance
The good defensive performance is also reflected in the map of the opponents open play shots (fig. 3 left). They most often shoot directly in front of the goal, but this is this frequency is quite normal. The opponents are also regularly forced to shoot from a distance, which is a sign of good defensive work. The defensive performance would look even better if several of the long-distance shots had not also resulted in goals conceded. The deciding goal conceded by GC’s Kawabe is clearly visible on the open play conceded goal map (fig. 3 right).
A big topic, even before Alex Frei took over as coach, was the summer transfer of Marwin Hitz and the departure of Heinz Lindner.
Using the Expected Goals on Target (xGoT), the goal probability after a shot can be determined by the placement of that shot on the goal and also serves as an estimate about the difficulty for the goalkeeper to make a save (a good, but not perfect statistic for goalkeepers).
Comparing the xGoT with the goals conceded, Marwin Hitz has conceded a few less goals than would be expected and thus generally fulfills what is expected of him. Although Hitz certainly has room for improvement compared to Ati-Zigi, arguably the best goalie in Super League at the moment. Despite the mistake in the game against GC, the goalkeeper is not necessarily responsible for the lack of points for Basel.
Heinz Lindner was better in this statistic last year. Now he is the regular goalkeeper with the biggest negative difference and with the most goals conceded. The defensive quality difference is certainly a factor, as Sion had the second most expected goals against after GC at the time of the evaluation.
Offense & Efficiency
The offense is quite puzzling. FCB regularly gets shots central in front of the opponent’s goal (but apparently not often enough) and scores most goals there (see fig. 4 shots on the left, goals on the right). Nevertheless, with 131 shots on goal (open play) only 12 goals were scored, although 19 goals, with shots from the same positions, would have been expected. Shots outside the box are quite frequent because they are a trademark of inverted wingers like Liam Miller, Darian Males, and Dan Ndoye. Unfortunately these shots do not result in goals, except via follow-up shots inside the sixteen. On the one hand, this could be completely different with a lucky run, but 7 fewer open play goals than expected over the 19-game period is no longer just due to a lack of luck, but is a recognizable weakness.
Although the eye test would suggest otherwise, set-pieces are probably not a big negative factor either. From 78 attempts, 8 goals were scored, with the same number of expected goals. Behind Luzern, Basel is therefore second in both categories.
Outlook & Conclusion
In the end, FC Basel lacked probably Frei’s best quality as a player: effectiveness in front of the opponent’s goal. This lack of effectiveness, with occasionally too few creation of scoring opportunities, have led to the bad results. A few short high phases were not enough to compensate for the longer unsuccessful stretches. A positioning more in line with the expected points (5th place) would probably have given Alex Frei more time to develop the team further, but even then it would not have been certain that they turn it around. Frei can be credited with advancing in the Swiss Cup and the Conference League, even if he missed out on a direct place in the Conference League round of 16 and the Cup games were closer than necessary.
As a summary of Alex Frei’s time in Basel, the words of the fans wrote on a banner at the game against Sion fit quite well: in the right place at the wrong time, thank you Alex.
Now the question is how to continue with FC Basel? The new coach is to be announced soon and everything is still possible in the Conference League and Swiss Cup. In the league, it simply needs more consistency than under Alex Frei. The big hopefuls of the last games are the forward duo Amdouni (2 goals, 2 assists) & Zeqiri (2 goals). If the two continue as in the last games, then that could help the team a lot.
It would certainly be interesting to see how the rest of the game is affected by Andy Diouf and Wouter Burger, who keep flashing their skills with a lack of consistency. It remains exciting around the FC Basel.