Home > Players > Can İlkay Gündoğan replace Nuri Şahin?

Can İlkay Gündoğan replace Nuri Şahin?

While title celebrations at the Signal Iduna Park are still very much ongoing Dortmund fans received some bad news yesterday when Nuri Şahin announced that he will be joining Real Madrid next season in a deal reportedly worth €10-13m. The midfield playmaker played a pivotal role in Dortmund’s title triumph and at this point the Bundesliga Player of the Season award seems like a mere formality. Finding an adequate replacement for Şahin is vitally important for Dortmund and the club has been quick to react, announcing the signing of 20-year old German youth international İlkay Gündoğan last week. The 1. FC Nürnberg midfielder is seen as Şahin’s heir apparent and in this post, using statistics collected from the official Bundesliga website, I will look at whether Gündoğan can replace Şahin in Dortmund’s midfield.

For Gündoğan moving to Dortmund will be a large step up in terms of responsibility, both on and off the pitch. Moving from a midtable club, even if that club is Der Club where the players have to carry the weight of the club’s history on their shoulders, to the reigning champions is always a big step, but moving there to replace Şahin will make it doubly so.

Şahin’s role is the most important in Dortmund’s team. As the deep-lying playmaker he is the motor in the midfield and the conductor of the team’s passing game. Over the course of the season he attempted 1803 passes which even though he missed the last few matches due to injury is almost 300 passes more than the second best Hummels. Adjusted for playing minutes he contributed 14.9% of Dortmund’s passes which is comparable to the likes of Cesc Fabregas at Arsenal and Paul Scholes at Manchester United in terms of what percentage of a team’s passes a player contributes. On a per 90 minutes basis he attempted 63 passes on average.

Gündoğan’s role at Nürnberg is slightly different. He generally plays in a more advanced position and operates more in the opponent’s half than his own. In fact 61.5% of his passes were in the opponent’s half compared to 49.6% of Şahin’s. Gündoğan can and has played in a deeper role but it’s not the role he has primarily played this season.

His more advanced role to a small extent explains his lower passing numbers. Over the course of the season he attempted 745 passes or 37 passes per 90 minutes. As a percentage he contributed 10.6% of Nürnberg’s passes. You would expect those numbers to increase somewhat when playing in a deeper role. I considered going through his matches this season and separating them based on which role he played but the sample sizes are small enough as is that I don’t think we could draw any meaningful conclusions from them if we made them even smaller.

Note that in the above numbers I only included passes in open play. Since Şahin also takes corners and free kicks while Gündoğan doesn’t the 114 corners and 86 free kicks taken by Şahin would even further increase the gap between the two.

To further emphasize the difference in responsibility, if we ignore the matches the players missed due to injury Şahin started every match and played 96.1% of Dortmund’s minutes compared to Gündoğan’s 81.2%. For Gündoğan to fill Şahin’s boots he will need to be very strong mentally to not crumble under the pressure and responsibility.

There are also significant differences in the types of passes the players contribute. Şahin is a very ambitious passer. Of his passes in the opponent’s half 63.8% were forward passes, 20.9% sideways passes and 15.3% backwards passes. Of his passes in his own half 59.1% were forward passes, 20.2% sideways passes and 20.7% backwards passes. Contrast this with Gündoğan who is more conservative. Of his passes in the opponent’s half 35.2% were forward passes, 30.3% sideways passes and 34.5% backwards passes. Of his passes in his own half 42.9% were forward passes, 24.4% sideways passes and 32.7% backwards passes. While I don’t have statistics on their ratios of short to medium to long passes from watching almost all of their matches this season I can say that Şahin has a wider range of passing and is better at long range passes than Gündoğan who prefers short and medium range passes.

In terms of passing accuracy the two are very close. The success rates of Şahin’s forward, sideways and backwards passes in the opponent’s half are 63.3%, 85.6% and 96.4% while for Gündoğan they are 66.5%, 86.3% and 94.3%. In their own halves their sideways and backwards pass success rates are 92.9% and 95.2% and 90.0% and 98.9% respectively. The only real difference is in their forward passing in their own halves where Şahin has a success rate of 65.6% compared to Gündoğan’s 53.7%.

Şahin is also a more creative passer. On average he created 3.61 goal scoring chances per 90 minutes which is more than any other player in the top five European leagues. Even though Gündoğan played in a more advanced role and should therefore theoretically be in a better position to create goal scoring opportunities he created only 1.23 chances per 90 minutes.

In addition to being vitally important to Dortmund’s passing and attacking game Şahin is also a very good defender. Per 90 minutes he completed 3.26/3.92 tackles for a success rate of 83.2%. He also made 2.22 interceptions and 7.28 loose ball wins. From observation I can also say he is disciplined and has good defensive positioning and awareness.

Gündoğan’s defensive work rate is also good but in terms of easily measurable contributions he is not as good as Şahin. Per 90 minutes he completed 1.18/1.43 tackles (82.8% success rate), made 1.38 interceptions and 5.22 loose ball wins. His more advanced role partly explains the lower numbers.

So to return to the original question, can İlkay Gündoğan replace Nuri Şahin? While always keeping in mind that he is only 20 years old and still has a lot of room to improve, and that playing with better players will naturally make him better, in my opinion the answer is no, at least not directly. While they share some similarities they are still very different players. Gündoğan is more of a short passer and a dribbler (dribbling is actually the one metric where Gündoğan outperformed Şahin, both attempting more dribbles and having a slightly better success rate) who floats around midfield, receiving the ball in more advanced positions and looking to create from there. Şahin plays a deeper role and demands the ball more, always visible and always vocal in midfield, and with a wider range of passing both short and long. I think Gündoğan’s natural role is the more advanced midfield role that Kagawa and Götze have played this season. For Gündoğan to perform Şahin’s role in this current system he would need to both improve and adapt several parts of his game all at once.

If Klopp truly intends to replace Şahin with Gündoğan I suspect it may necessitate a tactical switch away from the midfield triangle with two holding players and one more advanced to an inverted triangle with just one holding player and two more advanced. This would of course result in Bender as the sole holding player having to take more responsibility in Dortmund’s passing. Dortmund would also lose the defensive solidity that comes with a duo of central holding players.

It would also mean there is a small risk that Dortmund’s attacking play could become too narrow. Dortmund’s wingers like to come into central areas to join in the short passing combinations with the midfielders, and it’s situations like this where Şahin’s long range passing is so valuable because with one pass he can quickly play the ball out to an advancing full back looking to exploit the space in the wide areas and maintain the width in their attacking play. With Gündoğan you lose some of that and I think that’s something Dortmund would have to be wary of.

Ultimately I think the transfer of Gündoğan to Dortmund is a good move for both the player and the club. It gives Klopp another midfield option and for Gündoğan it’s a good place to develop as a player and a good next step in his career. There are many question marks and it remains to be seen how Gündoğan will do at Dortmund but I think the one thing we can be sure about is that at the end of the day old Kloppo will still be laughing, and for as long as he is at Dortmund it’s a fair bet the Dortmund fans will be laughing as well.

Categories: Players
  1. Johannes
    May 17, 2011 at 14:22


    Your articles are very impressive and I’ve never seen such analyzes before.
    Great work. I wonder if you should include a facebook/twitter addon to your blog, so we as your readers can recommend your stuff more easily?

    Keep posting.

    a BVB fan

  2. BenHasna
    June 19, 2011 at 00:17

    Fantastic stuff indeed – great blog!

    Just one question, can you tell me where on the official Bundesliga page I can find these very detailed stats, such as ratio/completion rate of forward passes, etc.?

    • June 19, 2011 at 16:51

      They aren’t listed anywhere, you need to collect the data yourself from the Spielmatrix pages. At the top of the page hover over Bundesliga, then click Spieltag & Spielplan, then choose a match day, then choose a match and click on Matrix. Then choose the player(s) from the left hand side and the actions from the right.

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