Focusing on the hipsters: Bayer Leverkusen

An athlete cannot run with money in his pockets. He must run with hope in his heart and dreams in his head.

                                                                                                                                                                                 – Emil Zatopek

Two seasons ago, Borussia Dortmund, after winning the Bundesliga for the second consecutive season, stirred a storm in Europe by reaching the finals of Champions League. En route to Wembley, the low spending Germans defeated Real Madrid and Malaga.

Last year, Atletico Madrid, after a couple of successful seasons, went on to beat Barcelona and Real Madrid to win the La Liga. Diego Simeone’s side also overcame Chelsea and Barcelona to set a date with their cross city rivals, Real Madrid, in Lisbon.

Now that both these clubs have made their mark, it is up to some other clubs to follow their footsteps. After going through a list of a number of nominees, Roger Schmidt’s Bayer Leverkusen and Rudi Garcia’s AS Roma seem to picture-perfect. Here’s a look at Bayer Leverkusen.

Bayer Leverkusen

The West German side sacked Sami Hyppia last season and signed Roger Schmidt, who had won the league and cup double for the Austrian outfit Red Bull Salzburg, as their manager.

Formation

Leverkusen
Bayer Leverkusen

Bayer Leverkusen manager Schmidt fields a 4-2-2-2 formation. Stefan Kiesling and Hakan Calhanoglu are the centre forwards. They are followed by Heung Min Son and Karim Bellarabi in wide positions. Captain Simon Rofles and Gonzalo Castro play as holding midfielders. The back four consists of Sebastian Boenisch, Emir Spahic, Omer Toprak and the young right back Tin Jedvaj.

Attack

Bayer Leverkusen’s main strength is its attacking potential. The never give up mentality of the forwards helped Schmidt’s side win 4 and draw 2 of their first 6 matches of this campaign.

Leverkusen’s forwards, Kiessling and Calhanoglu, are joined by Bellarabi and Son while attacking. The two attacking midfielders, Son and Bellarabi are inside forwards. They start from a wide position and cut inside while attacking to make it a 4-man attack, which is very lethal.

The co-ordination between the forwards is very good. Bellarabi was on loan at Eintracht Braunschweig last season. Calhanoglu joined from Hamburger SV in July. It is impressive that they have understood each other’s style of play so soon and have adjusted to Schmidt’s system. Take Olympique Marseille as example. It took them two weeks to register their first win in Ligue 1. Marsielle’s players still have a lot of work to do to catch up with Marcelo Bilsa’s philosophy.

When attacking Leverkusen’s formation looks like 4-2-4. Calhanoglu and Kiessling drop into the attacking midfield region. If let free, the Leverkusen’s forwards will have space in front of the opposition’s defenders and can try to find through balls. This forces the opposition’s centre backs to close them down. When closed down, the inside forwards rush into the space behind the centre backs.

Leverkusen inside forwards
Leverkusen while attacking

Schmidt’s strategy is to maintain the ball in the attacking third as long as possible. In Bundesliga, Leverkusen have made 773 passes this season. 60% of them were made in the attacking third. To pump the ball into the final third Leverkusen resort to long balls.

Width

Bayer Leverkusen try to concentrate their attacks through the middle just like Arsenal do. But compared to Arsenal’s, Leverkusen’s attacks are more effective. The narrow play of the forwards and the midfielders is the reason for this. The wingbacks provide the width for Bayer Leverkusen.

Leverkusen shape
Bayer Leverkusen against Werder Bremen

 

 Barcelona are playing similarly under Luis Enrique – the wingers play centrally and the wingbacks cover the wider areas.

barca under enrique
Barcelona under Luis Enrique

 There are a few advantages of playing narrowly. First of all, when attacking, Leverkusen will be 4 on 4 against the opposition. Secondly, the opposition wingbacks will track back Leverkusen’s wide forwards (who cut inside). This leaves the opposition wingers with the job of covering the wide areas. If Leverkusen’s wingbacks overcome the opposition wingers, then that would leave the opposition in a dangerous position.

Midfield  

At the centre of Leverkusen’s midfield are two holding midfielders. They sit deep to protect the defenders. The experience of Castro and Rofles will come handy in the long run.

The only concern for Schmidt is, probably, his midfielders being overrun by the opposition. Many times they remain isolated from the attacking midfielders and this space can be used by the opposition’s midfielders to provide long balls to their forwards.

Space between the forwards and midfielders
Gap between the forwards and the midfielders

Pressing

Bayer Leverkusen’s pressing is exhaustive. The intention of the players is to win the ball in the opposition’s half.

High pressing by Bayer Leverkusen
High pressing by Bayer Leverkusen against Dortmund

When pressing in deep positions, the forwards drop into their own half to support the midfielders. When pressing in the oppostion’s half, the midfielders move higher up the pitch to provide assistance to the forwards.

Leverkusen’s pressing can be compared to Athletico Madrid’s. They press all over the field.

leverkusen interceptions
Interceptions made by Leverkusen against Dortmund

The defenders and midfielders intercept the opposition’s passes . The forwards quickly transform the defence to attack.

Fouls committed by Leverkusen against Dortmund. A majority of them are in Dortmund's half.
Fouls committed by Leverkusen against Dortmund. A majority of them are in Dortmund’s half.

Fouls committed in the opposition’s half shows their eagerness to win the ball higher up the pitch. It also shows the commitment of the forwards.

Defence

In 4-2-4 shape, due to their high pressing, the line of forwards forms the first line of defence and keeps the opposition pinned back.

Leverkusen use long balls to launch quick attacks. The same tactic can be used against them. Long ball over Leverkusen’s defenders can pose serious problems to them.

Leverkusen’s defence is very shaky. In fact it is the weakest part of Schmidt’s team. Leverkusen have scored 9 goals in the league and conceded 5.

Continuous pressing can result in fatigue and have detrimental effect on the team’s performance in the final stages of the match. Also the advanced positioning of the wingbacks is a disadvantage.

Leverkusen's narrow play
Dortmund’s forwards can utilize the space between Leverkusen’s defensive and midfield line. Players marked in red are the wingbacks.

Conclusion

Leverkusen’s attacking is very good. The section where they need to improve is defence . Changing the formation will probably affect their style of play. So it is preferable for Schmidt to buy some good players to add to the first team. Increasing the depth of the squad is a must if Schmidt plans to take a shot at the league title. Playing such a pressing game requires freshness, which players lack during the last stages of the season. Atleti and Dortmund played well but fell short in the final minutes of the season.

Leverkusen’s pressing is similar to Atleti’s but only less aggressive and more attacking. Their quick transition from defending to attacking is comparable to that of Dortmund. So the new looking Bayern Leverkusen is a melange of the philosophies of Atleti and Dortmund.

It is only the starting of the new era for Leverkusen. Roger Schmidt can undoubtedly take “The Neverkusens” to another level. Jurgen Klopp, Diego Simeone, and now it is Schmidt’s time to get the hipster status.

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