Bundesliga Matchday 30 Preview: Leverkusen against Bayern
Three more victories and the season of FC Bayern is coming to a successful conclusion. In this case, even if Borussia Dortmund is able to maintain the current seven point gap, Bayern will have all but secured the title with nine points still to be awarded.
And almost by the by, Bayern can make it to the DFB-Pokal final in midweek. All it takes is another home win against Eintracht Frankfurt. The danger, however, lies in precisely this apparent certainty that in their current form an alternative is hardly conceivable.
What is forgotten is that these three teams have already been stumbling blocks for the record champions in the ongoing season. At a different time and in different circumstances, sure, but it is a timely reminder that easing off just a little too much on home stretch, as tempting as it may be, could at least somewhat endanger the current tranquility on Säbener Strasse.
Especially since there is a lot at stake for all three opponents. Eintracht Frankfurt will see the cup as their last chance to reach European competition next year. Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach, on the other hand, will be fighting for one of the coveted Champions League tickets. Behind Bayern, Dortmund (60 points), RB Leipzig (58), Gladbach and, of course, Leverkusen (56 each) all still have a realistic chance.
Leverkusen in particular seemed to have come out of the starting blocks strongly when the Bundesliga resumed play after the coronavirus break. Clear victories at Bremen (1-4) and at direct competitors Gladbach (1-3) were a convincing beginning. However, they followed this up with a bitter 1-4 home defeat against Wolfsburg and a rather lucky win at SC Freiburg (0-1).
These four games highlighted all of the strengths and weaknesses of Leverkusen’s style of play in a nutshell. If they manage to impose themselves on the game and take the lead relatively quickly, and if their opponent allows them to play their game, they are difficult to beat.
Against both Bremen and Gladbach, Leverkusen consistently managed to position their key players in the centre of the field. Similar to Bayern, Peter Bosz’s team often tries to build up from the back with a large number of players – with similar amounts of movement. Leverkusen’s positioning is often good enough to get into the space between the lines with very direct and long low passes.
The “Werkself” also pulls the opponent’s formation apart vertically. Another similarity to the game of FC Bayern under Hansi Flick is that the wingers often push to the center from the flanks to create overloads in first line of attack and to open up space for the very offensively oriented full-backs, who keep surging up from the back.
After Bayern (18105) and Dortmund (17496), Leverkusen has played the most passes in the Bundesliga (16273) with some distance to Leipzig (13925). What seems clear: Leverkusen wants to have the ball.
With 4484 “pressures”, i. e. the number of times when Leverkusen’s players put pressure on an opposing player when he wants to get the ball, keep it or pass it on, Leverkusen has the fourth smallest value. Bayern have 4151 Pressures on their books, putting them in 17th place in the league.
But – and this is crucial – this figure has no deeper significance for an evaluation of a team’s strengths and weaknesses. It only helps to describe the playing style of a team. Leverkusen and Bayern like to have possession of the ball and therefore do not need to press their opponents all the time. Yet both teams are still quite successful at it. In 35.1% of cases, the Bavarians gain possession within five seconds after they begin to put pressure on their opponents (Pressures). This is the best figure in the Bundesliga, right before – you guessed it – Leverkusen (34.0%).
But there is a bigger difference between the two teams: While Bayern prefer to disrupt their opponents already when they try to play out from the back, Leverkusen at times choose to press the opponent a little later. This season, Bayern have 1406 Pressures in the attacking third (best in the league), and Leverkusen only 1032 (13th place). 47% of Leverkusen’s “Pressures” have been in the midfield third so far, Bayern have four percent less.
Although Leverkusen is also a team that sometimes disrupts their opponents with aggressive gegenpressing and closing down players early, they use a mid block more often than Bayern. When they do so, they are often vulnerable. Once again, almost like Bayern, Leverkusen have problems when their phases of high gegenpressing do not pay off and they fall back into a rather passive defensive stance.
Overall, Bayern appear to have an even cleaner game. They have recently made great progress at falling back into a organized shape after a failed offensive press. Furthermore, they are more composed under pressure than the Werkself. The defeat against Wolfsburg and the mixed performance against Freiburg showed that Leverkusen is prone to make careless mistakes under pressure and does not always gegenpress as efficiently as their counterparts from Munich.
And yet, with Havertz, Aránguiz, Demirbay, Amiri and several other players, they have technically gifted footballers in the center of midfield. Add to that wing players like Diaby or Bailey, who often drive into the center to take part in what are sometimes stunning combinational plays.
So Bayern can expect a game against a not too different opponent. In the end, Bayern are at least a tad better in almost all areas than Leverkusen. But Leverkusen have a very talented and flexible coach, a highly talented team, and they still know how it feels to defeat Bayern from the first half of the season. It was a lucky victory in the end, but not completely undeserved, too.
Contests like this are decided in midfield above all. This is where both teams have their playmakers and their pivots. Bayern will want to play in a similar style as they did against Borussia Dortmund. The only difference being that this time, they will want to force their opponents to use long balls more often. Dortmund got too many phases of continuous ball possession and managed to outplay Bayern too often. Leverkusen can do the same. That makes it all the more important from Bayern’s point of view to prevent them from doing so as early as possible.
This game will establish the baseline mood for the remainder of an important week of football for Bayern. A win against Leverkusen would smash the door wide open for the first title of the season. Then it would only be a matter of stepping through next weekend. But that requires a performance that, like the one against Düsseldorf, leaves no doubt that the team knows that the comfort of the situation hinges on a slight slip.