Bundesliga MD 08 Preview: Leverkusen vs. Bayern
“I have Leverkusen on my radar every year because I think they have a good eye for players and a high-quality squad,” Bayern coach Julian Nagelsmann said at the press conference ahead of next Sunday’s top match. “When you see how young the players are, that’s quite an achievement.” The 34-year-old thus virtually sums up Bayer 04 Leverkusen’s business model and the basis of their success: scouting young players, bringing them up from their own youth or buying them and finally developing them into quality professionals.
Hardly any other club in Germany has such a high success rate at doing this as Leverkusen – perhaps Borussia Dortmund, who have taken a similar path. Of course, this holds certain risks. Young players usually lack the consistency to be an important cornerstone over an entire season. They also lack the experience to be able to lead the way, especially in hot phases of the season. All this is quite normal.
But in recent years, Leverkusen has often lacked the appropriate key players at the upper end of the pecking order. Julian Baumgartlinger, Charles Aránguiz, Karim Bellarabi, Lucas Alario, Kerem Demirbay – on paper, the list of experienced players is quite impressive. However, all of them had to deal with themselves rather regularly in recent years. Injuries or poor form prevented them from playing the role of undisputed leaders.
The problems are similar for Jonathan Tah, who at 25 is slowly reaching an age where he has to and also wants to take on responsibility. Leverkusen are often ridiculed for their tendency to collapse in the home stretch of a season. The fact that they have not managed to establish a stable backbone in the team in recent years is probably one point that has contributed to this significantly.
A second factor was a recurring change in the coaching position. In the last four years, four different coaches were given the chance to try their hand: Tayfun Korkut, Heiko Herrlich, Peter Bosz, and most recently Hannes Wolf. With the exception of Bosz, none of them could even begin to convince. The Dutchman, on the other hand, failed to give his possession-based football a degree of dynamism and the ability to provide end product in front of goal – but possibly also because of the problems within the squad described above.
Now Gerardo Seoane is given the helm. The 42-year-old has signed a three-year contract at Leverkusen and has made a good start to the season. Five wins, one draw, one defeat and 20:7 goals – that puts the Werkself in second place, level on points with Bayern. His style of play is often described as spectacular and offensive, but is it really?
Leverkusen has scored the most goals after the record champions from Munich. At first glance, that speaks for itself. A second look at the figures, however, is a little more revealing: 11.8 expected goals (5th place) and 13.6 shots per game (7th place) are okay for a team in the top half of the table, but not more. The average distance of the shots is 16 metres, which is the seventh highest value in the league.
Also interesting are some data collected by Opta:
- Leverkusen have scored seven goals in the Bundesliga in the opening quarter of an hour (1st place).
- The Werkself has taken the lead six times this season (the highest figure alongside Bayern).
- Leverkusen have scored three times in the first three minutes of the game.
- They went in front 64% of the time (1st place ahead of Bayern with 54%).
So impressive attacking football after all? Partly. Leverkusen are still capable of pressuring an opponent with good attacking pressing. The opening goal in the match against Borussia Dortmund is a good example of this. The Seoane eleven cleverly makes the spaces tight on the right side and thus wins a high ball. When the situation allows it, the Werkself closes down high and aggressively. But further Opta data also show the other side of the coin:
- Leverkusen win 53% of their possessions in their own defensive third (only Hertha have a higher value).
- Leverkusen start their own possession phases on average 38.8 metres in front of their own goal (only Hertha are closer to their own goal on average: 37.6 metres).
- Leverkusen also have the fewest pressures in the attacking third (22.6 per game) and the third most in the defensive third (52.7). Pressures are defined as moments when a Leverkusen player puts pressure on an opponent who has the ball at his foot, receives it or is about to pass it. For a top team – especially in the Bundesliga – these are quite unusual values.
In many phases of the game, Leverkusen defend in a deep and very compact 4-4-2, 4-4-1-1, 4-1-4-1 or even 4-5-1 block. If, for example, the ball is not won within a few seconds after losing it, the Werkself retreats – sometimes to their own penalty area. High pressing moments are therefore less frequent, especially against stronger opponents.
Nevertheless, many fans cheer the team’s offensive drive. Seoane has managed to find a good balance between defensive stability and offensive transition situations. Even when Leverkusen win the ball early in their own half and the paths to the opponent’s goal are therefore long, they are able to score more often than average. A clear sign of quality.
The individual class in attack is enormous. Patrik Schick (10 competitive games / 6 goals / 2 assists), Florian Wirtz (8 / 6 / 5) and Moussa Diaby (10 / 4 / 1) stand out. Schick, because he seems to have finally arrived in the Seoane system. The Czech was able to carry his excellent form from a strong European Championship over to the Bundesliga season and was able to perform from the first matchday. His deep runs in behind the opponent’s defence are a danger for every opponent.
However, he also has players around him who not only afford him the space for these runs, but can also serve him accordingly. First and foremost, of course, there is Florian Wirtz, who is currently in top form. His ideas and actions liven up Leverkusen’s offensive transition game enormously. And then there is Diaby, who is also in great form and keeps impressing with his pace, outstanding technical skills and drive towards goal.
Seoane can rely on the penetrating power of his attack while keeping the defence stable. His biggest challenge, however, will be to maintain that form in the mid to long run. The long distances to the goal, the currently rather average finishes (in all statistical respects) and the relatively few high ball wins could become a problem if Leverkusen take the lead less often, the opening stage of a match does not go according to plan or the players do not perform as well as they do at the moment for various reasons.
- High individual quality in attack
- Offensive transition moments
- Good deep defending
- Good timing and decision making when high pressing makes sense and when it does not
- Variable attack
- Quick pace
- Direct play to the top
- Defending the wide spaces
- Oftentimes long distances to goal when winning the ball
- 4-2-3-1 / 4-3-3
- Focus on offensive transition moments
- High pressing only when the situation allows it (when behind, particularly good positioning for higher tackling, lack of precision of the opponent)
- Otherwise rather variable midfield pressing
- Very compact centre, the wide midfielders are first port of call in defending the wide spaces, defensive chain is very tight horizontally
- High aggressiveness
- Very vertical and direct forward play when ball is won
If that happens, a plan B from Seoane could be due. Four goals conceded at home against Dortmund in a game in which Leverkusen played rather passively for long stretches have revealed one or two weaknesses. Against Bayern, they will probably act in a similar way and try to take control of the game right from the start before possibly dropping back into a deeper defensive stance later.
Bayern had problems against Frankfurt with a compact midfield centre and let the opponent pull them apart too easily. Instead of occupying the centre as tightly as possible to set up good counter actions, especially in gegenpressing, they fell back into old habits and played a game that was too wide.
If Bayern maintain compactness in possession in midfield, effective gegenpressing is made easier should they lose the ball. The space for the opponent, once they win the ball, is significantly compressed.
However, if the opponent wins the ball at times when Bayern are too wide and/or too vertically spread out, they have more space for offensive counterattacks.
Leverkusen’s compact shape could provoke something similar, which is why Nagelsmann also warned at the press conference: “It’s generally about the fact that we have to maintain a good link-up, especially when the opponents are sitting so deep and we have most players high up to save us more work defending in transition.”
Very likely, then, it will be the transition situations that decide this match. If Bayern allow their opponents virtually no opportunities to pass and play forward through the centre of the pitch but instead efficiently and effectively apply their gegenpressing, it will be difficult for Leverkusen to break out of their own half. Conversely, it will be complicated for Bayern if they give the Werkself too much space and the opponent’s strong offensive players get rolling.
Leverkusen’s defence has been mostly stable so far. However, the natural weaknesses of a compact defensive formation are in the wide areas. Bayern’s compact midfield structure is predestined for Leverkusen to almost ignore the wings. Switching the play out to one side, as Dortmund showed during their visit to the BayArena, is a good way to break down Seoane’s team.
It will probably be a game in which Bayern have more than 60% possession. That will make the top game a real test for Nagelsmann: Can the team learn from the mistakes of the last games and close the structural gaps in possession? Or will Leverkusen put the next damper on the Munich side?