DFB-Pokal Final Preview: Bayern against Leverkusen
Bayern’s news cycle in the week before the game was determined by transfer news. There have been the two arrivals of Leroy Sané and Tanguy Nianzou as well as rumours of a possible departure by Thiago, which increasingly looks like a certainty. Chairman Karl-Heinz Rummenigge recently confirmed that the Spaniard is considering to look for a new challenge in his career. At the same time, a signing of Kai Havertz this summer seems increasingly unlikely. Rummenigge said almost tongue-in-cheek that he wished that his colleague Rudi Völler would convince the attacker to stay in Leverkusen for another year.
In Leverkusen, the focus was entirely on the final against Bayern. Peter Bosz knows that his team can yet finish the season with a bang. With him in charge, Leverkusen has already played three games against the team from Munich, and twice they emerged the winners.
Especially the last success (2-1 in the Hinrunde of the Bundesliga) could serve as a blueprint for how to play against Bayern this Saturday – but only to a limited extent. Leverkusen started courageously at the time, but not haphazardly so. Especially in midfield, the Werkself skilfully closed down Bayern’s engine room, repeatedly forcing their midfielders to play the ball out early to the full-backs on the wings, where they then created a lot of pressure. Davies, for example, lost the ball before the 0-1 goal because his passing and running routes were entirely blocked.
Bayern needed a certain amount of time to get used to the situation, but Leverkusen also benefited from the early lead. The longer the game lasted, the more often the Bayern players were able to overplay the visitors’ press, and then it became dangerous.
After the game, Peter Bosz was even dissatisfied with his team’s overall performance: “We were quite lucky today. We played with courage for the first 30 minutes and put a lot of pressure on Bayern.” But after that Leverkusen were pushed further and further back.
That is why this game can only serve as somewhat of a blueprint for the final. Bosz knows that his offensive playing style is a balancing act. If the pressing does not work perfectly, Bayern can play through the half and interline spaces with their combination football like hardly any other team. For Leverkusen it will be a matter of crowding the midfield centre and blocking the passing routes of Bayern’s centre-backs into the half-spaces as often as possible. Then there will be a realistic chance of forcing Bayern to play misplaced passes or cause turnovers on the wings. But if Leverkusen play too passively, they will not get any opportunity to catch a break. Then Bayern can build up with a lot of space and time on their hands and slowly but steadily wear their opponent down. The last 60 minutes of the Hinrunde match in particular showed this. In the reverse fixture, when Bayern dominated Leverkusen at will despite having conceded an early goal, Bosz had to foot the bill for an inconclusive and rather tame pressing of his side.
In that game, Bosz relied on a back three/five, which was particularly susceptible to long balls over the top by Bayern. Again and again the team from Munich got in behind the back line, which quickly got them a 4-1 lead. Leverkusen was only allowed back into the game towards the end owing to a shaky final period by Bayern.
Yet despite such experiences, it is hard to imagine that Bosz will rely on a wait-and-see approach in the cup final so as not to take too many risks. He has not made good experiences with that either. The coach is consistent in his interpretation of his philosophy. He wants his team to try to be active and act on the front foot even if the opponent is nominally stronger. This has led to him often being accused of lacking flexibility. But anyone who has closely observed Leverkusen’s development will have to reconsider his ‘Dortmund Bosz’ impression. Bosz has learned from his time there. He spends even more time and energy on analyzing the opponent intensively and often manages to fine-tune his team precisely to meet the strengths and weaknesses of the opponent and to create the odd surprise or two.
As has been so often the case in Leverkusen’s past, it is their lack of consistency that hinders sustainable progress. Bosz’s big task for the future is to solve this problem. However, with Leverkusen in danger of losing Kai Havertz after Julian Brandt’s departure last year, the task is not quite so simple. Leverkusen certainly has one of the deepest, strongest and most exciting squads in the Bundesliga. But replacing exceptional players is not a simple task for the Werkself either.
So the uptick in performance levels by Leverkusen in the second half of the season after a mixed first half was quite remarkable. Who knows what would be possible for this team if they stayed together with perhaps a surgical addition here and there and if they were able to put an end to their tendency to inexplicably slip up at times, for example in their 4-1 loss to Wolfsburg, who actually have a poor offense, or in their recent 2-0 loss to Hertha BSC.
The demands at Leverkusen remain high. That is why the next season Peter Bosz will be measured by the progress he makes compared to this one one – regardless of Leverkusen’s departures. But the Dutchman could achieve a historic success against Bayern. The Werkself have been without a title for 27 years now, and have come close on several occasions. And who knows? Maybe Leverkusen will even benefit from the fact that without spectators, the element of pressure from the stands will be missing.
Bayern do not care about this aspect. Not only are they accustomed to pressure, they can even draw strength from it in such games. Under Hansi Flick especially, a long gone mood has once again descended on the league that can be described as a mixture of awe, respect and unease at the prospect of boredom. Seen in isolation, this is a great compliment for the club from Bayern, because it means they have returned to doing almost everything right again.
Within a very short time, Bayern have developed into such as strong pressing machine against the ball on both a physical and tactical level that the few remaining problems in possession have hardly been noticed recently. This also compensated for Thiago’s absence. Goretzka, Kimmich, Müller – this is not only a midfield that is strong at running, but also strong in direct challenges. In phases against the ball, they also usually find the right ways to take an opponent out of play.
Against Leverkusen in particular, however, it will take a touch more than this quality. This opponent has the courage and the skills to try to overplay Bayern’s high press and not resort to long balls over the top by default. Bayern’s answer to this will be interesting to observe if this scenario comes true. After the game against Dortmund, for example, Kimmich said that he and his teammates would have liked to see the opponent play more long balls but that they did not do them the favor.
If their pressing alone will not do the job, Bayern will need other options. For example, having longer periods of possession in order to pin the opponent back. The cup final is therefore not only a very good test of whether the team from Munich can find the necessary composure, but also of how well they can accomplish a high-level possession game without Thiago.
On paper, this final promises to be a worthwhile watch. In it, two teams meet that have their greatest qualities in attacking play. Two teams that will put pressure on each other on the pitch. Two teams who want to be active themselves and feel uncomfortable in the role of the reacting player. Two teams who can score goals and have enough players in their own ranks to make the difference.
Unfortunately this football game will not get the atmosphere it deserves. That will ruin some of the otherwise special cup atmosphere in Berlin. But on a purely sporting level, this game has the potential to become one of the better finals of the last decade. It is now up to both teams to make it happen. And it is mainly up to Leverkusen to be able to put pressure on Bayern without their mistakes turning them into sacrificial lambs.