How High-Octane Bayer Leverkusen Blunted Bayern’s Attack

Robben Cal

Bayer Leverkusen approach their football like few others in the German Bundesliga. They press with a staggering amount of intensity, so much so that they lead the league in tackles, with 20.7 per game. They’re also right up there for interceptions, coming in at 22.3 per game, behind only Werder Bremen’s 23.8. Although these are only raw numbers, they paint the picture pretty clearly: Leverkusen will press, tackle and scrap.

The club’s coach, Roger Schmidt, first perfected this gameplan during a spell in Austria, with Red Bull Salzburg, before taking it across the border to Germany. As it stands, Leverkusen sit in fifth place, only a point away from fourth-placed Schalke and three points away from third-placed Hertha Berlin. In itself, this speaks to the team’s ability to carry out Schmidt’s high-octane style of play, but over the weekend, in a game against the highly-fancied Bayern Munich, the players produced a performance that was arguably even more significant.

Up against Pep Guardiola’s side, Schmidt did little to adjust Bayer’s tactical set-up. He still asked them to press high, like a group of sprinters charging towards the finish line, in a bid to disrupt Bayern’s often unstoppable passing game. If anything, Leverkusen were almost more relentless than usual, fouling 13 times in the first half alone, a figure which very nearly eclipsed their season average of 15.4 per match. “It was intense, aggressive, there were a lot of fouls,” Bayern defender Holger Badstuber asserted after the game.

Playing at centre-back, Badstuber would know better than most. Along with the rest of the players in the Bayern back line, he was tasked with kickstarting Guardiola’s renowned possession game, but instead of being met with an opposition that sat back, as so many other teams do against Bayern, he was set upon by Leverkusen’s centre-forwards. Javier Hernandez and Stefan Kiessling surged towards Badstuber and his partner in central defence, the inexperienced Joshua Kimmich, while wingers Karim Bellarabi and Hakan Calhanoglu pushed up as well. Throw in the fact that Leverkusen midfielders Christoph Kramer and Kevin Kampl stuck like glue to the likes of Xabi Alonso and Arturo Vidal, and Badstuber and his teammates were presented with a wall of red-and-black shirts converging upon their positions.

Bayern struggled to cope. “In the first half, we had difficulties putting together three, four, five passes in a row,” Guardiola conceded, and the stats back him up on this. Whereas Bayern usually complete a league-high 88% of their passes, here they were reduced to a comparatively inefficient 77%. Whereas they usually average 716 passes per match, here they were reduced to only 508. And of those passes, a higher proportion were long punts towards the forwards, balls that were speculative in nature rather than precise. Leverkusen’s in-your-face kind of game also forced Bayern to make do with only nine shots for the match, far below their season average of 19.9, so it wasn’t just a feat of restricting their possession but also one of restricting their customary efficiency up front. “We did a lot right,” Schmidt asserted in the post-match.

To do that against a team like Bayern is no easy feat. It’s even harder to do it against a coach like Guardiola, a man who would have poured over tape of Leverkusen in the lead-up to the match, assessing their style and the strengths and weaknesses attached to it. The Spaniard would have considered a slew of potential solutions, and though some of those, most notably his decisions to move Douglas Costa out to the wing and position substitute Thomas Muller nearby striker Robert Lewandowski, had a positive impact, there was never a persistent sense of cohesion within this well-drilled Bayern side.

Put simply, Leverkusen could not be faulted in a defensive sense. The only trouble with their high-grade pressing game, though, was that it left them little in the tank when they actually won the ball back. Kampl, who was deployed in central midfield, spoke to this after the match. “We had to run a lot and then after all that running we didn’t quite have enough energy to move the ball forwards as well as we usually would be able to against a team who would sit deeper,” he said.

This can often be a problem for teams who look to impose themselves in an assertive manner, as they expend so much energy without the ball that it’s hard to make crisp, clear decisions, and execute the skills that accompany those decisions, once they regain it. Nevertheless, this was a hugely encouraging evening for Leverkusen. They stopped an overwhelmingly dominant Bayern Munich from taking all three points, and given that the Bavarian side have won 17 of their 20 league matches this season, it was a massive achievement. Add in the fact that they did it with a proactive pressing game, rather than a strategy more in line with the park-the-bus methodology, and there’s not much left to add to centre-back Jonathan Tah’s assertion that, “We [Leverkusen] produced a superb team performance.”

Leverkusen may have lost their following match, a midweek German Cup clash with Werder Bremen, but as they look towards their remaining fixtures in the Bundesliga season, they’ll be hoping their efforts against Bayern will act as a springboard towards Champions League qualification.