Over the first half of the Bundesliga season Bayer Leverkusen have emerged as one of the strongest contenders for a Champions League place. Their form has been a far cry from the 2016/17 season which eventually saw the removal of Roger Schmidt as coach, issues with dressing room harmony and tactical imbalance saw Leverkusen fall far short of pre season predictions of a top 5 finish.
Fast forward to the start of the second half of the Bundesliga season and the situation at Leverkusen is far healthier. The somewhat surprising addition of Heiko Herrlich as coach in pre season appears vindicated as the side have moved back to their roots with a 4-2-4 structure and heavy pressing to force their opponents in to mistakes. The emergence of young talent in Leon Bailey and Kai Havertz this season has also undoubtedly had an impact.
Bayern Munich on the other hand have stabilised following their slow start to the season that saw Carlo Ancelloti removed as coach. The appointment of Jupp Heynckes went a long way to removing any doubt that the side from Bavaria will retain their Bundesliga crown but more than that we are now seeing Bayern operate in a more familiar tactical style.
The biggest surprise pre match came when the team sheets were released and it became evident that Herrlich had adapted his tactical structure to try to nullify the attacking threat of the away side. The Brazilian fullback Wendell was deployed as the left sided central defender in a back three, a move that seems to have been made in response to the tendency of Arjen Robben to cut inside when receiving the ball on the right flank, having a natural fullback in that half space area already was an interesting solution.
The biggest issue with the change in system from Leverkusen was the lack of defensive cover in the wide areas. Both Leon Bailey and Karim Bellarabi have impressed in the final third this season but neither are particularly known for their defensive performances. Even with Jonathan Tah and Wendell, both of whom are capable of defending when isolated in the wide areas, at right and left centreback respectively there was still no cover to deal with the threat of Ribery and Robben, never mind the overloads of Alaba and Rafinha.
Kai Havertz seemed to have a confusing role from the start of the match as he drifted between the midfield and attacking midfield strata, unfortunately this lack of clarity in his role translated itself in to the defensive phase and Bayern were able to overload the midfield 3v2 over and over again.
Leverkusen carry a significant attacking threat but with Bailey and Bellarabi starting from deeper areas there seemed to be a reliance on the central areas and Kevin Volland and Julian Brandt in order to progress the ball forward. Unfortunately this area is a strength for Bayern Munich with Jerome Boateng, Mats Hummels and Javi Martinez all more than capable of dealing with the opposition in quick transitions.
Leverkusen start well in the early stages
From the start of the match to the first goal scored by Javi Martinez for Bayern this match had all the makings of a fascinating encounter. Whilst as mentioned above the starting structure from Leverkusen left them open in certain zones of the pitch it also allowed for interesting angles and connections to form in the attacking phase.
In the early stages of the match Bayern were put under significant pressure as they looked to build up from the back and the away side were limited in their options to progress the ball forwards.
With the ball in the Bayern left back zone with Alaba there are no comfortable passing options in order to progress the ball forwards safely. With the pass back to the goalkeeper even negated by the positioning of Volland shading over towards the Bayern goal. This initial pressing left Bayern having to choose between playing the low percentage longer passes to bypass the press or trying to dribble through the initial press to open up options.
This style of play whilst essentially a defensive function also had an impact on the way that Leverkusen attacked in the early stages. The movement of Havertz and Brandt in particular in dropping in to wider areas and then joining with Volland on the last line was causing Bayern some problems as Leverkusen looked to attack quickly and rely on transitions to catch Bayern out of position.
As the game progressed however Leverkusen started to commit more players forward and with Bellarabi and Bailey looking to get more involved in the wider areas it became evident that Leverkusen were overextending themselves and leaving gaps defensively.
You can see the Leverkusen attacking structure here with the wide three man defence and two shielding midfield players (Lars Bender and Dominik Kohr). We can already see that there are clear weak points in the structure and when the wingbacks advance forward you are left with a relatively narrow 3-2 structure at the back. It is here that you would expect to see one of the two defensive midfielders shift across to the wide areas to support the wide central defenders when they were isolated. instead Kohr and Bender retained their central position and Bayern began to exert more and more influence on the match.
Bayern begin to take control
As the game progressed we saw Bayern Munich start to take control and exploit the weaknesses that we have already seen in the the Leverkusen structure. When Javi Martinez scored in the 32nd minute the tide of the match then completely in the away sides favour.
Key to the match was the impressive performance of James Rodriguez with the Colombian international starting in a more traditional central midfield position before drifting in behind the double pivot of Bender and Kohr for Leverkusen. This freedom of movement was facilitated further by the willingness of Arturo Vidal to hold his position with Javi Martinez to provide a platform and occupy the attention of Kohr and Bender.
As you can see when free from his defensive responsibilities Rodriguez was constantly drifting in to pockets of space in order to receive the ball and help with the attacking phase. So far this season the Colombian has struggled to influence matches to the extent that he did with Porto and Monaco, or even with the national team. Here however with the overload that Bayern enjoyed in the midfield area Rodriguez was the key around which the attacking structure for the champions flowed.
It was from a position similar to this that he collected possession of the ball before feeding Frank Ribery for the second goal. This was then followed up by an excellent free kick from the edge of the penalty area to make it 3-1 in injury time and finally settle the game.
The other area that was exploited again and again by Bayern in order to overload and bypass the Leverkusen defensive structure was the wide area. Here with Arjen Robben and Frank Ribery looking to cut in to central areas, where they would effectively occupy both a defensive midfielder and a wide centre back with their movement, there were spaces open to allow both David Alaba and Rafinha to flood forward and support the attack.
Here we see the movement from Bayern to release Rafinha in to the final third to exploit the space. With Arjen Robben in possession we see him look to check back, as soon as he does and with two Leverkusen players pinned the threat posed by the Dutchman we see Rafinha move from the right back slot to exploit the space in the wide area.
As Robben sets the ball back to the supporting player the first time pass forward in to space finds Rafinha moving forwards in to a position from where he can threaten the Leverkusen defensive line.
As the game developed and Bayern came more in to the ascendancy the ability of Alaba and Rafinha to join in the attacking phase and occupy the wide areas became key for Bayern opening up the Leverkusen defensive structure and creating chances, of course it helps when you also carry the threat of Robben and Ribery cutting in and threatening the central areas of the field.
There is an argument to be made that the 3-1 scoreline in Bayern Munichs favour was slightly flattering, indeed the excellent Understat website lists the expected goals for the game as 1.49 for Bayern Munich and 0.62 for Leverkusen, this to an extent reflects the fact that the first goal game from a deflection in the box and the third from a close range free kick. Still though Bayern were the far more clinical of the two sides throughout.
It will be interesting to watch Leverkusen over the coming weeks to see if this system is replicated or whether it was used purely as a response to Bayern’s strengths. If nothing else then this game serves as a reminder of the dangers of being too reactive tactically and setting up to negate the opponent instead of setting up to play to your own strengths.