There are some great stories in the current Bundesliga season including Hoffenheim and Leipzig qualifying for Champions League. When Leverkusen and Schalke met in Leverkusen last Friday it was very much a meeting of the two big disappointments. Prior to the game, Schalke was 11th with Leverkusen sitting in 12th. The game ended 4-1 for Schalke and it was a great showcase for some of the problems Leverkusen is having and also some of the problems Schalke had.
Leverkusen – From Coffee to Water
Prior to the season, many people tipped Leverkusen to be one of the teams that could challenge Bayern for the league title. They came off the back of an amazing second half of the 2015/16 season and made some squad additions like Volland that looked like really good signings.
To use a metaphor, Schmidt’s Leverkusen at the back end of last season and at the start of this season were like a strong coffee. They played the style Roger Schmidt is known for. Pure, aggressive and high Pressing, often up to the opponent’s penalty box. When they didn’t have the ball, they often acted in a very compact shape with the two wingers of the 4-4-2 pushing up to make it more of a 4-2-4. The squad building attests to that. Clubs like Leverkusen – or Atletico – need incredibly hard working forwards, Wingers who are fine with playing a bit more centrally and good Pressing midfielders. One thing these heavy pressing teams – Liverpool is another example – often lack are really defensive minded Midfielders who press a bit more cautiously.
Leverkusen have Sven Bender but with his injury history, he isn’t really someone you can rely on for a whole season. All of this has led to a reliance of and a strength in the transition moment – comparable to Liverpool. Playing like that a drop-off in intensity or simple mistakes can often lead to getting destroyed. With Schmidt lacking a distinct “Plan B” and with other teams developing strategies to beat them by overloading the wings in a way that didn’t allow Leverkusen a way out without opening massive amounts of space.
This is when they started to substitute some of the coffee beans with water. At times they tried to play a bit more possession based and with the sacking of Schmidt even more water was added. He tried to play a bit more sensible but still take the best from the energetic Schmidt-football – not like he had many options though. However, their Pressing shape isn’t as aggressive anymore, varying from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1.
Last Friday has shown that Leverkusen is a) still a pressing team and that b) half-hearted Pressing and not Pressing as a unit isn’t going to get you very far. The two clips above show that. In the first one Schalke go for the long ball to play around the press. After that move breaks down Leverkusen swarm forward and with them losing possession they end up very open in midfield. Clip two shows how easy Leverkusen’s press is broken. The hosts let Schalke just knock the ball around without too much pressure. After the ball goes to Fährmann, they regain compactness but that just allows Badstuber to progress the ball into midfield, Schalke finish the move superbly the and the game is done after just 17 minutes. If you play with a high first pressing line the other lines have to be high too or the team just collapses once the first line is broken – a big problem for Leverkusen under Korkut.
Leverkusen – neither the hot coffee that will give you power in the morning nor the ice cold drink that cools you down in the evening. They probably won’t go down but the fact that this is an actual possibility with three games to go says a lot about how the season of the “Werkself” has gone.
Schalke – Injuries and Inconsistency
Leverkusen had their fair share of injury problems this season with players like Tah and Bellarabi both staying below 1500 minutes but it’s not quite as bad as the injury crisis Schalke is having for a couple of years now. Coke sustained a cruciate ligament damage in his first friendly. Considering he was supposed to be the right back that plays every game, that put Schalke in quite a situation and it was one of the reasons why they switched to a back three in the middle of the first half of the season. Record-signing Embolo broke his ankle and ruptured all the ligaments around there in Augsburg and various strikers got injured too which lead to the quite fortunate signing of Burgstaller.
With the back three, Schalke stabilized after 5 losses in their first 5 games. This was because with the three Central Defenders and the midfield three plus the two forwards sitting in a pentagon shape in front of them, the Royal Blues usually managed to destroy the game to a degree where they could just create enough either via quick transitions through the midfield three or via balls to Kolasinac – who has been on the pitch for every Schalke win – for him to run through to the byline and cut it back. However, when Naldo then got injured for the rest of the season in February, the back three had to be scrapped because Schalke lost that rock in the middle of the three and with Baba picking up a season-ending injury a month earlier, sufficient backup for Kolasinac could not be provided.
Schalke then returned to the 4-2-3-1 they started the season with and with the players actually knowing each other, the defensive output was a lot better than a few months earlier. This is though when Schalke went on to deliver an exact definition of topsy-turvy. The best example for this is the week that they started with a 1-1 against Dortmund followed by a 3-0 spanking at the hands of Bremen and a 4-1 demolition job at home against Wolfsburg.
One problem that has plagued Schalke for years – just like the injuries – is the tendency of avoiding attacks through the middle, no matter who the current Manager is. Playing with a focus on width is fine if you have wide players like Leroy Sane but it is not if your current best wide midfield/forward player is Daniel Caligiuri. Schalke have some of the better midfielders in the Bundesliga with Bentaleb and Goretzka but if you take a look at Schalke’s passing networks you often see them drifting wide – especially in games where Schalke is doing badly.
Last Friday they managed to get all of their three midfielders involved – especially Bentaleb and Goretzka broke the press with line-breaking passes in case of Bentaleb and Dribblings in case of Goretzka on numerous occasions (passing map by @11tegen11).
It’s a bit weird to say this after the bad season that Schalke has had but there is still a chance that they qualify for the Europa League which also speaks volumes for the madness that has been the Bundesliga season 2016/17. However, with Schalke’s inconsistency, it seems unlikely that they will win their last three matches
Going forward, the Leverkusen squad requires some restructuring to actually create a balanced squad that can play in more than just the Roger Schmidt way. It is also quite possible that there is going to be a firesale in Leverkusen with a handful of players already attracting interest from Champions League caliber clubs. In that regard, Schalke have a bit more of a solid base to build from. The biggest question here is how they are going to replace the UK-Bound Kolasinac.