Even though Bayer Leverkusen vs Fortuna Düsseldorf doesn’t sound like a top class match-up, the game was highly interesting from a tactical standpoint. Mainly, this is due to the approach of Leverkusen’s new Coach Peter Bosz.
The Dutchman loves attacking football and has a clear philosophy of possession-based play, which he also used at Ajax and Dortmund. In his fifth Bundesliga game with Leverkusen, he managed to reach their fourth victory and led his team into the Europa League places. Düsseldorf on the other hand remain in the midfield of the Bundesliga table after this 2-0 defeat against Leverkusen. This tactical analysis will point out, how Leverkusen won the game and why they are one of the most interesting teams in Europe right now.
The favourite formation of Leverkusen Coach Peter Bosz has always been the 4-3-3. No wonder he used it in this game as well. With Bender being injured, Dragovic rotated into the starting XI. Apart from that, there were no surprises. The focus was once again on the midfield three with Aranguiz, Havertz and Brandt, which arguably is one of the very best midfield trios right now in football.
Düsseldorf started with a 4-2-3-1 system with Karaman up-front. Coach Friedhelm Funkel decided against the 5-3-2 system, which he had used in the previous two league games. Most dangerous attacking weapon of Düsseldorf, Dodi Lukebakio, played on the right wing instead of being the lone striker. Jaroslav Drobny replaced injured goalkeeper Michael Rensing.
Total football from Leverkusen, while Düsseldorf defend deep
We start the analysis with some incredible statistics. Possession: 84.2% to 15.8% in favour of Leverkusen. Pass Success: 93% to 70% in favour of Leverkusen. Passes: 1053 to 187 in favour of Leverkusen.
These statistics alone tell the story of the game. We can’t provide an analysis of Düsseldorf’s build-up or possession play, because there was none. Only in transition from defence to offence, they were able to create some counterattacks. Concerning the defensive approach of Düsseldorf, it was obvious that they would defend deep in their own half. They tried to leave Leverkusen as little space as possible. Other than that, they didn’t actively try to gain possession at all.
Very rarely, we could observe that Düsseldorf would try to press high up-front. Without having the courage to defend higher with the whole team, this didn’t make any sense anyway. In this situation, it was easy for Goalkeeper Hradecky to play the pass to Aranguiz, who then has a lot of space in front of him. This eventually discouraged Düsseldorf more, so they didn’t even try again. Instead, they focussed completely on defending deep.
Düsseldorf tried to minimize the available space for Leverkusen near the box with two four-man lines. The two chains were always very close to each other in order not to let Leverkusen play between the lines. The centre forward Karaman, as well as Fink behind him, didn’t aim to put pressure on the ball. They rather wanted to stay in the centre and tighten the space there when the central midfielders of Leverkusen got the ball. In this image, Leverkusen aren’t positioned well, so Tah plays the ball to right back Weiser. Often enough, we could observe that the pass from the centre back to the full back was easily possible.
Leverkusen patiently move the ball from one wing to the other
When the full-back received the ball, Düsseldorf shifted to the particular wing. In this image, we see that Düsseldorf mark the Leverkusen players tightly. So Wendell has no passing option and is forced to turn back. Scenes like this repeated often, as Leverkusen patiently played from one wing to the other until there was a gap in the centre. One key factor of the huge possession and passing stats was this patient play. As Düsseldorf weren’t interested in preventing the pass to the full backs, these particular players could play a lot of passes without being put under pressure.
Occasionally, Wendell tried to position himself in the halfspace instead of staying wide at the wing. In doing so, he had more passing options. In this image, the pass to the wing to Bailey is possible, but also Wendell has the possibility to play to both central midfielders. If Wendell was very wide on the wing, the pass to the right central midfielder Brandt wouldn’t be possible, as the passing distance would be too long. Also, the initial pass from Dragovic to Wendell is shorter, giving the defenders less time to arrange with the new situation.
Leverkusen’s excellent positioning allows great passing game
Although many passes were played within the back four of Leverkusen in spaces without immediate danger, Leverkusen were able to create possession further up the pitch as well.
When Leverkusen’s full-backs didn’t turn back, but rather seized the opportunity to attack or play the ball forward to the winger, Düsseldorf tried to close down the wing aggressively. This image shows a situation where seven Düsseldorf players defend in a dangerous area near the ball. Yet Leverkusen still manage to give winger Leon Bailey three passing options. Positioning themselves always in between two opposing players, Leverkusen created assignment problems for the Düsseldorf defence.
Another example of this is provided here. Aranguiz falls between the two centre backs. Düsseldorf attackers Karaman and Fink once again don’t put pressure on the ball. They stay on one line, making it rather easy for Aranguiz to overplay them and take them out of play. Karaman’s only aim seems to keep an eye on the passing lane to Tah. Leverkusen’s central midfielder Brandt and Havertz both position themselves between a central midfielder and a winger. With the full back being wide and high up the pitch, Düsseldorf’s wingers Lukebakio and Gießelmann need to make a decision. Are they going to cover the centre and let the wings open? Or are they staying wide and trust the central midfielders to deal with Havertz and Brandt. The back line is confronted with a similar problem, as the wingers stay wide while the striker is positioned between the two centre backs.
This image provides another example of this tactical measure. We can see once again that all Leverkusen players are positioned between two Düsseldorf players. Aranguiz ultimately will receive the ball in a position where he can turn and create a dangerous attack. This type of positioning is also based on psychological thought. Staying between two defenders, Leverkusen aim to slow down the defenders cognitively. While with a man-to-man marking approach, a player only has to think about how to stop the opponent, here the situation is slightly different. The defender has to make decisions. Do I shift and mark him tighter or not? Will my teammate do so or does he want me to do the job? If a mark him closer, do I open another gap? While the brain calculates these problems in a split of a second, this can still lead to being a step too late at where you’re supposed to be.
Few scoring chances, as the final third was too tight
Even though Leverkusen’s positional play was good, they failed to create many chances. In the final third, they lacked finding solutions against the tightness in these areas.
Here, we can see one of the main problems of Leverkusen in this game. Peter Bosz managed to implement a strong positional play for his team, but in the final third near the box, things get more complicated. In this situation, Düsseldorf defend with so many players, that it is incredibly difficult to break through. However, Leverkusen have too many players near the ball as well. Instead of opening spaces for their teammates, the players close the space further and tighten the area. Düsseldorf still have no real pressure on the ball though and doesn’t threaten Leverkusen anyhow to win the ball and start a counterattack.
At the beginning of the game, Peter Bosz used striker Kevin Volland as a false 9. Volland was very active and constantly fell back. In this image, once again there is no pressure on Tah who has the ball. Volland recognizes the open space and falls back into midfield. Centre back Kaminsky isn’t quite sure at first sight whether to follow Volland or not, but in the end, he defends aggressively against Volland and doesn’t allow him to use the space.
In this image though, only a minute later, the defenders don’t trust themselves and decide to stay in their position instead of following Volland and getting out of the defensive shape. The passing lane to Volland is wide open. Once again Leverkusen manage to stay between the opponent players.
Unfortunately for Leverkusen, the early injury of Karim Bellarabi ended the false nine idea. Bellarabi had to be substituted after only 15 minutes. Lucas Alario joined the team, playing more like a classical striker. Kevin Volland occupied Bellarabi’s position as a right winger.
Later on, Leverkusen tried to get between lines with Kai Havertz in the right halfspace or Julian Brandt in the left halfspace. These two intelligent players often enough managed to position themselves brilliantly. This image is one such example. Havertz is once again positioned in the gap between the two opponents. Düsseldorf isn’t able to close the passing lane. There is once again no pressure on the ball, and Jonathan Tah plays the ball through. The body positioning of Havertz isn’t optimal though. His sight is towards his own goal, so he needs to turn fast in order to continue the attack. This also slows down Havertz’ decision making since he first has to recognize possible continuation possibilities. Many times, the final pass then wasn’t successful.
Leverkusen’s possible weakness: Aranguiz is the only safety net they got
While Leverkusen seem to have implemented a strong positional game, there remain some potential threats and weaknesses. A question mark could be the wide positioning of Leverkusen.
Earlier, we showed that Leverkusen have problems in the final third due to extremely tight areas near the box. In order to maximize the potential space, Peter Bosz decided to play his full-backs and wingers near the line. The aim of this is to make it more difficult Düsseldorf to defend, as they have to cover the whole width of the pitch. If Leverkusen lose the ball though, it becomes more difficult to put immediate pressure on the ball and to prevent the counterattack. Staying wide like this increases the distances between the players, so the so-called “Gegenpressing” isn’t effective. This is one of the reasons why Pep Guardiola nowadays plays with false fullbacks, meaning that the fullbacks stay much more near the centre in order to be able to prevent counterattacks if necessary.
Here, we provided an example of this. Düsseldorf gain possession and Aranguiz immediately makes the move towards the ball. Notice how he forces the pass to the wing, as he presses arc-shaped from the centre.
Often enough, the space behind Aranguiz was wide open. If Düsseldorf were able to get the ball behind Aranguiz into the open space, probably a 4 vs 3 counter-attack would arise.
Here, we can see it even clearer. The remaining defenders of Leverkusen are positioned as back three, while five players are out of play. Instead of running back, Aranguiz decides to attack the ball and create a 2 vs 1 situation. If the ball goes through, the attack would be extremely dangerous. Also, it would be difficult to put pressure on the ball since the gap to the back line is huge. Luckily for Leverkusen, Aranguiz intercepts the pass and the danger is over. Many times, it was Aranguiz who was the safety net for Leverkusen.
Occasionally, we could even see centre back Jonathan Tah defending aggressively deep in the opponents half. The aim is to not let the attacker turn and start a dangerous counterattack. Unfortunately, we can’t see the gap behind Tah because of the camera angle.
From a tactical standpoint, the game was highly interesting. Leverkusen have evolved to one of the most interesting teams in Europe, as Peter Bosz implements a possession machine. Düsseldorf didn’t even try to win the ball. Instead, the exclusively focussed on defending deep. In the final third, when the area near the box got too tight, Leverkusen lacked creativity and precision in playing the final pass. Peter Bosz positioned his team extremely wide as a measure against the tightened spaces, but this may become a potential future weakness. The class of Charles Aranguiz and partly also the lack of high-class passers for Düsseldorf led to a game where Leverkusen wasn’t in danger. If we remember Peter Bosz in Dortmund, similar weaknesses were exploited later on. He didn’t have a player like Aranguiz in Dortmund though. It will be interesting to see how the Bundesliga Coaches will deal with the system of Bosz and especially whether this extreme game will be successful or not. Furthermore, in order to get concrete answers for that, we should all hope that the strong midfield three and especially Charles Aranguiz stay healthy.