Under Peter Bosz’s stewardship, Bayer Leverkusen have turned a corner and are fighting for Champions League nights at the BayArena next season. With a win against Werder Bremen, the home side would have been just two points off Champions League qualification places. However, Bremen, unbeaten in their last nine games before this fixture, had other ideas despite their modest possession stats.
Bosz lined his Leverkusen side up in his familiar 4-3-3 formation. But Kai Havertz, Tin Jedvaj and Mitchell Weiser were replaced by Karim Bellarabi, Wendell and Lars Bender respectively. Meanwhile, Bremen boss Florian Kohfeldt also implemented three changes which saw former Borussia Dortmund player Nuri Sahin, Johannes Eggestein and Marco Friedl all start.
Bremen’s defensive solidity:
Bremen made it very difficult for the home side to play out from the back. Bremen’s front five appeared to be operating a man-oriented press which was triggered by Leverkusen’s passing options. For instance, if Tah – who was pressed by Rashica – were to pass wide to Bender, Klassen would begin to press. Whereas if Tah chose to pass to his fellow central defender, Dragovic, J. Eggestein would press the Leicester City loanee.
Also, Kruse endeavoured to virtually cut off Baumgartlinger as a viable passing option to further stifle the home side’s build-up play. This was a fixture of Bremen’s midfield structure as they sought to prevent Leverkusen from progressing play through the midfield.
Bremen’s defensive shape kept Leverkusen’s attacks at bay. As Julian Brandt made a run inside, he was pressed by M. Eggestein. This forced Brandt into making an erroneous forward pass to Volland, as Baumgartlinger was the better passing option.
As the image above shows, Bremen’s midfield structure often resembled a diamond, with Sahin anchoring and Kruse at the apex. Bremen sought to press Leverkusen if they attempted to play through the middle, with Sahin often instigating the counter attacks with quick balls to the front three.
Leverkusen’s defensive fragility:
As evidenced by the uptake in xG since his arrival, Bosz has implemented a more free-flowing attacking philosophy at Leverkusen. However, with as many as seven Leverkusen players attacking at one time, they will always be vulnerable to the counter. Particularly, with a team as organised as Bremen were.
Bremen sought to counter by exposing the space left behind both Leverkusen fullbacks. Dragovic attempted to cover Wendell’s position but ends up abandoning Tah and an onrushing Baumgartlinger. As a result of Leverkusen’s sloppy defensive transition, Bremen went 0-1 up through a clinical Max Kruse strike.
Leverkusen’s midfield did not do its back line many favours by leaving space between the lines. The home side had a perpetual lack of defensive solidity which was catalysed by their fullbacks and central midfielders failing to cover. Such exposure of the back line prompted incisive runs from the likes of Kruse, which the staggered Leverkusen defenders struggled to handle.
Leverkusen’s poor defensive transition was exposed repeatedly by Bremen. As Dragovic attempted to drive forward he was dispossessed, which provoked a Bremen counter against a languid and disjointed Leverkusen defence.
Leverkusen’s pursuit for a goal continued to leave them open on the break. Bender is caught out of position again, leaving what is left of Leverkusen’s back line to quell Bremen’s counter. Both M. Eggestein and Kruse provide dangerous wide options for Sahin. Bender’s over-commitment to the attack proved to be Leverkusen’s defensive Achilles’ heel.
Leverkusen’s lacklustre attack:
Bosz’s omission of Kai Havertz hampered his Leverkusen side’s attacking momentum in the first half. Havertz’s knack for making dangerous runs into the box and linking up well with his forwards is backed up by his 13 goal involvements in 25 league games this season. Leverkusen lacked the 19-year-old’s guile in much of their attacking play in the first half.
Bellarabi’s inclusion was supposed to give Leverkusen a significant outlet down the right-hand side. However, the combination of Bellarabi and Bender were often stifled in the build-up, as Bremen sought to compress them against the touchline in numbers. Also, as the image below shows, Bender and Bellarabi both picked up similar positions which made it easier for Bremen to abate Leverkusen’s threat on the right wing.
Moreover, Bender’s attacking impetus was repeatedly exposed and was the result of Bremen’s first goal – as Kruse penetrated the space left between Bender and Tah. Traditionally under Bosz, Leverkusen’s shape is asymmetrical, with one attacking full-back (Weiser/Wendell) joining the attack and the other (Bender/Jedvaj) staying close to their defence. Perhaps Bender should have kept tight to Tah and Dragovic or accompanied Julian Baumgartlinger in preventing a Bremen counter.
Although Leverkusen have played well this season under Bosz, Bremen claimed victory deservedly despite only having 29% possession. By preventing Leverkusen building through the middle, pressing with discipline and countering efficiently, Bremen tactically outclassed their opposition. With just three points separating the two opponents, Europa League football certainly remains within Bremen’s grasp.
For Leverkusen, a loss is not fatal to their Champions League hopes. Still five points off, Leverkusen have both RB Leipzig and Eintracht Frankfurt to play at home. This would suggest that the race of top four and Leverkusen’s season are from over yet.