In December 2018, Bayer Leverkusen have appointed former Ajax and Borussia Dortmund manager Peter Bosz as their new boss, replacing the sacked Heiko Herrlich. Bosz helped Leverkusen finish 4th, thanks to a great run of form at the end of last season, where Leverkusen won 16 points out of a possible 21. This season, Leverkusen are 5th in Bundesliga and won their Europa League tie against Porto to qualify for the round of 16 stage. Their last 10 games saw them win nine times and draw once.
In this tactical analysis in the form of scout report, we will discuss Peter Bosz’s tactics that have worked for Leverkusen. We will break down what they are doing very well but also what they should improve to be a guaranteed Champions League side for the foreseeable future.
Being tactically versatile: The Peter Bosz way
Leverkusen have used 3 different formations this season: 4-2-3-1 which sometimes turns in 4-4-1-1, 4-3-3, 3-4-3 which turns in a 3-4-2-1. The most used formation this season has been the 4-2-3-1. However, they have used the 3-4-3 formation nine times during their last 10 games, where they consolidated their 5th place in the league.
This versatility is also noticeable when we look at the use of Leverkusen players. Bosz likes his players to play different positions. Karim Bellarabi, a right-winger, has played as a right wing-back a couple of times this season. Kevin Volland, Leverkusen center-forward, has played as a left-winger or as a second striker. There is no doubt Kai Havertz is the greatest example of this versatility. The 20 years old star midfielder has played everywhere on Leverkusen “front six”, being played as a box-to-box in a double pivot, as a False 9 and as a right-winger, position he has played the most in this season.
The downside of this versatility is that Bosz likes to change his starting XI and Leverkusen’s most used players don’t have as many habits together as the starters from other top sides in Bundesliga. For example, only two Leverkusen players have played over 2000 minutes in the league this season: Sven Bender and Lukáš Hrádecký. Only six Leverkusen players have played over 1500 minutes. As a comparison, RB Leipzig have seven players with more than 1500 minutes, Borussia Mönchengladbach have eight players with at least 1500 minutes whilst Bayern Munich have nine and Borussia Dortmund have 10.
Their formation’s versatility doesn’t change the fact Leverkusen have the same tactics and build-up principles. First, Leverkusen heavily rely on having possession of the ball. This season, they are second in terms of possession of the ball in Bundesliga, with 60% on average.
This is mostly due to the way they build out the back. Indeed, their most popular building scheme is to have the full-back close to the centre-back who has the ball in order to create pressing traps from their opponent and create a numerical advantage if they bypass these pressing traps. This building shape is asymmetrical, with the opposite fullback high and wide whilst Havertz comes from his right-winger position and tucks in, to create overloads in the middle of the pitch. Finally, when the full-back receives the ball, he waits for his winger to ask for the ball and spread it out wide.
However, they don’t necessarily use it with great effect. Most of the time, they don’t move the ball fast enough and they either lose it or bypass their second line with a long ball over the top to Havertz. Indeed, they make 618 passes per game on average, with half of them between their back four and their goalkeeper, Hrádecky. This is often aimless and they don’t necessarily score a lot compared to the number of goals they concede.
As said above, Leverkusen have a pattern who aims to bait their opponent into pressing higher up the pitch to draw some of them out to create a numerical advantage going forward. However, Leverkusen can risk losing the ball very close to their own goal. This is highlighted below, where the pass to the full-back is obvious and the opponent moves towards him to press, a very risky move.
Nevertheless, when it’s done well, this is a very useful building trigger to have in your belt. It gives extra time to your forwards once you have drawn multiple players out and one of your midfielders can drive forward with space to operate in. This is highlighted below.
Finally, you can see one of Leverkusen’s best movements in build-up. They use triangles in wide areas with the midfielder dropping deeper. Two opponents follow him so it opens the space higher up the pitch. He passes it to his centre-back who then spreads to the full-back dropping deep. Havertz is alone in front of him and he can run into depth to get the ball from his full-back. Textbook play from Leverkusen.
Leverkusen in the final third
As previously said, Leverkusen take their time to build out from the back so it doesn’t come as a surprise that they don’t necessarily sustain pressure into their opponent’s defensive third. Below, the passing map against Augsburg is a good example of it. Leverkusen spent only 14% of the time into the final third but they still scored on three occasions.
Indeed, they are very efficient when they are in the final third. They try to be as quick as possible once they are close to their opponent’s goal. Below, this is once again a textbook play. They use triangles to overload the wide area. It allows them to find the free man and once they have found him, a player makes a run in behind to do a cutback.
They also use throw-ins with great efficiency. Kevin Volland drops deeper, draws a player out to allow his teammates to run into depth, which resulted in a chance as seen in the image below. They often throw long-balls during throw-ins. Volland is often used as an outlet in these situations. Once he drops deeper, the throw-in is played and a forward starts to run into depth to play the pass-and-move.
Out of possession
Peter Bosz has managed Ajax in the past so it doesn’t come as a surprise that he wants his team to press as soon as they lose the ball. He wants full control of the game by having the ball, hence why he aims to recover the ball within the first few seconds after losing it. And it proves to be efficient since Leverkusen are the second-best team in Bundesliga when it comes to PPDA (Passes Allowed per Defensive Actions), with a rather low figure of 7.72.
Whilst their press can be called efficient, this is very risky and it can cost them during some games. Indeed, they let too much space in midfield and once their first line is bypassed, their opponents can easily get into the middle of the field and find dangerous passing options. This is a common trend about a team adopting a high press.
But they are also very open in transitions. They seem disjointed when they have the ball. The team isn’t compact enough and doesn’t act as a unit. The space between the defensive and the forward lines makes defensive transitions hard to handle for Leverkusen, as the players can’t block all passing lanes at the same time when they are too far from each other. This is highlighted below.
All in all, Leverkusen face the same issues as the other high-pressing teams. They can be exposed defensively because they are very high when they press. However, they let too much space in the middle of the pitch, even for a high-pressing side. This is something they have to work upon and solve. It could be because their players aren’t very good at transitions or because the system isn’t perfect to prevent those transitions. In both cases, Peter Bosz will have to make changes.
When you watch Leverkusen, three players come to mind. Kai Havertz, Kevin Volland and Charles Aránguiz. Leverkusen build-up in a way that prevents their forwards from having a lot of the ball, that’ why they have to make a great use of it. Volland and Havertz are absolutely pivotal for this. Whilst Havertz is used as an outlet who sets his runners, Bailey or Diaby, up, Volland does the dirty work at handling the opposite centre-backs and keeping them busy.
On the other hand, Aránguiz’s mobility massively helped Peter Bosz when he decided to change to a 3-4-3 during the last 10 games. Aranguìz comes deeper to receive and forms a diamond. It helps for ball progression but it also helps higher up the pitch. Indeed, it allows Leverkusen’s wing-backs to be higher and it’s easier for them to draw players out and create space to thrive in for their forwards.
Havertz is very likely to leave this summer, Aránguiz is out of contract and Volland has one year left on this contract. All of them are key players to this Leverkusen side and they will have to be smart to replace them during the summer window.
Although Leverkusen take a lot of time to build their attacks, the way they move the opposition’s shape is very insightful and very enjoyable when they succeed at doing so. The way Peter Bosz wants to play can be seen as a process and their recent performances prove that, as explained in this analysis. Leverkusen might need to deal with key players leaving this summer and it will be interesting to see how they will adjust and perform without them next season.