Bayer Leverkusen have had a commendable start to the season. With the club having new management at the start of this campaign, there is bound to be a change in the way things are run. In this two part article, Hamoudi Fayad first tactically analyses Leverkusen followed by Marseille to see how their players deploy their new strategies.
Bayer Leverkusen have impressed stylistically under new recruit Roger Schmidt from Red Bull Salzburg, using a form of pressing that has wowed German, European and worldwide fans alike.
Pressing is a strategy that is used against teams by staying in close proximity to the player on the ball, pressuring him into giving the ball away to a certain zone or player who can easily be taken advantage of. The main aim is to win the ball back.
Counter-pressing is the immediate pressing of the ball as soon as the ball is lost. If Team A is in possession and Team B regains the ball, Team A will swarm either: the player and a fixed zone (Dortmund use this leeway-oriented type of pressing); most of the outfield players – barring the centre backs and defensive midfielder/full back – covering a man with his cover shadow or by sticking to him (Bayern used this man-oriented pressing under Heynckes); or the style Guardiola used at Barcelona which stuck to the principles of passing lane-oriented pressing. A final type of pressing is the ball-oriented pressing, which gives no regard to the loss of structure and is just persistently aiming at getting the ball.
Counter-pressing helps the team win the ball back closer to the goal. Guardiola himself said “winning the ball 30 yards from the goal is much better than winning it 80 yards away from the opposition goal”.
So there you have it; man, space, ball or even passing lane-oriented pressing are some of the most popular types of pressing used in world football today. Roger Schmidt used this at Red Bull Salzburg last season and took them to the Round of 16 in the Europa League before being eliminated by FC Basel 2-1 on aggregate. The shape was a 4-4-2/4-2-4, something that I will emphasise on currently with Bayer Leverkusen.
Pressing Shapes, Triggers, Dynamics, Pros and Cons
This photo emphasises the attacking intent of Bayer Leverkusen. There is no such thing as playing the ball back to the defenders, as their only goal is verticality and speed. As soon as the ball is in the opposition half, Leverkusen become direct, swift and hungry for goals.
This photo conveys multiple things that reflect on Leverkusen’s pressing. They sit high, swarm players (while keeping a specific structure) and aim to hit teams on the counter. There are 2 pressing triggers (mentioned in the photo) and these happen often during games, especially when an opposition player is out wide.
This style of pressing comes with its disadvantages as Paderborn can easily hit on the counter attack should the player on the ball escape through – skill, luck or a mistake – this bombardment of pressing, then Leverkusen are in trouble. Long balls in behind Leverkusen’s defence can cause problems too against players with pace & swift instincts.
In this photo, we observe Pressing Trigger #3. Once an opposition player is in dangerous territory in and around the box, at least more than 2 players swarm him. This situation shows 4 players on him, with Bender using his cover shadow to block the player on the bottom of the screen. Wendell (Leverkusen left back) is keeping his cover shadow on the player at the top of the screen.
Now the problem here again, is evident. Sometimes football isn’t just tactics, or even outnumbering players. 4 players are swarming the opposition attacker but only 2, maybe 3 are needed. If anything happens, example: Bender misses the ball, or the ball goes through his legs, or the opposition attacker successfully lobs the ball to the onrushing wingers – then there’s a problem.
Nevertheless, Roger Schmidt has got it right tactically. If anything happens by “random chance” or due to the continuous physical exertions, then that is another article itself.
Another photo of the “player swarming” 3rd Pressing Trigger occurring:
Formation, Shape and Structure
Leverkusen operate in a hybrid of a 4-2-2-2/4-2-3-1/4-3-3. The 4-2-2-2 shape is triggered during the attacking phases, or while the opposition are in Phase 1 (playing the ball out of the defence).
The 4-2-3-1 shape occurs while the opposition are easing into Phase 2 & 3, and Calhanoglu is the focal point of all this. During the attacking phase, he links up with Keissling up front, or drifts into pockets of spaces in and around the box. In the defensive phase – or transitioning to defence while NOT counter pressing – he will (or Keissling will) drop back into the hole, press and try to link attack and defence if Leverkusen win the ball back.
The 4-3-3 shape (rarer than the others) occurs when Bender pushes up with Calhanoglu into the hole, while the attacking trio of Son, Bellarabi and Keissling stays intact, or they interchange (especially, Son and Bellarabi, who switched positions in the 2nd half, back and forth).
This is Leverkusen operating in their 4-2-2-2 shape, with Son and Bellarabi wider than the rest of the team (bar the full backs). Reinartz and Bender stay in close proximity of the 2 advanced central midfielders in Paderborn’s 4-3-3, while the wingers occupy the same line as the opposition defensive midfielder.
Calhanoglu is the player in the hexagonal shape, playing off Keissling who looks to press the opposition centre backs.
Other Theories on B04
Bayer Leverkusen have a very fluid attack, aimed at playing swift, vertical and attacking football. They mainly focus their play on the right, as Bellarabi’s attacking threat this year has been monstrous. Son drifts infield, unlike Bellarabi who aims to hug the touchline and run at goal either through the half space or to run at the byline and cross to Keissling.
The long balls in behind Leverkusen’s full backs are problems for them (especially with Leno needlessly running out of his goal and missing the ball) and if it weren’t for the poor decision making of Paderborn’s winger they could have conceded more than 1.
As soon as Leverkusen go 1 down they up their tempo, and everything about their play becomes frantic. No hesitation, just running and verticality. This resulted in an equalizer, where as soon as Paderborn’s back 4 were disorganized, Bellarabi took the advantage (subject to a great save but poor follow up from the keeper) for Bender to tap in.
Written by Hamoudi Fayad
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