Miles Olusina writes a detailed tactical analysis about the Bundesliga match that ended Bayern 2-1 Leverkusen.
Two of the league’s biggest clubs faced off in this encounter, both in desperate need of three points to overturn their mediocre form going into this game. Carlo Ancelotti’s side were eager to come away with the victory today after their 1-0 defeat in Der Klassiker to rivals Borussia Dortmund. In addition, surprise leaders RB Leipzig had beaten Freiburg earlier in the weekend, so a win was the only option if Bayern were hopeful of keeping pace with them and returning to the top of the Bundesliga.
Leverkusen had problems of their own, coming into this fixture languishing in mid-table and hoping to keep their top four hopes alive. To make matters worse, leading striker Javier Hernandez was on the bench, making the task all the more difficult. Their poor record of 0.85 points taken per game against Bayern in the Bundesliga did not make for good reading; however with the Bavarians winning only two of their previous 6 games, a win for the away side seemed very plausible. The game started rather well for Leverkusen, as they stayed compact in the deeper defensive phase, keeping Bayern at bay for large portions of the first half. This did not last, though and they began to falter, losing their organisation. In the end, goals from Thiago and Mats Hummels either side of Hakan Calhanoglu’s equaliser was enough for Bayern.
Bayern (4-3-3): 1.Neuer // 32. Kimmich, 8. Martinez. 5. Hummels, 27. Alaba // 14. Alonso, 21. Lahm, Thiago // 25. Muller, 9. Lewandowski, 11. Douglas Costa
Leverkusen (4-4-2): 1. Leno // 39. Henrichs, 4. Tah, 6. Dragovic, 18. Wendell // 29. Havertz, 20. Aranguiz, 44. Kampl, 10. Calhanoglu // 19. Mehmedi, 14. Brandt
Substitutions: 65‘ Robben (Muller), 74‘ Ribery (Douglas Costa), 82‘ Vidal (Lahm) // 59‘ Hernandez (Mehmedi), 59‘ Volland (Brandt)
Goals: 30‘ Thiago, 56‘ Hummels // 35‘ Calhanoglu
Leverkusen struggle to create vertical compactness
Despite a competent defensive showing throughout the game, primarily when Bayern had possession in the final third, there were some clear issues with the Leverkusen defensive set up which eventually proved costly. One such problem was their issue with creating a compact shape in the 1st phase of pressure. The blame could be placed on all units within the defensive block, the front two, the midfield and the defence as it was clear there was a lack of cohesion in the team shape during the Bayern build up phase.
In this image, Bayern are in possession with Manuel Neuer who is being supported by his two centre backs along with Xabi Alonso, who has dropped from his no.6 position in between the centre backs to create an overload. Both Brandt and Mehmedi have chosen to leave the block and go man for man with the two Bayern centre-backs which may seem logical situationally but has adverse effects on the team shape. It is no surprise that Bayern have a number of quality players all over the pitch who are more than capable of dealing with pressure applied to them by the opposition; therefore bypassing the press would be of little issue to them
Both centre-backs along with Alonso are competent ball players and are able to receive the ball with enough time and space in this phase. The problem with the positioning of the two Leverkusen strikers and Charles Aranguiz is the space created in behind the 1st line of pressure. Had they opted to stagger their positioning and create a more compact shape, the Bayern defenders would not have been able to find Thiago and Lahm in behind the initial waves of pressure. Had the rest of the team, including the midfield and defensive line opted to push up to compensate for the high press applied by the strikers, such problems would not have occurred.
Bayern showed stark differences in the way they set up in the first phase, with Leverkusen often struggling to gain any presence in the centre and half-spaces for much of the first half of the game. Lewandowski is leading the press but is not too disconnected from his teammates. Often times he applied little pressure on the opposition centre backs, instead choosing to occupy the next line of play to halt progression and leave the opposition centre backs without a viable vertical passing option.
Alonso’s positioning between the lines is key here as the compactness of his team is now greatly increased due to his presence in that zone. He is able to maintain access to the Bayer midfielders who have found space between the lines and cannot be cover shadowed by the more advanced Bayern midfielders.
The same cannot be said of the Leverkusen 8s, Aranguiz and Kampl who consistently failed to protect their back 4 and often left large amounts of space between the midfield and defensive lines. The lack of understanding and communication between the two was clear throughout the game as too often both would occupy high positions in midfield or look to apply pressure on one of the Bayern midfielders without accounting for possible deeper movements from the opposition forwards.
And that was exactly what happened in the lead up to the first goal when both Aranguiz and Kampl pushed forward to individually mark Thiago and Lahm. Bayern striker Lewandowski was quick to exploit this and received the ball between the lines, finding Alaba, whose cross eventually met the head of Thiago to give Bayern the lead. As neither Aranguiz nor Kampl are natural holding midfielders, it proved difficult for either of them to position themselves correctly so as to maintain the team’s organisation. They tended to struggle in defensive transition also, as was seen with Thiago’s goal. Situations such as these tend to be much less problematic when there is a dedicated holding midfielder in the side, as Bayern has with Alonso. Such a player is essential in giving balance to a side and ensuring constant protection for the back 4.
Fluid Bayern dominate ball and circulate possession with ease
With a plethora of talented ball players in the side, as mentioned earlier, it comes as no surprise that Bayern showed a wonderful ability in retaining possession as expected from any side lucky enough to have been coached by Pep Guardiola. This was on full display on the day as they maintained control of the ball and the game pretty much throughout, primarily due to their team shape on the ball and the movement off the ball from individual players when a teammate was in possession.
Their well organised structure in possession is on show in this scenario with Douglas Costa on the ball. On the wing is David Alaba in a quite advanced position to provide an outlet in the wide area and possibly free up more space in the half-space for Thiago. Despite being outnumbered centrally, they are still willing to occupy this area and gain some form of control as it means more connection opportunities and more potential passing lanes for the man receiving possession there. The aggressively high positioning of both full backs is crucial as it allows the wide men to occupy the centre and give Bayern a greater presence as they would be severely underloaded otherwise.
Alonso’s positioning is important also as he provides an outlet in case the ball needs to be re-circulated. With Alonso slightly deeper he is more or less devoid of any pressure and has a substantial amount of time to possibly switch the play to one of the full-backs. In turn, he could draw in one of the opposition midfielders, allowing one of his teammates to receive the ball with less pressure. His positioning plays a key role in defensive transition also, similar to that of Busquets. Should possession be lost he is on hand to make interceptions or at the very least delay the onset of an attacking transition from Leverkusen to allow his side more time to re-organise.
He does that here when Bayern lose the ball in this image. Quick to spot a potential out ball in Julian Brandt on the wing, he deviates from his position and blocks off his passing lane, leaving the Leverkusen player in possession with no option but to play the ball long and cede possession.
The forwards were influential in creating fluidity for Bayern as they constantly rotated positions throughout the game as well as deviating from their positions to create overloads elsewhere. In this phase here, Douglas Costa has rotated with Lewandowski to fill the central role and has dropped between the lines to receive the ball or draw out the centre back with Thomas Muller providing depth on the right side.
Lewandowski in the no.9 role often roamed from his position throughout the game, predominantly to receive the ball between the lines as he did in the lead up to the first goal. In doing so, he allowed the 8s Thiago and Lahm to occupy more withdrawn positions and draw in the Leverkusen central midfielders. The constant switching of roles and positions had the added benefit of creating a greater variety of tactical opportunities for this Bayern side as the front three could use their skill sets in different areas of the pitch, making the team less predictable as a result.
Bayern were also excellent in circulating the ball in the build-up phase, although Leverkusen’s shape did not make their job very difficult. They exploited the excessive spacing between the lines of the Leverkusen defence very well, with players dropping between the lines to receive the ball behind individual waves of Leverkusen pressure.
This is on show above with Neuer playing the ball into Alonso who has dropped slightly deeper. The positions taken up by centre backs Martinez and Hummels are important in attracting the two strikers and creating further space between the lines in which Alonso can turn and possibly drive into. This creates a knock-on effect throughout this phase as now the Leverkusen midfielders must put pressure on Alonso and thus leave their space exposed in front of the back 4, which Thomas Muller is quick to take advantage of.
2nd half developments
As the game progressed, the change in tempo was clear to see from both sides particularly in the early stages of the 2nd half with the scores level. The game became a lot less structured in this period of the game with both sides chasing the winner. Neither side could consistently form a cohesive unit as a result of constant transitions occurring throughout the game. As Bayern became less organised for this brief spell in the 2nd half, Leverkusen threatened more and more regularly as the right half-space of Bayern became more exposed and was almost exploited by Calhanoglu as he was able to drift into the half-space and centre with much more freedom than in the first half when Bayern controlled the space very efficiently.
Leverkusen began to alter their defensive approach with a more aggressive and proactive one in the 2nd half, particularly in deeper possession. As opposed to just forming a compact, low block and waiting patiently for access and triggers before initiating pressure, they seemed to be heavily oriented around the ball in the deeper defensive phase.
By looking at the picture above with Javi Martinez on the ball, we can see the focus of the Leverkusen players based on the direction they are facing and where the players all seem to move towards. It is clear that the primary focus is the ball which they are intent on regaining possession as quickly as possible. As Martinez moves further forward with the ball both Kampl and Havertz apply pressure as soon as possible but seem to forget potential passing options in Lewandowski and Alaba on the left wing. The ball is then played out to Alaba who is now in acres of space.
The excessive ball orientation of Leverkusen had very negative effects for their defensive shape as players thoughtlessly moved out of their position within the block to press. Bayern profited from this as more space was created between the lines for them to occupy.
Where does this leave them?
A very important and hard fought win for the Bundesliga champions but more must be done if they want to snatch top spot from Leipzig in the coming weeks. It could be described as a good performance all round for most of the game; with the midfielders and defenders particularly impressive. However, Ancelotti will be hopeful that his two main marksmen Lewandowski and Muller find their shooting boots again very soon if they are hoping to challenge on both the domestic and European front.
Leverkusen should, in my opinion be proud of their performance which although did not end with the result they were looking for, was very promising nonetheless. They could count themselves unlucky that fatigue stopped Javier Hernandez and Kevin Volland from starting the game. A heavy schedule due to their Champions League campaign could be a factor behind their poor league from but for a side at that level, 11th place is far from good enough.
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