Bundesliga Club Recap 2019/20: Bayer Leverkusen

As Bundesliga gears up for a return to normalcy, we equip you with an in-depth view of everything about Bayer Leverkusen and their season so far.

Located in the small city of Leverkusen, in the state of North-Rhine Westphalia, Bayer Leverkusen is one of the most eye-catching teams not only in the Bundesliga but in all of Europe. The club was found by the German pharmaceutical company Bayer AG in 1904, whose workers signed a referendum to open a sports club for the members of the company.

Leverkusen have never had the honour of winning the Mesieterschale, but have come sorrowfully close to it on several occasions. Especially from 1997-1998 to 2001-02, where they finished runners up on 4 occasions. This Leverkusen team were deemed as extremely unlucky, earning them the name ‘The Nearly Men’ and ‘Neverkusen.’

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In fact, their 2001-02 season has been dubbed as the ‘Treble Horror’, when they lost the finals of both, DFB Pokal, and the UEFA Champions League to Schalke and Real Madrid respectively, after bottling a five-point lead at the top of Bundesliga in the last three matchdays.

The club does not hold a strong reputation fans of German football, calling them out for being a plastic club, and a makeshift fanbase, existing only because of the funding through Bayer, their founders. Consequently, the fans of the clubs adopted the name ‘Die Werkself‘  in an attempt to emphasize their factory origins.

Since the heart-rending 2001-02 campaign, Leverkusen has failed to establish consistency in the league despite being in the first division for nearly half a century, which includes coming dangerously close to relegation on several accounts. However, they’ve found a steady rhythm under Peter Bosz.

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Bosz took over the head coach role at Leverkusen after Heiko Herrlich was fired from that position in December 2018, following a series of poor results, predictable tactics and tedious performances. Herrlich’s Bayer were constantly mid-table in the 2018-19 season even though they finished 5th in 2018.

This was soon overturned by the Dutch manager, whose fluid, attacking style of football helped them finish 4th, 3 points clear off Borussia Monchengladbach in 5th. Leverkusen were in a transitional phase, and no-one expected them to adopt a very distinguishable style of football so quickly.

Die Werkself qualified for the Champions League this season after missing out on the prestigious competition for 2 years in a row. However, this stint in Europe was short-lived, as they finished 3rd in the group which had Atletico Madrid and Juventus. They were relegated to the Europa League, where they smashed Porto 5-2 over two legs.

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They carried this streak to the next round where they beat Rangers 1-3 away from home in the first leg of the Round of 16. This was the last game Leverkusen played before all European football was stopped in its tracks because of the Coronavirus pandemic.

Bosz’s men are on track to replicate last season’s high, currently sitting on 5th, a mere 2 points off fourth-placed Gladbach. Moreover, only 8 points separate them and leaders Bayern Munich, who themselves are only 4 points clear off Borussia Dortmund in 4th. Unlike the ever so competitive Premier League, the Bundesliga title race is actually intense.

The Pillendrehers hosted Eintracht Frankfurt on 7th March, and absolutely dismantled them, hitting them for 4-0, in a game that saw them boast of 62% possession, 13 shots and a 87% pass succession rate. All of their front 4 pitched in with one goal contribution each, atleast, with Paulinho bagging 2 goals and an assist.

While Frankfurt have seen a huge decline in their performances compared to last season after losing several key stars, it was still an important result for Leverkusen who temporarily rose above Gladbach in the league. They do have a habit of punching above their weight, nonetheless.

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In the 7 times they have come up against clubs from the top 6 (Bayern, Dortmund, RB Leipzig, Gladbach, Leverkusen, and Schalke – for non-viewers), Leverkusen have only lost twice – once against Gladbach and Dortmund each. Furthermore, they’ve held off Leipzig to a 1-1 standstill both home and away.

During their encounter against Bayern at the Allianz Arena, the visitors went ahead in the 10th minute through a goal from Leon Bailey. Consistent efforts from Bayern saw them pull one back as Thomas Muller fired a bullet with his weak foot. However, the celebrations did not last long as Kevin Volland’s through ball set Bailey free who did not fail to convert as Manuel Neuer was left stranded.

The no-nonsense attacking way

In what was inarguably the most entertaining game of the season, Dortmund travelled to the BayArena to play a game that ended 4-3 in favour of the hosts. The seven-goal thriller had six different goalscorers, and almost equally shared possession. It was apt revenge for gameweek four, where Marco Reus and co. hit Leverkusen for four conceding none.

This game is a classic example of the Peter Bosz outscoring system. The Dutchman has managed 543 games in his career, where his teams have scored 1,035 goals and conceded 765. Both of those numbers are quite ridiculous for a coach who’s only managed Ajax among the top, regularly title-winning teams. His stint at Dortmund was quite short-lived, and frankly – mediocre.

WOLFSBURG, GERMANY - JANUARY 26: Peter Bosz, Manager of Bayer 04 Leverkusen gives his team instructions during the Bundesliga match between VfL Wolfsburg and Bayer 04 Leverkusen at Volkswagen Arena on January 26, 2019 in Wolfsburg, Germany. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty Images)
Bosz knows exactly what he wants out of his players. (Photo by Stuart Franklin/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Leverkusen are a team that was always coming up short of its potential even though it possessed some exciting players like Julian Brandt, Kai Havertz and Leo Bailey among others. Bosz’s electric style of football supplemented through unique positional changes helped re-energise the side.

The fundamentals of Bosz’s team includes putting the team’s most productive, creative attacking players in positions where they can make the most out of their skillset. In layman terms, Bosz likes to include as many attackers possible in every formation, even if that means starting two attacking midfielders, two wingers, a striker and a box-to-box midfielder in the same setup.

Last season, Leverkusen most often played a 4-3-3, with a single pivot in the form of Charles Aranguiz, who himself is known for his pinpoint passing, and excellent vision more than anything. Alongside the Uruguayan were Havertz and Brandt, both attacking midfielders and makeshift wingers. The German duo were at the core of the manager’s philosophy, occupying a hybrid no. 8/10 role, roving between lanes to disrupt the opposing defence.

What makes Leverkusen one of the most entertaining teams in Europe?

This season, though, Bayer have had to make changes to their style after losing Brandt to Dortmund for €22.5 million. While their formations are far from consistent, the same principals govern them. They play a fast, possession-based style of football, with importance to buildup, quick transitions, moving the ball further up and continuously taking shots. In fact, Bosz’s men are only second to Bayern when it comes to possession with 63.5%.

The Leverkusen squad is extremely versatile and boasts of a number of attacking midfielders and wingers, a result of which is an ever-changing formation with the same core principal. Bosz has used 4-2-3-1, 4-1-4-1, 3-4-2-1, and more recently a 3-4-3 this season. All of these are variations of the three-man attack, but involve a lot of other players because of his ‘all-out attack’ approach.

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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.

He’s based his team’s style around Havertz, who drops infront of one of Julian Baumgartlinger, Arganguiz or Kerem Demirbay to collect the ball and help push it forward through one-twos with other forwards. The 20-year-old looks for angled passes to stretch the play, and moving inside the box or to the edge for loose balls and crosses.

Much like last season, one of Havertz or Demirbay moves out their position taking up a spot wide to create space centrally where they are eventually able to move into to receive a pass. This is extremely important as the player steering off takes out the marker.  This also means that Bayer have at least five players taking offensive charge all the time.

Leverkusen do not shy away from using long balls to release their quicker players through on goal, with Jonathan Tah averaging four accurate long balls per game, while both of Aranguiz and Sven Bender average 3.1 accurate long balls.

Improving ever so steadily at the back

In defence, Bayer were one of the best pressing sides last season, restricting their opponents to no more than 3.49 passes per possession. Bosz likes to have full control of the ball and wants his team to start pressing as soon as they lose the ball. But because of their offence heavy system that relies on midfielders pushing forward, they also leak a lot of goals because of a gaping hole in the centre of the pitch.

Their goal difference last season is proof of the same. Leverkusen scored 69 goals, third highest in the league, but they also conceded 52 goals, the most in the top six and the second-most in the top ten.

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This has improved undeviatingly this season, specially after the first ten games, after which Bosz stopped using the 4-1-4-1. This formation helped them attack easily, but it also meant conceding many. And, frankly, outscoring oppositions can only go so far in football. It’s the defence that wins you titles doesn’t it?

They have conceded just 30 goals in 25 games this season, which is second only to Bayern and Leipzig who’ve conceded four less. Lukas Hradecky has seen an amazing shift in his form compared to last season, and has kept the second-highest clean sheets in the league – 8.

Their improvement at the back is mostly down to a shift from a single pivot to a double pivot to help screen the defence off the ball. Baumgartlinger and Aranguiz are delineated with the responsibility of breaking up play by tackles and/or cutting passing lanes.

They also registered 17+ tackles per game, the 6th highest in the league. They’ve managed to maintain that statistic of tackles this season as well, but have dropped to 7th in the league for the same. *insert sad Paolo Maldini face*

Marquee Player: Kai Havertz

One half of the scintillating Brandt-Havertz duo, the 20-year-old has had to lead Die Werkself alone this season in the absence of his better half. However, he’s assumed the role with utmost sincerity and has been one of the, if not the best midfielders in the league this season.

Bosz has used him mainly as an attacking midfielder, but to be fair, he has played everywhere in Leverkusen’s attacking ‘6’, including as a box-to-box midfielder, a left-winger, and even as a false 9. While his best position is as a no. 10, his intelligence, passing and creativity mean he can play almost anywhere up the defence.

LEVERKUSEN, GERMANY - FEBRUARY 06: Kai Havertz of Leverkusen celebrates after he scores the 4th goal during extra time during the DFB Cup quarter final match between Bayer Leverkusen and Werder Bremen at BayArena on February 6, 2018 in Leverkusen, Germany. (Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images)
A prodigy. (Photo by Alex Grimm/Bongarts/Getty Images)

The German wonderkid is so much more than the six goals and five assists he’s contributed in BuLi, which in itself is quite impressive.

Havertz’s off the ball movement make him extremely unpredictable, and nearly impossible to mark. He drops between lines of defence to receive passes where he can make the most out of them. He has lightning-quick reactions, which means leaving him unmarked can be very problematic.

The youngster drops deep to collect the ball from the defensive midfielders or defenders and is quick to turn and look for defence-splitting passes, feeding the ball to Leverkusen’s pacy forwards, who are always on the move. Which is clear from this highlights clip of a game in the 2017-18 season against Hannover 96:

According to Havertz himself, he has modelled his game after Mesut Ozil, Arsenal and Germany’s attacking midfielder. This is quite apparent  from his top-notch vision and accurate passing. He gloats of 2.3 key passes per game and has created 15 big chances in the Bundesliga.

Unlike his idol, however, Havertz is surprisingly quick on and off the ball. Last season, he achieved the top speed of 35 KMPH against Werder Bremen before chipping the keeper for his second of the game.

The Leverkusen sensation is only able to make use of his extremely versatile skillset because his understanding of the game is already at par with some of the experienced. He is already linked with the likes of Chelsea, Liverpool and Bayern and is expected to complete a move in the summer. Valued at €81 million already, it is not an overstatement to say that Havertz has the potential to be one of the best in the world.

One for the Future: Paulinho

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Paulinho was scouted and signed by Leverkusen in the summer window of 2018, probably as early preparation for the departure of Brandt and Havertz. The 19-year-old has already drawn comparisons with Havertz, primarily because of their preferred positions. However, he has started a single Bundesliga game over two seasons in Germany.

Leverkusen’s hoard of central and attacking midfielders means that the Brazilian will be kept on the bay for the remainder of this season as well. But, in the mere 182 minutes, he has played this season, Paulinho has scored 3 goals and set up one, which means he is registering a goal contribution every 45 minutes in the league.

The teenager is very quick off and on the ball, but his remarkable dribbling skills make him a very strong prospect. He is expected to shine at Leverkusen, more specifically under Bosz because of his direct style. But more importantly, what sets him apart from other teenagers is his commendable work rate, which will be something the Dutch gaffer will take note of more than anyone.

Writer’s Opinion

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I’ve genuinely looked forward to watching Leverkusen play since Peter Bosz took charge of the team. They are undoubtedly one of the most exhilarating teams in Europe. Not only do they play attention-catching football, but they also have an incredible squad depth filled with some of the top prospects in Europe. 2018-19 Leverkusen with Brandt, Havertz, Aranguiz and Tah at its core with Kevin Volland leading them will forever remain an underrated team, in my opinion.

They’ve sorted out their defensive woes this season, which makes them even stronger. However, the thing that is commendable about this side is their courage to take their style of football and play it against some of the strongest teams in the league and get results, too. Oh, and also the fact that twins Sven Bender and Lars Bender both play for them.

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