Bayer Leverkusen – Bayern Munich: Lewandowski Breaks Leverkusen Hearts With Stoppage Time Winner (1-2)
Put simply, 2020 is Bayern Munich’s year, and so it proved as the treble winners found a way to overcome the hosts in a pulsating, high quality contest. Peter Bosz’s side stuck to their game plan and often had Bayern on the ropes, but the champions came swinging out in the second half to stun Leverkusen with the final kick of the game.
Tactical analysis and match report by Manasvin Andra.
With the emergence of the highly rated Florian Wirtz and fortified by the return of a ferocious pressing scheme, Bayer Leverkusen have started the new Bundesliga season on fire. Though it has at times looked patchy, the continuity of the squad and Peter Bosz’s tactical nous has seen Leverkusen climb to the top of the table for the first time since 2014.
With Dortmund struggling, Leipzig barely keeping pace and Bayern hit with a raft of injuries, Leverkusen have taken the opportunity to include themselves in the conversation for the 2020/21 Bundesliga title.
As always, Bayern Munich present a challenge unlike any other, and the challenge for Bosz lay in lifting his team for this most momentous of occasions. Accordingly, he named the strongest side he could, set out in the familiar 4-3-3 shape.
Lukáš Hrádecký was protected by a defense composed of Daley Sinkgraven, Edmond Tapsoba, Jonathan Tah and Aleksandar Dragović. Florian Wirtz and Nadiem Amiri played either side of holding midfielder Julian Baumgartlinger. The attack bore a pacey look as wingers Moussa Diaby and Leon Bailey supported Patrik Schick up top.
Hansi Flick’s side may only be a point off first place, but their performances have been patchy in the new season. With defensive frailties emerging as the team’s Achilles heel, it has often been the attackers who have bailed out the club, with Kingsley Coman and Robert Lewandowski in particular enjoying spectacular spells of good form. As expected, Flick named a strong side for this showdown, which also doubled as their final game of 2020.
Set out in the usual 4-2-3-1 shape, the defense was made up of the returning Alphonso Davies, Lucas Hernández, Jérôme Boateng and Niklas Süle. In an intriguing change, David Alaba and Corentin Tolisso were picked as the holding midfielders, with Serge Gnabry, Thomas Müller and Kingsley Coman supporting Robert Lewandowski up top.
Bayern plays into Leverkusen hands
Deviating from the blueprint that has characterised them under Hansi Flick, Bayern’s changes in defense and midfield initially looked to be the team’s downfall. With Süle as the right back and Alaba in midfield, the visitors found it difficult to cope with the intensity and organization of Leverkusen’s press.
In the absence of Thiago and Joshua Kimmich, Bayern have often struggled to control the midfield and ensure vertical progression from the six space to the forward line. This has seen them struggle to build attacks with their usual efficacy, as the lack of a progressive midfield places greater burden on the wingers to progress the ball and generate the offense. It was likely with an eye on this issue that Flick named Alaba as one of the central midfielders, with the Austrian’s versatility and passing ability presenting an intriguing solution. This tweak, combined with the return of Davies, seemed to be enough to mask their issues, but they were found out by Leverkusen almost immediately.
Bayern’s setup allowed Leverkusen to prevent progression unless it resulted from individual skill. Of importance is how most options available to Hernández were closely marked, as Bayern played out from an asymmetric 3-3-4 shape.
With Süle staying deep on the right and Hernández commandeering the entire left side of defense, Leverkusen found it easy to rush the center-back into going long and giving up possession. This was often done by Schick or Wirtz, who benefited by isolating Hernández from his left back and defensive partners.
Sensing the center-back’s issues, Davies and Alaba began dropping to offer themselves as options on the flank and in the middle respectively. However, given Bayern’s extreme emphasis on building through the left, these dropping movements were easy to read, and allowed Leverkusen to close them off without much issue.
This phase of the game saw the hosts apply immense pressure to Bayern’s left, which prevented them from combining their way through the pressing scheme. The scripted nature of movement to drop and receive meant it was easy to track, and Hernández stepping into midfield meant that either one of Alaba or Tolisso had to drop into defense to plug any gaps that might open. As a result, Leverkusen were in the ascendancy during this time, and even managed to take the lead through a sumptuous Schick volley following a well-worked corner routine.
Thomas Müller, lockpicker
Going a goal down was not a big deal for Bayern, but losing Coman to an injury midway through the first half certainly was. However, the injury changed the course of the match by altering the movements of their forwards, in particular that of Müller and substitute Leroy Sané.
Whereas Bayern had attempted to build through the left till Coman’s injury, the introduction of Sané saw him and Müller drop very deep in the halfspace If you divide the field in five vertical lanes, the halfspaces are the lanes that are not on the wing and not in the center. Because there is no touchline like on the wing, players have the freedom to go everywhere. But this zone often is not as well-defended as the very center. This makes it a very valuable offensive zone to play in and a lot of chances are created by passes or dribbles from the halfspace. to receive possession and progress the ball. With Gnabry switching over to the left and Alaba and Tolisso maintaining more conventional positions in midfield, the movements by Müller to drop and always find space behind the midfield line to pick up possession proved instrumental for Bayern.
With Sané also performing similar actions, Bayern were able to better play through the right, which lessened the defensive attention on Hernández and Davies. Given Müller’s incredible engine, he was able to progress the ball through considerable distances as Bayern began to gain the upper hand, with Lewandowski, Sané and the marauding Davies pinning the Leverkusen defenders and forcing the hosts to fall back as a unit.
This forceful method of progression created the situation that led to Bayern’s equaliser, as Bayern lost possession but recovered it immediately due to an advantageous situation when moving up field. Sané did enough to lay off the ball to Müller for a cross, and Lewandowski was on hand to record a simple header after a calamitous mix-up between Hrádecký and Tah in claiming the ball. The goal capped off a dominant end to the first half for the visitors, who by them had firmly secured the upper hand.
The synergy and issues in Leverkusen’s offense
In addition to their pressing, what was remarkable about Leverkusen was the simplicity of their offensive scheme. There were no elaborate routines devised by Bosz; rather, the offense flowed as a result of the players understanding where the other would be. This allowed Leverkusen to build up with ease, as the presence of the center-backs and conservative positioning of the fullbacks meant Baumgartlinger often had options to choose from to escape the pressure. The options afforded by Wirtz and Amiri either side of the Bayern double pivot were also crucial in ensuring swift ball movement, though progression resulted mostly from long balls into the forwards.
Leverkusen in buildup.
In addition to the smooth buildup, Leverkusen’s pressing often resulted in turnovers in the middle of the pitch, from where they resorted to long balls to exploit Bayern’s high line. With Diaby and Bailey tracking back as well as maintaining their positions out wide, it was often easy for Leverkusen to find the outlet pass and release the wingers against Bayern’s defense.
This was accompanied by their delightful 1-2 combination to escape pressure, with Wirtz and Amiri in particular excelling at these subtle touches and movements. The consistent use of the out ball resulted in frequent end to end situations, where, Diaby’s miscalculations regularly torpedoed any chance of a successful Leverkusen break. This was a recurring theme in the match – and particularly in the second half – as Leverkusen often broke forward only to fall behind before repeating the process all over again.
Same tactics, different energy
Neither manager altered the tactical approach in the second half, with the game remaining even for large portions. With the Bayern pivot having stabilised somewhat, Flick made the first voluntary substitutions, sending on Kimmich and Jamal Musiala for Tolisso and Sané respectively. This was perhaps not the sort of game where Kimmich could take his time to reacclimate, since Leverkusen’s pressing intensity only began to fade around the 75th minute. Musiala had the chance to leave his mark on the game, as his strike thudded off the post in a significant moment in the second half.
Given their efforts early on, Leverkusen noticeably began to fade, no longer pressing the defensive line as frequently and dropping their block slightly deeper as the game went on. This was akin to a green light for Bayern, who flooded forward with renewed energy.
While substitute Lucas Alario – introduced in place of Schick – was inches away from snatching it for Leverkusen following a Diaby cross, it was Lewandowski who had the final say, as a huge mistake from Tah sent the forward clean through on Hrádecký. With the game on the line and only one kick left, the striker did not make a mistake, firing powerfully past the keeper and breaking Leverkusen minds in the process.
It might have been patchy and it might have arrived after the hosts conceded possession cheaply in a dangerous area, but Bayern showed that they will not surrender their claim to the title so easily. This was a hard-fought win when they weathered the initial pressure before the players thought up a solution, and when the time was right, they executed their plan efficiently and ruthlessly. Whatever their issues, this is a team that will be hard to dislodge in 2021, when their key players return to fortify what is already an incredible team.
This was a cruel blow to Bosz’s Leverkusen, who at the very least deserved a point for their efforts. They trusted their usual approach and it almost took them to glory, but they must now spend the Christmas break thinking over what might have been. However, the fact remains that they are still very much in the hunt for the title, and must focus on maintaining their consistency while hoping for a slip up from the competition.
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