Bayer Leverkusen – Bayern Munich: Tuchel’s Ineffective Imitation Game Puts The Title Pretenders In The Ascendancy (3-0)

Bayer Leverkusen extended their unbeaten run, and lead at the top, with an emphatic victory over reigning Bundesliga champions, and nearest rivals, Bayern Munich. Xabi Alonso’s side demonstrated that defense can be the best form of attack, whereas Thomas Tuchel’s side displayed how defenders can limit attacking threat.

Tactical analysis and match report by Nick Smoothy.

After twenty league games each, Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich had a combined points total of 102 – a first in Bundesliga history. Leverkusen, the current league leaders, held a two point advantage over second-placed Munich going into this top-of-the-table clash.

Xabi Alonso’s side are thirty games unbeaten across all competitions this season, and have already surpassed their final 2022/23 Bundesliga points tally. Since the turn of the year, Leverkusen have benefited from three stoppage-time goals to secure victory in the league and cup. Another win here and Leverkusen would extend their lead at the top to five.

Selected to start for the hosts was goalkeeper Lukáš Hrádecký, center-backs Edmond Tapsoba, Jonathan Tah and Piero Hincapié, and Josip Stanišić and Álex Grimaldo as wing-backs. Granit Xhaka and Robert Andrich continued as the midfield double pivot and in the forward line, Nathan Tella and Amine Adli joined Florian Wirtz.

For the visitors, Thomas Tuchel’s  team have a current points return of 50, seven more than at the same stage last season. Since their shock 1-0 defeat to Werder Bremen, Bayern have won three consecutive matches to close the gap to two points meaning a win would send them into first place.

Lining up for the 32 times Bundesliga champions was Manuel Neuer in goal and a back three of Dayot Upamecano, Eric Dier and Kim Min-jae. Providing the team width in attack and defense were Noussair Mazraoui and Sacha Boey. In central midfield, Aleksandar Pavlovic partnered Leon Goretzka, and supporting Harry Kane in attack were Leroy Sané and Jamal Musiala.

Tuchel’s imitation game
The proverbial expression ‘imitation is the sincerest form of flattery’ perhaps best explains why Tuchel opted to mirror Leverkusen’s system.

In possession, the away team formed a 3-2-5 shape. The back three split across the pitch, with Upamecano and Min-jae positioned wider. Wing-backs, Mazraoui and Boey, pushed high against the Leverkusen backline, enabling Sané and Musiala to occupy central areas with Kane, and Pavlovic and Goretzka (unsuccessfully) tried to provide the central link through midfield.

Out of possession, Bayern aimed to disrupt Leverkusen’s build-up with a 3-4-3 high pressing scheme, that had the option of being player-oriented, and dropped into a 5-2-3 block when defending their own half.

But as we’ll come onto, Bayern’s attempt at mirroring their rivals only resulted in a less than impressive reflection, across all phases of play.

Defense best form of attack
In the opening ten minutes, according to the German broadcaster, Bayern had 80% possession. However, this early control of the ball was not necessarily the case of the title-holders asserting their superiority over this season’s main challengers. Instead, it was the title-pretenders asserting their control on the game without the ball.

During this period, Leverkusen were predominantly situated in a 5-2-3 mid-block allowing the visitors unopposed settled possession at the top of their own half, only engaging as play entered the home team’s territory.

With Bayern in essence playing with five defenders on the pitch, including two full-backs as wingers, and their three biggest attacking threats (Sané, Musiala and Kane) all occupying central areas of the pitch, Leverkusen’s defensive strategy was clear – block the middle and force their opponents into wider areas (where there was less quality).

The hosts did this with a narrow forward line of three, blocking vertical passes into midfield, and a compact defensive shape from back-to-front. The back five pushed up the pitch, allowing space in behind but intended to limit gaps between the lines.

Additional defensive measures included outside center-backs (Tapsoba and Hincapié) jumping to cover opponents in the half-spaces, wing-backs staying tight to Bayern’s widest players, and Xhaka and Andrich providing coverage in central midfield.

9th minute: Leverkusen were set in their 5-2-3 mid-block when Goretzka dropped outside of the opposition block (a recurring feature that triggered Xhaka to push higher to cover). Goretzka exchanged passes with Dier but as he received his second pass with his back to goal, and Leverkusen had players in close proximity to pressurize, the home team executed a mid-press that forced Dier back towards his own goal where he was required to clear and concede a throw-in.

For all Bayern’s early possession, their progression tactics into the final third were limited to – 1) long passes over the top of the Leverkusen backline, typically a diagonal ball from Dier towards Boey on the left wing, or 2) carries forward into the vacated wider spaces from an outside center-back (Upamecano or Min-jae) to create potential two-v-one opportunities.

Incidentally, it was actually a Leverkusen long ball that led to the first shot in the 11th minute. Tella won an aerial duel against Dier, after a Hrádecký punt forward, and then a sliced Upamecano clearance allowed Adli to shoot on the angle which was comfortably saved.

Bayern’s first chance was generated via a high turnover and ended with a leaning-back Goretzka firing the ball over the bar. Notwithstanding the away team’s pressure (6.9 PPDA), Tuchel’s side only forced four high turnovers across the ninety minutes (both stats sourced from @markstatsbot). An equally damning statistic was that even with 60% possession in the first half, Bayern only created three shots in total.

But Leverkusen’s gameplan wasn’t solely centered on their work without the ball. In fact, it was their in possession structure and tactics that led to their opening two goals.

Leverkusen overloads
Despite the visitors’ high press, Leverkusen persisted in their intent at playing through opposition pressure to create attacks. Part of what aided the hosts success was their team’s structure and tactics to create overloads against Bayern’s defensive shape.

Structurally, Leverkusen formed a back four in deep build-up, with Stanišić right back and Hincapié left back. The latter allowed Grimaldo to advance, either wide left or inside left, causing decisions for the right-side of the Bayern defense. Another key aspect of Leverkusen’s possession success was Wirtz’s role as a false nine.

The young German attacker frequently dropped into midfield areas during Leverkusen build-up which generated upsides such as – 1) occupying one of the opposition double pivot, denying them the freedom to press ahead and therefore allowing Leverkusen to overload the Bayern forward line (increased chance of bypassing) or 2) dragging out one of the Bayern back three, leaving the pacey Tella and Adli in a two-v-two situation (creating an attacking opportunity).

An added benefit of Wirtz’s deeper positioning was that he was also able to create separation for himself to get on the ball, especially in moments where neither Bayern’s midfielders nor defenders knew whose responsibility he was. This occurred when Leverkusen had possession in any third of the pitch, including the passage of the play that resulted in the Leverkusen winning a throw in the 18th minute.

Wirtz’s deeper position initially occupied Goretzka, helping create a passing lane into the forward line, before receiving the subsequent layoff and carrying towards a retreating Bayern backline and executing a through ball into the path of Adli whose attempt to get the ball onto his favored left-foot enabled an interception and then a clearance which conceded the throw-in.

From the resulting restart, first Sané fell asleep, allowing Andrich to steal-a-march and cross towards the far post, where Bayern loanee, Stanišić, capitalized upon Boey’s poor defensive positioning (closed body shape) to convert at the far-post.

A few minutes later, Leverkusen generated a further two shots in quick succession. The home team worked Hincapié as the free player in build-up (as a result of Sané often tucking in to cover one of the unmarked opposition double pivot, the Ecuadorian was occasionally left unattended so free to receive and then advance).

In this sequence, the hosts created space for Hincapié to carry upfield by Grimaldo pinning Mazraoui, which allowed the defender to clip a diagonal pass in behind for Tella to first-time volley and force a save which rebounded for Wirtz to shoot.

The Leverkusen shot counter continued to rise up until half-time but the home side’s best opportunity failed to materialize into an actual attempt. In the 42nd minute, Adli was in on goal but spurned the opportunity to double the lead by again trying to work the ball onto his left-foot.

Five minutes into the second half, however, Leverkusen did make it 2-0, with their attacking tactics again playing an instrumental role. See depiction in the visual below and next paragraph for a description of the action.

49th minute: Leverkusen build-up sequence which led to their second goal in the 50th minute

Hrádecký rolled the ball out to Tapsoba after the hosts had formed their back four shape. Wirtz dropped to receive, dragging Dier with him and leaving a two-v-two in behind, before immediately laying the ball back to Stanišić who played a first-time pass towards Adli and Tella. After collecting the ball, Tella passed out wide to Grimaldo who had been occupying Mazraoui.

By the time Grimaldo received the ball, Hincapié had already started his overlapping run which helped attract Mazraoui towards him. Grimaldo then carried into the final third before exchanging passes with Tella to get played in behind where the Spanish fullback fired high into near post and past Neuer.

Bayern’s limited threat
On the hour-mark, Tuchel brought on Joshua Kimmich and Thomas Müller and reverted to a 4-2-3-1 system. But even with this additional technical and attacking talent on the pitch, Bayern failed to create any meaningful threat.

Much like the opening forty-five minutes, Leverkusen were effective in restricting the visitors’ access in central areas and Bayern equally lacked quality in possession, often ending up with their center-backs trying to be the ones to unlock the block with crosses from deep.

And Bayern’s task only got harder as the game drew on with Xabi Alonso making substitutes to add fresh legs (to defend and counter) and additional numbers into his defensive shape. At times his side resembled a back six when defending low.

Bayer Leverkusen – Bayern Munich XG Plot

The home side also showcased elements of intelligent game management to close out the match, particularly with Hrádecký use of long goal kicks (his highest volume of the season). This tactic helped deny Bayern opportunities to win the ball high and gained some momentary territory against their opponents constant, albeit blunt, possession.

In stoppage time, Neuer decided to go forward for a corner kick – even with the scoreline at 2-0. The outcome, a Leverkusen counterattack which ended with Jeremie Frimpong grabbing a third to seal a statement victory and send his side five-points clear.

Regardless of whether Xabi Alonso’s side ‘exploited’ or ‘benefitted from’ Tuchel’s gameplan, the outcome was still the same.

The home side had 36% possession in this fixture – their lowest share of the campaign so far, they usually average 59% – but they still restricted Bayern to one shot on target, the first time that’s happened in eight seasons.

Leverkusen have never been champions of Germany but the league leaders showcased a level of tactical flexibility to control this game using a different style of play. Keep these standards up and the tag of ‘Neverkusen’ may soon become forgotten history.


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