Bayer Leverkusen – Schalke 04: Bayer Capitalize In Match Of Two Distinct Halves (2-1)
Leverkusen enjoyed the bulk of the play throughout the first 45 minutes of the match. However, Schalke 04 were able to regroup at half-time – re-establishing themselves in the fixture. Nonetheless, it was the home side that ultimately made the most of their chances – picking up a crucial win to keep themselves in the dogfight at the top of the Bundesliga table.
Tactical analysis and match report by KT Stockwell.
Though not a traditional rivalry, less than 100 kilometres separate Leverkusen from Gelsenkirchen – the home of Schalke 04 – setting up a raucous atmosphere for a match between two traditional German powers. After a slow start to the season, in recent weeks Bayer Leverkusen and Peter Bosz have begun to turn their season around, having managed four straight matches unbeaten heading into their clash with Schalke on the weekend. The most recent success came over Bayern; a match wherein Bosz’s side managed to fight their way past the German heavyweights without arguably their best player Kai Havertz available to start.
Fortunately, Havertz was given the go-ahead to join the starting eleven for the fixture against Schalke and slotted back into his familiar role as number ten, flanked by Karim Bellarabi and Leon Bailey in Bayer’s preferred 4-2-3-1 system. At the back Aleksandar Dragović replaced the suspended Jonathan Tah, while Lucas Alario constituted the final change – filling in for Kevin Volland at striker.
Three wins in their last four matches highlights the excellent job David Wagner has done since joining Schalke over the summer. The 48-year-old has helped the side into the Budesliga’s top four – a remarkable turnaround considering the club finished last season fourteenth in the table.
Against Leverkusen, Wagner elected to utilize a 4-1-3-2 formation – a shape he has experimented with throughout the first half of the campaign. The decision meant a variety of personnel changes, as Weston McKennie shifted out of defensive midfield and into the center-back position to play alongside youngster Ozan Kabak. This left Omar Mascarell as the lone holding midfielder – playing in behind an attacking three of Suat Serdar, Amine Harit and Daniel Caligiuri. Up front Schalke went with the tandem of Guido Burgstaller and Belgian speedster Benito Raman.
Leverkusen enjoy a dominant first half
The opening minutes of the match saw both sides looking to condense space in the middle of the park – with the competing defensive lines pushing up and forcing a number of competitive midfield battles. The by-product was both Schalke and Bayer looked to play quick transition balls over the top to their speedier forwards – in this case Raman and Bailey respectively.
For the most part neither side gave up much in the first fifteen minutes of the match, therefore it came as a shock when Leverkusen were able to take advantage of an innocuous corner. The ball was whipped into a crowded box, which saw the attacking players crowd the keeper on the near post. Somehow the delivery snuck through the majority of the mass, before finding the head of Alario and then the back of the net.
As arbitrary as the first goal appeared, it seemed to give Bayer confidence and soon Bosz’s side began to look more comfortable in and out of possession. Notably, the home side was able to nullify the Schalke buildup by instituting an effective 3-4-3 high block, which seemed to flummox Wagner’s three-man build up and render the visitor’s midfield static. The constant pressure put on Mascarell by Havertz continued to force Schalke back into their own defensive third, in order to regroup at which point any pass to McKennie was the trigger for Bayer to bring a more concerted press.
The Bayer high block effectively shut down the Schalke buildup.
That being said, the young American seemed to cope well with the pressure and without any genuine midfield outlet to which to progress the play, Schalke resorted to long balls intended to meet the robust Burgstaller.
Offensively, Bayer were kept largely at bay, but did manage to manufacture a few quality chances, which generally emanated through Havertz. The highly sought-after youngster was frequently able to find soft spots in Schalke’s 4-1-4-1 defensive formation – drifting away from Mascarell and into 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. left between the lines. If it was not Havertz controlling the bulk of the offensive possession, it was the tandem of Wendell and Bailey down the right flank, who were unflappable when put under pressure – their pace allowing them to quickly bypass Caliguiri and Harit.
Nevertheless, despite winning the tactical battle in the first half, Bayer were largely unable to capitalize off a number of decent chances in front of goal. Their lack of cruelty in the box left the door open for Wagner’s side to re-establish themselves in the fixture.
Schalke make deft adjustments
The guests made a number of critical tactical adjustments at half-time – allowing them to be much more effective to start the second half. The most pronounced was bringing the bulk of their attack and pressure onto the left flank – seemingly in the hopes of exploiting the less pacey Lars Bender.
It was notable in the second half how intent Schalke were in forcing the Bayer buildup to move the ball out to Lars Bender on the right flank. At which point the pass would act as a trigger for the visiting forwards to bring coordinated pressure. This method proved fruitful, as it disrupted the Bayer offense and kept the ball in the defensive third – allowing Wagner’s side to endeavour to play in transition rather than lumping long balls up to Burgstaller.
Schalke press, using the pass to L. Bender as the trigger.
Despite their success in pressing Lars Bender, the Schalke transition lacked width and though there was a great deal of space left in behind the Bayer fullback, the guests failed to exploit it – instead getting locked in physical midfield battles as they attempted to move the ball centrally.
Nevertheless, the shape of the Bayer buildup did present Schalke with some opportunities in transition, as Lars Bender’s instruction to join the press centrally and link the midfield in build up left space on the flank for a quick ball over the top. However, once again, Schalke’s lack of width made these passes more difficult to execute and success in that area of the pitch rare.
Schalke did enjoy a territorial advantage for much of the second half, therefore it was against the run of play when Bayer added a second goal in the 81st minute. The marker came off a throw-in, which saw substitute Nadiem Amiri play a lovely combination with Charles Aránguiz in the halfspace, before the latter played a lovely reverse ball in the box to a wide-open Alario, who made no mistake in collecting his brace.
However, Schalke was not going to go down without a fight and brought the game back to within one just a minute later. It was a lovely dribble by the largely enigmatic Harit that opened up the space in the middle of the park – allowing the attacking midfielder to find the substitute Ahmed Kutucu, who played a low cross to a wide open Raman to finish at the back post.
Unfortunately for the guests there were not able to level the match and instead Bayer marched off with another three points – taking them up to sixth in the table and level on points with their opponents.
After being plagued with a number of injuries early in the season, Bayer are starting to round into form. The fact that Havertz and Bailey are both back in the starting eleven gives Bosz more dynamism up front. What is more, Bayer’s current run of form has put them back in the conversation at the top of a crowded Bundesliga table.
A hard-fought loss to Bayer may sting slightly, but Schalke’s turnaround to start the season has been near absolute. Wagner has the club playing with a renewed sense of self and seems to have found a system that suits his players. It may be concerning that Bayer were able to nullify their buildup with relative ease, but for the most part, despite not playing their best football, Wagner’s side kept themselves in the match and had a chance to escape with points.
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