Bayer 04 Leverkusen – VfB Stuttgart: Leverkusen turn domination in possession into a deserved win against passive Stuttgart (2-0)
Over the whole match, Bayer 04 Leverkusen convinced with quick combination play, clever spacing and a good transition from attack to defense. However, it took a while before they found the key to unlock the compact VfB Stuttgart defense. Poor shot conversion and energetic defending by Stuttgart ensured both teams kept a clean sheet until late in the game. In the end, Leverkusen made the necessary positional adjustments and sealed their first home victory since September.
Tactical analysis by Max Bergmann.
Lineups and formations
Stuttgart started with a 4-5-1 system. The absence of Timo Baumgartl due to illness lead to a change in the back four. Marc-Oliver Kempf played as a center-back and Emiliano Insúa was lined up on the left side of Stuttgart’s four men defense.
Bayer Leverkusen deployed a 4-2-3-1 formation in the beginning of the match. Super talent Kai Havertz featured as playmaker on the advanced midfield position. Striker Kevin Volland went on to play a vital role in the second half.
Bayer Leverkusen’s 4-2-3-1 formation against VfB Stuttgart’s deep 4-5-1 shape.
Leverkusen’s press works
Leverkusen dominated possession throughout most of this match, thanks to their efficient pressing, and Stuttgart’s inability to find ways around it.
Leverkusen pressed in a 4-4-2 shape with Havertz and Volland up front. One of both would consistently cut off Stuttgart’s option to pass the ball into midfield, while the other would try to prevent the switch pass. A pass from one side to the other. As a result, Stuttgart often resorted to playing long balls to quickly bypass Leverkusen’s attack and midfield. Unable to connect to most of these long passes, Stuttgart quickly turned it over, contributing to a high possession rate for Leverkusen.
Stuttgart fail to deal with Leverkusen’s buildup
During their own build-up phase, Bayer pushed their fullbacks very high up the field, with at least one – and sometimes both – wingers moving inside. Meanwhile, holding midfielder Charles Aránguiz dropped back into a either fullback position or between the center-backs.
This constant pattern of movement in Leverkusen’s buildup forced Stuttgart’s wingers into an important choice. Either they stayed with the fullback on the flank, or they advanced to press the remaining defenders. Stuttgart clearly chose the first option, and as such, their wingers were often pinned deep on the wing in rather passive defending roles.
In order to exert pressure on Leverkusen’s defense, one of Stuttgart’s midfielders would step up to press, which created space in central areas as the other central midfielders often did not close the gap.
Lacking presence in crucial area
With Kai Havertz enjoying a lot of positional freedom and often moving towards the sideline, Leverkusen lacked presence in a crucial area: the central zone between the opposition midfield line and the back four. In this sense, Bayer themselves minimized space to play in.
This facilitated the defensive work of Stuttgart as one player could often mark both Bayer’s winger and playmaker at once. The attempts of Volland to drop into this vacated central space ended up in Stuttgart’s intelligent reaction to move higher with their last line of defense to close this gap.
Leverkusen’s clear 4-2-3-1 formation. Wingers Brandt and Bellarabi are placed centrally on average, due to frequent switches of flanks.
Whenever Havertz did stay in a more central position, Leverkusen had some promising attacks that only missed precision in the finish. The highlight of these attacks were quick combinations between the attackers of Leverkusen, with Karim Bellarabi’s energetic dribbling playing an important role.
Sitting deep to nullify Leverkusen’s attacking movement, Stuttgart’s attacking strategy mainly focused on counterattacks. During the possession phase of Leverkusen, either Baumgartlinger or Aránguiz stayed centrally in front of the center-backs to cover the attack. This cover disabled Stuttgart to involve striker Mario Gómez as the passing option was cut off, with the experienced striker often surrounded by three Leverkusen players.
Moreover, this allowed Bayer’s other holding midfielder to counterpress Stuttgart in an advanced position. Instead of retaining the ball, Stuttgart often played into depth with little success.
Right before half-time, Leverkusen’s press became a bit more passive due to diminishing energy of the players. In the rare situations where Stuttgart was able to progress up the pitch – manly taking advantage of the space in behind Leverkusen’s advanced fullbacks – the fullbacks attempted to find target man Gomez with crosses into the penalty box. Despite all their effort, Stuttgart were not capable of threatening the opposition goal in the first half in a serious way.
In an attempt to improve his team’s lack of offensive options, Stuttgart manager Markus Weinzierl decided to play with two strikers in the second half. Thommy replaced winger Maffeo, who had quite a subdued first half. Christian Gentner moved forward into the attack as the second striker next to Gómez.
As the second half progressed, it quickly became clear that this was only a change in name since Stuttgart’s wingers were still pinned far down in their own half. Second striker Gentner even dropped into midfield when being overplayed. This situationally even created the exact same 6-3-1 formation of the first half of the match.
Leverkusen manager Heiko Herrlich stuck to his approach and only replaced his fullbacks during the course of the second half. A reasonable decision, since this system demands both fullbacks to support the attack on the wings in order to provide width and to defend in the back four. Their role puts severe demands on physicality.
Set piece situations decide the game
Contrary to the first half, Leverkusen often lacked accuracy in the last third. Therefore the second half initially played out without any significant goal scoring opportunities.
As is often the case with matches with sparse chances from open play, set piece situations gave the game a spin.
Most notably, Stuttgart’s corner kicks posed a risk for both teams. Either Stuttgart were able to connect and finally threaten the goal of Lukas Hradecky or they were hit on the break by Leverkusen’s pace and trickery up front. At the hour mark, Volland nearly scored the leading goal after a counterattack coming off a Stuttgart corner. Two minutes later Gentner missed the chance put the visitors up after a corner heading the ball wide of the first post.
Goals in the end
The first goal of the day resulted from a corner kick of Leverkusen. After quickly playing a short variation, Havertz was able to take a cross from inside the box to Volland on the far post. With this well executed routine play, Leverkusen took advantage of the disorganization in Stuttgart’s defense.
Shortly before the goal, Leverkusen managed Herrlich had made a small, but important adjustment. He brought in Lucas Alario as a striker and Volland moved into the playmaker position in central midfield. The idea behind this was to position Havertz in the double pivot together with Baumgartlinger. Indirectly, this helped solve the issue with the occupation of the central area between the lines. Contrary to Havertz, Volland positioned himself more centrally and made better use of the gap between Stuttgart’s midfield and defense.
Leverkusen’s approach in the second half, with Volland dropping in midfield and Havertz in a deeper midfield role.
Stuttgart switched to a 4-4-2 formation.
The second goal of Leverkusen was scored exactly due to this positional change. Havertz played a brilliant one touch through pass from his pivot position. Following this, Volland finished the attack from a position between the lines after the assist of substitute Alario.
In this match, Bayer Leverkusen prove that they do not belong to the last third of the Bundesliga table. Their sheer talent on the pitch warrants better results, and the organization displayed against Stuttgart should be decent enough to improve on their disappointing start to the season.
VfB Stuttgart remains the bottom team of the Bundesliga, and are in severe trouble. Their lack of offensive options is reflected in a very poor goal scoring record, and their performance against Leverkusen has done little to inspire any confidence to change this around. Defending deep while having the rather immobile Mario Gomez up front remains a difficult mix to get going.