Bayern Munich – Bayer Leverkusen: Defensive Adjustments Prove Leverkusen’s Mettle (2-2)
The Bundesliga was back with an absolute bang after the international break, as the much-hyped Bayer Leverkusen faced their toughest test of the season in the form of a trip to the home of the defending champions. Many were bigging up Xabi Alonso’s side as the most serious challengers to Bayern Munich’s throne this season, and they showed just why that was the case with a great performance under pressure at the Allianz Arena.
Tactical analysis and match report by Neel Shelat.
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Bayern Munich’s summer was far from ideal after a frighteningly close title defense last season, but the start to the season should have alleviated some of the negativity. Yes, their transfer business was far from perfect and left some big gaps in their squad, but they had found a pretty functional system on the pitch with what still was clearly the best set of players in the league. Knocking them off the top was never going to be easy.
If anyone could, though, early indications were that it would be Bayer Leverkusen. Whilst RB Leipzig and Borussia Dortmund were already faltering in the earliest stage of the season, Bayer Leverkusen looked absolutely fantastic. The groundwork in terms of the system had been laid last season, but their superb transfer business in the summer added some serious quality to plug gaps in their squad and has seemingly taken them to the next level.
Bayern Munich lined up in their usual 4-2-3-1 formation, springing no real surprises bar Konrad Laimer at right back. Sven Ulreich was in goal behind Dayot Upamecano, Kim Min-jae and Alphonso Davies who made up the rest of the defense, whilst Leon Goretzka partnered Joshua Kimmich in midfield behind an attack comprised of Leroy Sané, Thomas Müller, Serge Gnabry and Harry Kane.
Bayer Leverkusen named a predictable side in their 3-4-2-1 formation, starting with Lukáš Hrádecký between the sticks behind center-backs Odilon Kossounou, Jonathan Tah and Edmond Tapsoba. Jeremie Frimpong and Alejandro Grimaldo patrolled the flanks with Robert Andrich joining Granit Xhaka in midfield, whilst Jonas Hofmann and Florian Wirtz supported Victor Boniface up front.
Leverkusen’s questionable initial defensive setup
There has been a lot of focus on Leverkusen’s attacking play in the early stages of the season – understandably so too given the fact that they’ve scored 11 goals in their first three league games for a record-setting start to the Bundesliga season. However, this match was always going to shine a brighter light on their defensive work, so that is what proved decisive.
The visitors got off to a poor start as they conceded from a corner in the first ten minutes of the match, but equally, their defensive setup was quite questionable. They seemed to want to start off in a player-oriented high block, but their choice of marking was quite puzzling as Xhaka was often seen stepping up to Kimmich and leaving a pretty big hole in Leverkusen’s midfield.
11th minute: Bayer Leverkusen’s player-oriented high block with Hofmann stepping up to Kim, Frimpong to Davies and crucially, Xhaka to Kimmich leaving a big hole in midfield.
Unsurprisingly, Bayern found it very easy to play right through this high block setup, forcing Leverkusen to retreat and collapse into a 5-4-1 low block in their own half. As a result, Xabi Alonso’s side failed to establish any control early doors and truthfully looked quite lost. It was clear that they would quickly have to change something if they were to come away with anything from this match.
Alonso’s adjustments turn the tide
Not too long after that, Leverkusen made a couple of adjustments to their defensive setup that really turned the tide in their favor. At a very basic level, they changed their out-of-possession shape to a 4-4-2 with Wirtz now alongside Boniface, Frimpong on the right of midfield for good whilst Hofmann mirrored him on the left.
More specifically, they changed some of their pressing movements to prevent Bayern from playing through their midfield. For one, Wirtz started next to Kimmich rather than Kim, only stepping out to the center-back when he received the ball. When he did so, it was not necessarily Xhaka but rather the far-side midfielder who stepped up to Kimmich (although that did mostly happen to be Xhaka because he was on the far-side relative to Kim), meaning that it was Bayern Munich’s far-side number eight who was freed up. He would, of course, be much tougher to access as the only direct route would have to be an aerial ball, which would allow enough time for a Leverkusen center-back to step up and engage in an aerial duel.
34th minute: Leverkusen’s altered high block setup with all opposition midfielders initially player-marked and then only the far-side number eight left free, making it much tougher for Bayern to play through them.
Even when they were forced back into their own half, Leverkusen maintained this 4-4-2 shape with Frimpong never tracking into the back line, so Bayern also found it tougher to break into the attacking third even after building up successfully. So, this tweak not only helped the visitors defend better on the front foot, but it also further solidified them at the back.
Of course, the more important aspect was the high block because they were able to restrict Bayern’s buildup a lot more, consequently creating opportunities for high turnovers and just generally imposing themselves on the match a lot more. So, after Grimaldo equalized with a direct free kick, the visitors were the ones who looked likelier to take the lead.
Spoils shared after dramatic conclusion
Even on the other side of half-time, Bayern did not seem to change much to respond to Leverkusen’s improved defensive setup. All they did was try to use their fullbacks to build out from the wings a little bit more, especially after Noussair Mazraoui was brought on as a seasoned right back. The visitors were quite untroubled by this, so they went about creating some very presentable chances of their own.
The best of their chances seemed to be the one that fell to Wirtz at the end of a slick and quick passing move around the box, but the German youngster could only hit the far post. Boniface had a couple of very good chances as well which he might have buried on another day, but he seemed to have left his shooting boots at the BayArena.
In any case, when Goretzka scored what looked to a match-winning goal in the 86th minute, even the most biased Bayern fan would have found it tough to call it entirely deserved. However, this was a position both teams would have been all too familiar with – Bayern winning a crucial game without delivering their best performance is something we have seen fairly often in the last couple of years, whilst it is basically Leverkusen tradition to lose such matches even when they look like the better side.
But that was not to be on this night, as the visitors were adamant to leave with something. They got their wish in stoppage-time when Davies rather needlessly tripped Hofmann in the box, giving away a very late penalty which Exequiel Palacios converted to score the equalizer. On the balance of play, that definitely was a just result.
This was a performance symptomatic of Bayern Munich’s biggest issue in the last few months – passivity. Except Kane, their transfer business was quite passive despite some departures in key areas of the squad, and on the pitch here, they seemed to simply watch as Leverkusen wrested control of the match and never really fought back for it. They cannot complain with a draw at all, but they will need to improve if they are to match expectations in the league and Europe.
The biggest story of the night certainly was this Bayer Leverkusen team. They showed that they are not just a flashy attacking side but also one that can be quite tactically adaptable in games and focus on defending when needed. On another day, they might even have won it to record their best-ever start to a Bundesliga season, but the performance behind this draw was a statement in its own.
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