RasenBallsport Leipzig – Bayer Leverkusen: All Signs Point Towards The End Of ‘Neverkusen’ Curse (2-3)
Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen continue to find ways to win. Despite a strong start from RB Leipzig, where they tactically got the better of Leverkusen, Alonso’s second-half adjustments proved pivotal in a game that ultimately required another stoppage-time goal to secure all three points.
Tactical analysis and match report by Rahul Madhavan.
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For more than a decade, Bundesliga teams have been striving to overthrow Bayern Munich’s dominance. Borussia Dortmund has consistently been their chief rival, but despite their persistent efforts, nothing has managed to disrupt the inevitable. This time around, Bayer Leverkusen, ironically led by a former Bayern player, have emerged as a formidable contender, poised to challenge Bayern’s supremacy and shed the ‘Neverkusen’ tag.
Leverkusen have remained unbeaten this season, making them the only team in Europe to do so across all competitions. Alonso’s well-oiled machine have won fourteen of their seventeen games, the last of which came against FC Augsburg thanks to a goal in the fourth minute of stoppage time. Their clash against a strong RB Leipzig team was a crucial test, one they had to pass to maintain the gap to Bayern.
RB Leipzig, on the other hand, have had a solid yet mixed season thus far. Marco Rose’s men were expected to contend for top honors but have faced setbacks at critical junctures. Coupled with the quality from the top two teams, they have been forced to fight for the top four spots. With only one point earned in their recent two games, their fourth position was now in jeopardy, following Borussia Dortmund’s victory earlier.
Janis Blaswich, who has been the undisputed number one for Leipzig, kept his place in goal once again. The back four featured Lukas Klostermann, Mohamed Simakan, Castello Lukeba, and David Raum. Rose opted for Nicolas Seiwald alongside Xaver Schlager in midfield, while Xavi Simons and Dani Olmo started ahead of them. Upfront, the impressive Loïs Openda partnered with Benjamin Šeško.
With Odilon Kossounou and Edmond Tapsoba participating in the African Cup of Nations, Alonso chose to pair Piero Hincapié and Josip Stanišić, with Jonathan Tah at the back. The Xhaka-Palacios pivot remained unaltered in midfield, complemented by Florian Wirtz, Jonas Hofmann, Álex Grimaldo, and Jeremie Frimpong, the latter replaced by Nathan Tella in the first half due to an injury. Upfront, Patrik Schick retained his position, with Victor Boniface absent due to injury.
Leipzig find ways to breach Leverkusen’s press
Leverkusen has typically asserted dominance from the outset, but this time, Leipzig seemed to have a massive advantage with and without the ball. In possession, Blaswich played a crucial role in the buildup, creating a situational back three with the two pivots ahead. Leverkusen initiated the press with Wirtz and Hofmann, typically when the center-back received possession. Schick and the ball-sided central midfielder (Xhaka or Palacios) would then move to cover the pivots.
However, Leipzig had a five-versus-four advantage in this scenario, thanks to their effective utilization of Blaswich. Leverkusen’s central midfielder often faced a dilemma, forced to decide whether to press or stay behind, as Olmo and Simons would then drop deeper to overload the flanks. If Xhaka or Palacios advanced higher up the pitch, the full-backs (Simakan and Raum) positioned themselves deeper, allowing Leipzig to draw the press and execute a wall pass to find the free man.
This dynamic frequently unfolded on Leipzig’s left side in the early stages, with Olmo dropping deeper when Xhaka pressed Leipzig’s pivot, and Stanišić hesitated to track him, wary of exposing the defense. Leipzig then utilized Olmo to connect with Raum, who was allowed ample time and space to progress the ball.
When Stanišić tracked Olmo, it resulted in a two-versus-two situation at the back, which was consistently exploited by Šeško and Openda, who were up against Tah and Hincapié. In fact, this ultimately led to Leipzig’s opening goal.
Minute 6: Leipzig’s buildup before the goal. Hofmann initiated the press, and as Raum received the ball, a series of movements unfolded. Xhaka pushed higher to mark Schlager, drawing Stanišić towards Olmo. Frimpong’s delayed reaction allowed Raum to find Šeško’s run, who beat Tah and set up Simons for the goal.
Additionally, Leipzig relied on long balls to advance into the final third, with Šeško and Openda posing continuous threats to Leverkusen’s center-backs, who struggled to cope with their pace and physicality. Early bookings for Stanišić and Tah also left Leverkusen vulnerable. In the first quarter of the game, it became evident that Leverkusen missed the defensive contributions of Tapsoba and Kossounou in the channels and one-versus-one situations – elements crucial for their ability to win possession back and regain control.
Leverkusen’s problems in possession
While Leipzig instilled uncertainty in Leverkusen players in possession, their approach out of possession in the initial stages was equally effective. The hosts adopted a compact 4-4-2 structure, with an impetus on preventing central access to Leverkusen’s influential pivots and the inside forwards ahead of them.
Employing a flat midfield four, with the two strikers blocking the passing lane to the pivots, Leverkusen found themselves forced to circulate the ball among the three center-backs. Although there was space for the wide center-backs to carry the ball, Stanišić’s struggles, coupled with Olmo’s effective pressing to block access to Hofmann or Wirtz, proved pivotal. This even resulted in turnovers for Leipzig, who missed opportunities to extend their lead.
This was a rather atypical performance from Leverkusen, as they appeared rushed in possession and frequently looked to go long to find Grimaldo and Frimpong’s runs behind the defense. The shortage of options posed challenges, prompting Alonso to make slight adjustments to the setup, providing them with more control in the final fifteen minutes of the first half.
With Leipzig holding a flat and highly compact midfield line, the idea involved stretching the pitch and increasing the involvement of Xhaka and Palacios. Consequently, Leverkusen’s pivots adapted by shifting wider or dropping between the center-backs to receive the ball and turn, something they struggled with earlier.
This would then drag either Olmo or Simons out, which created a gap centrally. With Hofmann and Wirtz positioned on the last line, Leverkusen would access these gaps by using their wing-backs (Tella and Grimaldo). Once the wing-back received possession, underlaps in the space between the center-back and full-back became a recurring theme for both Wirtz and Hofmann.
Xabi Alonso’s response proves decisive
Although Leverkusen managed to control the game, they struggled to generate clear-cut chances in the first half. Alonso had to change his approach to unlock the compact Leipzig defensive block, which he did successfully in the second half. Leverkusen quickly came out of their blocks, resulting in an equalizer just two minutes into the second half.
Alongside Palacios drifting wide to draw Simons, Wirtz, initially positioned centrally, also shifted wide, while Grimaldo inverted. The German engaged in a one-versus-one situation against Simakan and carried the ball inside before utilizing Hofmann to find the third-man, Grimaldo, who now switched positions with Wirtz again. Leverkusen effectively created a three-versus-two overload on the flank, allowing Grimaldo to deliver a cross into the box met by Tella at the far post.
The Wirtz-Grimaldo-Palacios combination on the left side proved potent for Leverkusen. Palacios provided an option for the wide center-back to progress the ball, while the rotation between Wirtz and Grimaldo on the flanks established numerical superiority in the final third. Once in the attacking third, Leverkusen’s combination play and adept close control took center stage.
Minute 52: Leverkusen’s offensive sequence. Xhaka, this time, dropped between the center-backs. Palacios and Grimaldo occupying central positions opened the passing lane for Wirtz. After Xhaka played the pass, Grimaldo’s movement pulled Klostermann, opening up space for Schick. The striker got on the end of the pass, but his shot was off target.
All of their efforts to get back into the game, however, were undone by a huge error from a corner. Leipzig were able to intercept a poorly worked short corner and committed men forward in typical Leipzig fashion. Eventually, Olmo’s impressive pass found Openda, who was once again clinical in front of goal.
However, Leverkusen still held the upper hand in the game despite trailing. With the left-side combination operating excellently, Alonso made a similar adjustment on the right side. Hofmann, like Wirtz, started moving wide to provide an option for Stanišić. In a manner akin to the Grimaldo-Wirtz combination on the opposite flank, Hofmann and Tella constantly rotated, creating a two-versus-one situation against Leipzig’s full-back.
There was also a slight tweak by Alonso out of possession, which created problems for Leipzig. In the first half, Leipzig looked to lure Leverkusen’s pivots and isolate their front three against the center-backs. In response, Alonso instructed his pivots to screen his three center-backs, while man-marking Olmo and Simons.
Minute 54: Leverkusen’s press. Initially, the front three stay narrow to lure Blaswich to pick the full-back. The trigger was initiated after the pass to Raum, with Hofmann moving wide to press the full-back. When Raum was forced back to Lukeba, Hofmann angled his run to close the passing lane for Raum, while Schick, Wirtz, and Tella had hybrid roles. Leipzig were forced to clear, and Leverkusen, who had a three-versus-two advantage at the back, regained possession.
Leverkusen certainly tested Blaswich time and again, but ultimately, Leipzig were undone by two set pieces. The first, an out-swinging corner from Grimaldo, resulted in Tah leveling the proceedings. In the dying moments of the game, Grimaldo’s in-swinging corner found an unmarked Hincapié, who tapped the ball into the net. This marked Leverkusen’s second stoppage-time goal in a week, a significant indication of their credentials as title contenders.
In his post-match interview, Marco Rose revealed that Leverkusen deserved all three points, despite the manner in which his team conceded the goals. With just one point in three games, Dortmund and Frankfurt are within reach of snatching their fourth position, so Rose and his team will desperately need to bounce back after the defeat to the table toppers.
On the flip side, everything is going in Bayer Leverkusen’s favor at the moment. Despite another significant test for Alonso, his tactical changes ensured that they emerged victorious. They sit seven points ahead of Bayern Munich, who, to be fair, have two games in hand. But Leverkusen’s unstoppable momentum and impressive performances, even in the absence of several key players, suggest that this could indeed be their year, especially with away games against the top five now out of contention.
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