Pressing is one of the buzzwords in modern-day football lexicon and is frequently imbedded in playing styles around the world at all levels. Football’s obsession with pressing is what saw Roger Schmidt come to fame for his style at Red Bull Salzburg and be christened the ‘high-priest of pressing football’ once he arrived in Germany at Bayer Leverkusen. His brand of pressing teams from the edge of their box at high-intensity throughout games even caught the admiring eyes of one Pep Guardiola. Now, him and his young Bayer Leverkusen side must seek to find stability in results and performances in a journey which could ultimately give an example of how much philosophy is worth in football.
Pressing is gambling as it is based on the opposition being slovenly in playing the ball out of the back and in the pressing team winning the 50/50 challenges in the important positions. It is also about outlining a pressing trigger which could be the weakest player in possession and hoping he has a bad day at the office while the pressing team have to sustain an amount of energy to maintain a tempo that restricts the opposition from finding their rhythm. In the last year, Bayer Leverkusen have been at both ends of the spectrum, striking luck and striking out as for some games they have been devastating but others they have flattered to deceive.
This season injuries forced Schmidt to experiment and tinker with his side as injuries to key figures like Charles Aranguiz, Lars Bender and Tin Jedvaj had left the Werkself shorthanded in some positions. One of those positions was in midifield as earlier in the season, Hakan Calhanoglu was deployed centrally in a playmaker role. He seemed at odds with the position as the responsibility of being chief creator was thrust upon him with his decision making leaving alot to be desired. Another experiment was shifting Kevin Kampl into a deeper midfield role which had a much different effect. The blond-haired midfielder is now an integral conduit in bringing the ball out of the back with his nimble-footed dribbling style and ability to play line-breaking passes from deep which have seen him grow into the role.
Calhanoglu being moved out wide has meant Admir Mehmedi who played out wide as a raumdeuter has had to drop to the bench after scoring vital goals against Stuttgart in the Bundesliga and Roma in the UEFA Champions League. The Champions League has also added to the exertions of this side as Leverkusen have only won three times directly after a Champions League game out of eight games (including the Playoff games against Lazio) while defeats have included two 3-0 beatings at the hands of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
As Schmidt has got to know his team better and players have groomed combinations, luck has swayed in between them and the opposition as in a 4-3 victory against Stuttgart, Leverkusen lacked urgency in their play and lost most of the 50/50s while in a scintillating second half which included 7 goals, Kampl (in the preliminary stages of his adaptation to his deeper role) only made one tackle as the deepest-lying midfielder while Bayer managed to steal the game with a late Mehmedi strike.
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In another match against Wolfsburg, although Leverkusen looked heavy-legged and weary-eyed, they were unlucky to concede when the ball dropped to Andre Schurrle just outside the Leverkusen box and in the process of trying to regain possession Kampl was adjudged to have poked the ball to Vierinha, in an offside possession, who crossed for Bendtner to score. It so happened that Schurrle had poked the ball and to the bemusement of Roger Schmidt and Rudi Voller, the goal stood. Although, Javier Hernandez grabbed the equaliser, Wolfsburg won through a Julian Draxler goal in the latter stages of the game as it is worth saying, on another day Leverkusen could’ve drawn. In another match against Schalke, they held most of the ball against Schalke looking disjointed and bereft of inspiration in attack but managed to draw the game due to a late Sascha Riether own goal.
In the first half of the season, Kampl found a worthy partner in Christoph Kramer who brought energy and mobility to the midfield while Javier Hernandez and Stefan Kiessling look like an effective ‘small and tall’ partnership. Kiessling wins an astounding 7 aerial battles per game and provides the perfect foil to allow Hernandez to stretch play and take up opportunistic goalscoring positions. However, this has been to the detriment of the German’s goalscoring record as his 1.4 shots per game average is only half of the Mexican’s. This has left Hernandez to shoulder most of the goalscoring responsibility and has made the Werkself predictable and easy to close down on one of their ‘off-days’. The rest of the team’s goal count dwindles in comparison to the man more affectionately known as Chicharito as he has scored 45% of the team’s goals while his 18 goals in all competitions are backed by 6 from Mehmedi and four from Kiessling.
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When the team have been on song, they have been devastating as they became the first team to beat Andre Schubert’s Borussia Monchengladbach as they dismantled them 5-0. The away team were hustled and harried off the ball at every turn as they failed to find their rhythm as Bayer were incisive and quick with Kiessling and Hernandez dishing out most of the punishment. This was Roger Schmidt’s high-energy style at it’s best as his team were consistent with the pressure and tempo for 90 minutes obliterating their opponents in the process. Their Hinrunde proved that they can’t sustain this from game to game and must have a Plan B in place when pressing doesn’t take.
If there was a game to prove themselves, it would be this weekend’s fixture against the champions and league leaders Bayern Munich. Bayern have won 18 of their last 20 matches as they have reigned supreme in the Bundesliga while Bayer Leverkusen are undefeated in 27 of their last 30 home matches as they sit in fourth place. Schmidt will get the chance to pit his wits against Pep Guardiola for possibly the last time in the Bundesliga.
Their first was an intriguing battle of tactical chess as Bayer dominated Bayern, blocking the passing channels in between midfield and defence and having ample opportunities to take the lead. The young Croat Tin Jedvaj put in a wonderful performance against Frank Ribery, pushing up high against the Frenchman denying him time and space on the ball. After half-time, Guardiola replaced Mario Gotze with Sebastian Rode in an effort to give Xabi Alonso more support in coveting the ball forward as Bayern looked to be more direct. Bayer were made to rue their missed chances when a Rafinha cross found Alonso at the far post who nodded it back for Ribery to volley Bayern into the lead in the 51st minute as the match ended 1-0.
Another enticing battle is sure to take place this weekend at the Bayer Arena and with Jedvaj back and the inclusion of defensive stalwart Jonathan Tah and marauding fullback Wendell who was on the radar of Real Madrid recently, Schmidt is able to pick a good lineup. The Hinrunde was a period of experimentation and assimilation as Bayer will need to show consistency in performances and results in the Ruckrunde to truly prove that they have made headway under Schmidt which can only stand them in good stead.