For years, Bayer 04 Leverkusen have pushed themselves among the top sides in Germany, but ultimately fell short when faced with cream-of-the-crop competition. That narrative no longer applies to this club, who has now gone toe-to-toe against competition they were once a clear tier below.
Renewed confidence has created some momentum around this team, having seven of their last eight matches including five consecutive Bundesliga matches. Embarrassed last season in a 1-6 defeat to Paris Saint-Germain, they took Champions League finalist Atlético Madrid to penalties, something unfathomable under previous leadership. Roger Schmidt has instilled a belief in the players, an energy which radiates from their shirts not present before.
Bayern Munich snuck away with a 1-0 victory in the home Bundesliga fixture against Leverkusen, a result they are unlikely going to get away with twice. To prepare for the DFB-Pokal quarterfinal showdown, here is a deeper dive into Bayer Leverkusen.
Schmidt has made Leverkusen much more proactive on both sides of the field. The team is very direct, not methodically building up the play like they did in years past, but that can make them a bit predictable. They certainly rely on their individual skill, but the players have much better spacial understanding that allows them to better keep their shape. They are very aware of the situation as well, and know how to manage their efforts throughout 90 minutes.
In terms of player skill throughout the squad, Leverkusen's shortcomings are certainly in defense, but that makes it even more commendable of their defensive success this season. Schmidt has certainly gotten the best from his personnel this season, some of whom are having the best years of their career. Lars Bender is a very big factor though, winning several balls in midfield in a very efficient way. His presence and fitness has alleviated a lot of pressure on Emir Spahić and Ömer Toprak. Sure, they have an old-fashioned shootout once in a while, but for the most part they do not have the disaster performances that were regular occurrence before.
Leverkusen certainly waste no time getting the ball up the field, but that causes them to lose it frequently. Gonzalo Castro is playing a deeper role this season than in the past, but he is the one responsible for controlling the tempo in midfield. Without a key playmaker, Leverkusen rely on Karim Bellarabi and Son Heung-Min to manufacture some of their scoring chances. The fullbacks tend to come forward to assist the play as well, a reason Schmidt tends to have Wendell on hand to bring off the bench. Their build-up play is a different look than it used to be, but they are able to get the ball forward nonetheless
As good as their goal record is in the Bundesliga, their attack is mediocre when playing at the highest level. Son and Bellarabi burden most of the attacking responsibly, and it is their ideas that drive them forward. Hakan Çalhanoğlu has not brought a dynamic in open play that his price tag would indicate, while Stefan Kießling has simply become just a pure poacher. They are certainly a team that can thrive on the counterattack, but that only happens when their team has the ball.
Karim Bellarabi – Hard to believe a player of this caliber was on loan in Braunschweig last season. He took his role on the right wing in stride to become the most creative and elusive player in attack. He shifts and squirms into space and is the only player in the club who can take on players. He will surely be a handful, and could easily find the back of the net in the quarterfinal.
Hakan Çalhanoğlu – He certainly wears his shooting boots when lines up his set pieces, but Çalhanoğlu is far from a complete player. For an attacker meant to play in the hole behind the striker, his movement is well below average. He does not have the playmaking ability either, which puts a lot of pressure on the wings to create chances. He is still young at 21, but he is not a player to make defenders shake in their shoes.
Roberto Hilbert – No, Bayer Leverkusen's defense is not the best, but if there is one player who has shone above the rest, it is Hilbert. The midfielder-turned-defender looks much more comfortable in the position than seasons past. Opposing wingers do beat him on occasion, but those occurrences happen less. He is quietly one of the better fullbacks in Germany, and he will have to help Leverkusen win the ball if they want a chance to win.
How Leverkusen beats Bayern
Leverkusen have been a tough out for Bayern, even at the peak of their dominance. Their rock-solid shape could make it difficult for Bayern to get into the final third, especially if Bender is on his game. Bellarabi is going to be running at Bayern's defense all 90 minutes, and if he breaks free or finds space in the penalty area, he can find the back of the net. If they get ahead early, the task will change to the chances they stop rather than the chances they create.
How Bayern beats Leverkusen
Leverkusen's defense may be able to win and clear the ball, but Bayern's ability to win it back in a high position is the perfect counter punch. As improved as the Leverkusen fullbacks are, they are not used to Franck Ribéry and Mario Götze running at them. While Robert Lewandowski may not be able to find the back of the net, he could create the space for the player who does. Once they get ahead, their ability to hold onto the ball will drain Leverkusen and suffocate their ability to get back into the match.