The footballing world has come to a standstill as it anticipates quite possibly the most interesting fixture of the season. Two teams separated by two points... but not much else. Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich face off this weekend in what will decide who goes atop the Bundesliga table. But are they really that different? And what exactly will be the deciding factor?
Let’s jump into it from a tactical lens.
Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen play surprisingly similar football.
In order to find the differentiator, we must first look at the similarities. And to one’s dismay, there are quite a few. Football’s complexity lies in its intricacies. And the art of buildup perfectly captures the uniqueness of every set-up.
Leverkusen and Xabi Alonso’s success relies on a set of principles: possession, control, and flawless fluidity. In the build-up, Leverkusen builds up with short passes from one end of the pitch to the other. Quick passes and smart movements that don’t allow the opposition to intercept the ball easily. Leverkusen rank top of the league for accurate short passes this season — just shy of 600 per 90 — proof of their extraordinary ability to control the build-up phase.
In second place for the same metric? Bayern Munich. Why does that mean anything you ask? Because Tuchel’s system too revolves around control.
Let’s take an example of a system of play that is widely evident when Leverkusen build-up and creates chances — deliberately crowding and overloading one side of the pitch with a series of short passes in the same area, to shift the opposition’s structure to one side of the field. And as soon as the opportunity is there, shift play to the opposite side, where their players now have tons of space and are unmarked.
Let’s take a look at this simple but efficient strategy:
13 players, of which 8 are opposition players are pulled out of possession in an early build-up phase. Notice the completely unmarked and free players on the other side of the pitch?
And as soon as Leverkusen gets the opportunity, they shift play to the other side where they have a clear advantage and lots of space.
Believe it or not — it is the exact tactic Bayern has demonstrated so many times in games where they managed to control play.
Let’s see this sequence, against Freiburg in the Bundesliga. Notice the Freiburg backline, with all 5 players covering the width of the pitch.
Now seconds later, after Bayern have to start again from the back, they shift the ball to the left side of the pitch. After about 17 or so passes, Bayern managed to disrupt the Freiburg backline and created a situation almost identical to the one in the Leverkusen game.
17 players, out of which 9 are opposition are pulled out of position in the late (why not early? - we’ll come back to that) build-up phase. Also notice Coman, unmarked and open?
As the opportunity arrives, Coman receives the ball and has a lot of space to work with.
The long ball statistics for both teams also match. Leverkusen and Bayern’s short passing approach has both of them bottom of the table for long balls — and the majority of both team’s long balls go across the pitch, shifting play like we just saw.
This is just one example of many. There are also many more similarities. When it comes to dividing the pitch into attacking zones, Leverkusen and Bayern are virtually the same. Both teams use the left side 34%, the middle 30%, and the right side 37%.
The two rank right next to each other for a host of other statistics that you can go through for yourself on WhoScored.com.
The point is not that both teams play the same football, because that is not the case. Rather, it is that there are many. many more similarities than one might see initially. Tuchel who has been touted for his ‘boring’ football is surprisingly similar to Leverkusen and Alonso’s ‘pleasing’ attacking football — both are based on control, yet one has been slightly more successful than the other. And that brings us to the next part.
Why then, is Alonso’s football more breathtaking and successful?
Like it always does in football, it all boils down to the midfield.
Leverkusen in possession usually shifts to a 4-2-2-2 formation, with Alejandro Grimaldo dropping deep and Jeremie Frimpong advancing. Their midfield operates in their signature box structure that has taken over the Bundesliga — narrow pivot of Exequiel Palacios and Granit Xhaka either of which alternatively drop deep and move ahead, and wide AMs in Jonas Hofmann and the magical Florian Wirtz.
Their midfield relies not only on the exceptional quality of their players and their ability to fulfill what’s asked of them in this set-up but also on the element of unpredictability. Bayern’s ‘fluid’ element is limited to Kane dropping deep, and as teams figure that out, it becomes difficult to get the ball to Kane,
Leverkusen however, is unpredictable, Their players shift positions flawlessly and interpret space extremely well. It is difficult to pinpoint common movements made by these players and that is the reason Leverkusen has not lost a single game this season.
Even off the ball, Leverkusen can be found in a knit-together 5-2-2-1 pressing structure, the same pressing structure almost impossible to find in Bayern games. The same pressing structure that is a glaring hole in the system.
All this talk about Leverkusen’s style of play comes to the main aspect — they have players suited for their football. Their pivot and double AMs work incredibly well together, while Bayern’s pivot is totally vulnerable to press. To put it into numbers, Bayern Munich loses possession about 10.9 times per 90 — the most of anyone in the league.
Bayern simply does not possess the quality to function with total control the way Leverkusen does, and as a result is more laid back, trying to maintain possession — something that the viewer finds boring. Bayern’s football is the right approach, the way to go to build a foundation long-term, but without the right personnel or even depth.
The condition of Bayern’s midfield is so woeful that while Leverkusen builds up slowly progressing across the pitch in what appears so beautiful to watch (like we noted earlier, how they already control play early in buildup), Bayern would rather make the shift in the attack (late phase of build-up), simply because it is the zone where Bayern can make the greatest difference thanks to their quality in the forward department.
Conclusion: who wins?
But we are seeing a shift. The introduction of Aleksandar Pavlović — who can drop into the backline, begin attacks, or even score goals to an amazing level — alone has changed Bayern’s midfield outlook. There is now a bold genre of football slowly emerging from the heart of Munich, one that is ready to take back the Bundesliga lead.
Leverkusen also have a weakness — they are highly vulnerable to unsuccessful touches. Despite the technical quality they possess, the speed of Leverkusen’s game makes them prone to make a wrong touch or two and lose the ball — they lose it in such fashion an average of 16 times a game. Bayern will have to pounce on these opportunities.
It is difficult to pinpoint who takes the game. Bayern is very capable of handing Leverkusen their first loss, especially with the news that Palacios will be out. But it will come down, in the end, to which team shows the most passion.
That’s all, as we look forward to a game with an open outcome but a guarantee of fantastic football. See you on Saturday.
Looking for more thoughts and analysis on the Bayern Munich vs. Bayer Leverkusen match? Check out our Bavarian Podcast Works — Preview Show on Spotify or below: