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What makes Bayer Leverkusen such a threat to Bayern Munich?

Listen to me, I swear this is the abridged version. There is so much I left on the cutting room floor.

FC Bayern München v Bayer 04 Leverkusen - Bundesliga Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images

Thomas Tuchel’s Bayern Munich are not in the best place right now. Tuchel’s results and records might be fantastic, with the team only having dropped ten points so far and being on course for an 85-point season, but the style of football has been drab, uninspired and simply not cohesive with Bayern Munich’s attritive philosophy. However, the Bundesliga has been graced with the presence of the best team in Europe.

Bayer Leverkusen are flying through the league right now, being unbeaten in all competitions and doing it while playing a style of football that has struck the perfect balance between gorgeous form and industrial function.

But it wasn’t the bullet that laid him to rest: Tactical incongruency and how it affects players

1. FC Köln v FC Bayern München - Bundesliga Photo by S. Mellar/FC Bayern via Getty Images

It was the low spark of high-heeled boys.

Before we get into the actual meat and potatoes of the tactical distinctions between the two teams that result in their polarising playstyles, let’s make some things very clear.

The work of Rudi Völler and Simon Rolfes in assembling the squad that Leverkusen have at their disposal cannot be overlooked. Xabi Alonso, much like FC Barcelona manager Xavi, has very distinct qualities that he requires from his players to consider them as important or even starting XI pieces in the squad. However, unlike Xavi, Alonso’s needs serve to fulfill the system’s needs rather than crafting a system out of preferred qualities, and just as importantly, Alonso had a good scouting and sporting department behind him.

Leverkusen’s squad only has one real long-term stalwart in their team, in the form of Jonathan Tah who has been at the club since 2015. Other than that, basically their entire squad was assembled in the last couple of years and they all fulfill very specific requirements in Alonso’s system. This combined with the transfers Leverkusen have made since Alonso took over show yet another level of competence in the technical department. It shows when of Leverkusen’s top performers, most of them are brand new signings. Some of these players include Jonas Hofmann, Florian Wirtz, Granit Xhaka, Victor Boniface and of course Álex Grimaldo.

On the other hand, the turmoil behind the curtain of Bayern Munich’s sporting department has caused massive issues in the recruitment sector. Furthermore and in fact most importantly, Thomas Tuchel is a coach who’s style is just not made for the squad he inherited, and it shows in Bayern’s activity in the transfer market. The players Bayern have been linked with ever since Tuchel took over have all been players who spend more time off the ball than on the ball, and the players Tuchel seems to not favour to start until injuries force his hand are all players who are comfortable keeping possession for long periods and not sitting deep without the ball.

The cases of Noussair Mazraoui and Matthijs de Ligt come to mind, as well as the initial hesitation to give Aleksandar Pavlović extended periods of time in the starting XI despite top performances. There is a clear gulf between the kinds of players Tuchel has at his disposal and the kind of football Tuchel wants to play. The primary reason Bayern have managed to keep pace with Leverkusen is through individual brilliance from some of the special talents at their disposal: Leroy Sané, Harry Kane, Min-jae Kim and Aleksandar Pavlović have been the most frequent overperformers. However, despite some individual performances being top notch, there is still an air of frustration in the Bayern squad.

While the team seems to often pull in the same direction, there are times where players are clearly not happy with their tactical situations, performing their duties with hesitation or in some cases abandoning their tactical responsibilities and instructions to try and create something themselves. But what are these actual differences in these approaches to football?

We were never the same, are you out of your mind? Tuchel’s approach compared to Alonso’s approach

FC Bayern München v Bayer 04 Leverkusen - Bundesliga Photo by Marcel Engelbrecht - firo sportphoto/Getty Images

I don’t like strings, no — no ties.

Leverkusen and Bayern are fundamentally distinct in how they approach build-up. Beyond just the fact that the teams line up in different formations with Bayern usually in a 4-2-3-1 structure and Leverkusen in a 3-4-2-1 structure, but also in how they go through the phases of play.

Bayern are focused on sitting deep and breaking with the ball. So when Bayern are asked by the game situation to build up patiently, there is a lack of direction, resulting in the dreaded U-shape. This shows as of the ten players who have registered the most touches per 90 in the Bundesliga for Bayern, nine are defenders — the only exception being Joshua Kimmich, who functions effectively as a defensive pivot (minimum 90 minutes played). In the same statistic for Leverkusen, the top ten consist of three defenders, one wing back, one Florian Wirtz (!!!) and the rest are all central midfielders.

This already shows a fundamental difference in how the teams build up, as Bayern tend to do their work in the backline and when the ball advances beyond that the players in question tend to try and rush the ball forward. Leverkusen meanwhile have an approach structured far more around their midfield, with Exequiel Palacios and Granit Xhaka both averaging over 110 touches per game. In fact, of all players in Europe’s top five leagues who have played over 90 minutes, only Manchester City’s Rodri averages more than Xhaka.

Leverkusen favour central areas and have a well-drilled midfield that know their roles and positions, advancing the ball through their array of options. Often when a Leverkusen player receives the ball they already have two if not three options going forward, and this shows a clear understanding between the players of how their positions interact. For an example of this, let’s take the case of Grimaldo. Grimaldo drops deep as almost a left full-back in the first phase of build-up, but as the ball progresses to the middle he immediately comes out to become a left wing-back near the half line before then darting diagonally inwards, inverting during the final phase of play.

This seemingly small positional interaction requires the co-operation of the defensive line to adjust for Grimaldo in the first phase, the midfielders and forwards to adjust their positions, and in the final third of the forwards who often drift wide to stretch a defender out and open space for Grimaldo. This is just one of the many mind-blowing exchanges that Leverkusen make use of, a quality that seems completely out of reach for the current Bayern Munich squad. Leverkusen, much like most top German teams of the last decade, employ an aggressive high press, which is very distinct to Bayern’s new-look mid-block.

This Bayern Munich squad is gifted with talent. Possibly the most pure talent of any team in the top five leagues. However, they are being coached by a regressive and counter-attacking coach who is trying to drill out the fundamentals of these players who have been born and bred in fluid possession-based systems. Bayern under Tuchel favour the wings far more than the centre, almost always resorting to the full-backs to actually progress the ball forward rather than being able to play through a team’s press vertically. This is an inherently ‘safer’ way to go about things, and it shows in Bayern’s raised defensive statistics as they are conceding less goals than before, but it leaves Bayern unable to utilise the centre of the pitch, something they were masters of just one year ago.

Tuchel’s system relies on speed more than anything else, rapid-fire transitions from defending to attacking, rather than a structured possession-based system where the team methodically breaks down a team. This shows in pretty much all of the games where Bayern are facing a team that sits back in a low block, as the players simply do not know what to do when faced with a team that doesn’t come out of their own half — often resulting in Bayern’s opening goal coming from a set piece, and then later goals coming on the break because the opposition tried to level things. It puts Bayern in a strange position: they seem to rely on the system not failing miserably enough to off-set the individual quality against teams that sit deep, but perform better against teams that take the initiative on the ball.

Try and keep your trousers on: How these systems interact

FC Bayern München v Bayer 04 Leverkusen - Bundesliga Photo by Marcel Engelbrecht - firo sportphoto/Getty Images

You should know you’re his favourite worst nightmare.

There’s no doubt that on a performance level as a team and on a tactical level that Bayer Leverkusen are far superior to Bayern Munich right now. However, ‘superiority’ doesn’t guarantee a result. If it did, there wouldn’t be much point to the sport, would there?

Leverkusen are exactly the kind of team that Tuchel wants to set up for. Bayern will sit deep, hoard space in their own penalty box, and look to punish defenses on the break. This plays into Leverkusen’s style of play, which often consists of pushing players into advanced positions while keeping the ball moving.

However, Bayern will have problems on their hands if this is the only approach, as Leverkusen have shown the ability to adapt game-by-game to situations where there seem to be structural issues — most notably the ever-changing position of Jeremie Frimpong, who has played everywhere from as a defensive full-back to an out-and-out winger. Leverkusen on the ball often advance while keeping their shape fluid, but the centre-backs and deepest midfielder do not participate in the positional rotations, creating a solid defensive core in case of turnovers which will make counter-attacks difficult to execute.

Leverkusen’s fluidity in positioning is also a problem for Bayern’s defense, as they have shown poor marking abilities in their defensive line as well as poor defending in one-versus-one situations out wide — this has been somewhat remedied with the addition of Sacha Boey and the shifting of Raphaël Guerreiro from midfield to left-back, but it still remains to be seen if they can cope with a high level attack. Leverkusen’s tendency to make positional changes in between the lines and in the half-spaces is yet another troublesome factor, as Bayern have repeatedly shown poor defense of the space between the lines, with the midfield double pivot often leaving too much space in between them and the defensive line or in some cases even just slacking off in marking players in their zones.

For particular players to look out for, we are most likely in for excellent games from Jonas Hofmann and Florian Wirtz, who are particularly adept at finding pockets of space in advanced areas, as well as having the game intelligence to apply Alonso’s positional principles to create situations more hand-crafted to exploit Bayern’s weaknesses defending wide attacks and structural uncertainty between the lines.

On Bayern’s side, the uncertainty of what the starting XI is going to look like makes it difficult to point out ones to watch, but Aleksandar Pavlović is going to be particularly key to Bayern as no player in the backline or midfield is as press-resistant as him, and he has made a habit of making himself available for a pass at a moment’s notice to anyone on the pitch, making him a great foil for Leverkusen’s high press and for Bayern’s build-up as Leverkusen excel at defending wide attacks and Bayern’s attacks have been almost exclusively focused down the wings, requiring new solutions — particularly from the midfield who have been painfully unproductive throughout the season.

Gut feelings might sway one to say this is a Bayern Munich win looking at how Bayern have managed to win games where they were simply not in control, but Leverkusen’s entire system seems far too competent to go an entire game unrewarded.

It is a match that has massive ramifications for the title race, and there is perhaps no match-up that is more exciting in world football than this. What do you think will happen in the Bayern-Leverkusen match? Do you think Bayern can overcome the relentless Leverkusen title push? Let us know in the discussion below.


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