Bayer Leverkusen hosted Schalke this weekend in the Bundesliga, in what was a “six-pointer” game. Despite an even share of possession, Bayer had by far the better chances and came out as 2-1 winners, despite a manic final 10 minutes. This tactical analysis looks at the tactics used by both Peter Bosz and David Wagner as their sides battled it out.
Bosz fielded an attacking 4-4-1-1 with Kai Havertz playing behind Lucas Alario. Leon Bailey and Karim Bellarabi manned the wings, whilst Julian Baumgartlinger and Charles Aránguiz played in central midfield. The back four was comprised of Wendell and Lars Bender in the full-back positions, Sven Bender and Aleksandar Dragović were paired in central-defence, whilst Lukáš Hrádecký was in goal.
Schalke fielded a 4-3-1-2 with Guido Burgstaller pairing Benito Raman in the forward line, with Amine Harit sitting just behind them. There was little width in Schalke’s team (they attempted just three crosses over the course of the game), and they played a central midfield three comprising of Omar Mascarell at the heart, with Daniel Caliguiri and Suat Serdar either side. In defence Jonjoe Kenny and Bastian Oczipka were in the full-back positions with Winston McKennie and Ozan Kabak sitting at centre-back in front of goalkeeper Alexander Nübel.
Schalke’s buildup play
Schalke were disappointing, with little imagination or innovation in their passing game, and they struggled to impose themselves on Leverkusen. Their attacking play was stifled by Leverkusen’s defensive efforts, and it was only once Leverkusen had momentarily switched off following their second goal that Harit was finally able to find space on the ball before playing a killer pass opening up the host’s defence.
Wagner looked to have his side build patiently from the back, with Mascarell dropping deep in between the centre-backs to receive the ball and orchestrate the play.
By doing so, Mascarell is able to allow Schalke to stretch the pitch with both full-backs anchoring each flank. The width provided by Kenny and Oczipka allowed space for Raman to drop into the middle and create a central three. If Leverkusen stayed compact, as the above image shows, then Mascarell would look to start Schalke’s attacks on the wings with the two full-backs.
Mascarell was important in helping Schalke get past Leverkusen’s high press, with his deep positioning allowing Schalke to play through the press. Leverkusen’s front three often looked to prevent Schalke from playing wide, and would press with a curved inward run from a wide area.
The image below shows this as Bellerabi curves his run inside to stop the pass to Oczipka.
However, with Mascarell sitting so deep his is able to drop between Bellarabi and Alario, receive the ball, and still work the ball out to the flank.
Bayer pressed high throughout the game, and in both halves recorded a 6.3 PPDA.
Both Havertz and Bellarabi would push high to support Alario in the press with their fluid defensive structure loosely resembling a 3-4-3, at least it was when Schalke’s centre-backs were in possession at the back.
Bailey, however, dropped deep to counter the threat of either Kenny or Harit receiving the ball. By standing in the half-space, Bailey is able to nullify the threat of either player receiving directly from Nübel. Throughout the game, Bailey was tasked with dropping deep to help support Wendell defensively, far more than Bellarabi dropped to do the same with Lars Bender.
Leverkusen clearly identified the right-side as Schalke’s favoured area to attack from, and the graph below of Schalke’s positional attacks from the game supports this, with 77% of them coming from this side.
Schalke looked to spread wide when playing out so Leverkusen looked to encourage them to play centrally, setting traps to win the ball back.
As mentioned earlier, one way to encourage them to play centrally was the curved inward runs of the outermost players in their front three when pressing.
Leverkusen were an organised unit defensively and pressed together to prevent Schalke from getting comfortable on the ball. We can see below how they protect the central areas with plenty of players around the ball, and as the ball is played out to the left-back they shift together. We can also see how Leon Biley once again drops deep, to protect Leverkusen from the switch as well as remain close to Wendell.
By having these players so close together they were able to set traps by creating passing lanes for Schalke to play centrally.
The analysis below shows how Caligiuri has plenty of space to receive centrally despite Schalke being in a relatively advanced area of the pitch. At this point Leverkusen are very narrow and compact.
As the pass is played, Caligiuri is immediately swarmed by Leverkusen defenders from three different directions.
By allowing the passes inside, and pressing so intensely once they had been received, it stopped Schalke gaining any momentum in attack, with so many of their attacks broken down before they could get any more advanced. It often forced Schalke into playing long balls in order to get the ball into the forward line, which caused Leverkusen few problems. Schalke’s long pass completion percentage was a disappointing 44%.
A difference in quality
There was little difference in the share of possession between both sides, with Leverkusen having the majority of possession in the first half, and Schalke having more in the second.
Yet despite this equal share of the ball, Leverkusen were far more potent and purposeful on the ball, and this made the difference.
The analysis of both sides possession below is eye-opening.
Firstly in regards to how equal the game was in terms of possession, it also shows very little difference between the sides in terms of pure possession time, as well as in the number of possessions.
Schalke’s more reserved approach in possession allowed Leverkusen time to get players behind the ball, stay organized, and press with intensity.
In doing so it meant that many of Leverkusen’s attacks came from winning the ball back and subsequently their attacks were fast and purposeful. Despite more time on the ball, and a greater number of possessions, the home side actually averaged a second less than their opponents in terms of average possession duration. Schalke were less organized as Leverkusen transitioned so quickly from defence to attack, with the pace of both Bailey and Bellarabi key in doing this. Leverkusen ended the game having had 18 shots – Schalke managed just four.
What is particularly telling is the quality of each sides possessions. Percentage-wise, Schalke were competitive with Leverkusen in possession reaching opponent half, with 51% and 55% respectively. Yet only 4% of Schalke’s attacks reached the Leverkusen box, whereas 18% of Leverkusen’s possessions reached the Schalke box. That is a huge difference and would go some way to explaining the disparity between the shots on goal of both teams, despite similar possession statistics.
It wasn’t just quick counter-attacking football that helped Leverkusen penetrate the Schalke box more frequently.
Havertz drifted from flank to flank, operating in the half-spaces or between the lines. In doing so he created passing lanes for himself and other teammates and was so often able to receive the ball without immediate pressure.
It wasn’t just his own movement that caused this to happen, however. Both Baumgartlinger and Aránguiz played intelligently by dropping deep and creating huge gaps in the midfield for Havertz to drop into and receive. Leverkusen’s two central-midfielders would play close to their defence in buildup play, inviting Schalke’s press onto them, as we can see below.
It is Aránguiz’s movement in particular in this case that allows Leverkusen to play through the lines so effectively. As he receives the ball from Lars Bender he immediately plays the pass into the space without scanning, knowing Havertz will move into the area. As soon as this pass is played he spins and supports, receiving the ball again, however, with Schalke’s midfield now no longer in front of him.
This was a vital win for Leverkusen. A loss here could potentially have separated them a little too far from the title-chasing group, but instead they find themselves level on points with Schalke, and still only two wins behind Borussia Mönchengladbach.
Schalke will be disappointed with their performance, but there is no doubt that there will be others taking note of this game, and particularly of Leverkusen’s defensive structure, as a way to stop them in the future.
Nevertheless, Schalke are still very much in the mix near the top of the table but with their next five games against being against Wolfsburg, Frankfurt, Freiburg, Mönchengladbach and Bayern, we will soon know whether they’re likely to be there come the end of the season.
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