Heading into the second week of the 2016-17 Bundesliga campaign, we saw last year’s third-placed team Bayer Leverkusen take on mid-table Hamburger SV. The opening week saw Roger Schmidt’s Leverkusen side go down to a hard-working Gladbach in a 2-1 defeat, while Bruno Labbadia’s much changed Hamburg drew 1-1 at the Volksparkstadion to last season’s surprise package, Ingolstadt.
Leverkusen: (4-2-4) Leno – Henrichs, Tah, Toprak, Wendell (Jedvaj 88′) – Kampl, Bender – Bellarabi (Brandt 3’), Çalhanoğlu, Mehmedi (Pohjanpalo 72′) – Chicharito
Hamburg: (4-2-3-1) Adler – Sakai, Spahić, Cleber, Ostrzolek – Holtby (Ekdal 66’), Hunt – Müller, Gregoritsch, Kostić (Halilović 86′) – Wood (Lasogga 81′)
With an upcoming Champions League fixture in mid-week, Leverkusen were glad to see the return of Mexican forward Chicharito as he looks to have recovered from a hand injury.
Johan Djourou and Pierre-Michel Lasogga were the noticeable misses for Hamburg, with the latter being replaced by American forward Bobby Wood who scored in the away side’s opening fixture of the season after completing his £3 million move from 2. Bundesliga side Union Berlin. Djourou, on the other hand, was out of the squad with injury and was replaced by Emir Spahić. Former Tottenham man Lewis Holtby made a return to the starting line-up too.
Hamburg forwards press high
Leverkusen’s last match, against Borussia Mönchengladbach, saw the side consistently bypass the first line of pressure in order to create opportunities for the players further up the pitch. However, it seems that Hamburg were fully aware of this coming into the game and early on they looked to cut off the creativity at the base of the team.
The method we saw applied in the match against Gladbach was that Bernd Leno would play one-twos with his central defenders before playing the ball through the gaps in the pressure; however, in only the second minute, we saw a high-pressing attempt from Hamburg completely catch the home side off-guard. Running in from the left, Wood was able to pressure Leno, who was ultimately left with no option in the short range. An attempt to scramble the ball clear saw it tackled out for a Leverkusen throw-in, but the early pressure was there from the away side.
This high-pressing from the Hamburg forwards was seen throughout the match as Bernd Leno was again put under pressure while all the short options were covered by the cleverly positioned Hamburg players. The game plan saw results early on as Leverkusen were often forced to play the ball long, a game style that suited Hamburg.
Leverkusen apply similar pressure
Although Hamburg often opted to play long from the back, there were occasions where the away side tried their arm at building up from the back. Sadly for them, however, Leverkusen were far too clever and able to throw bodies at the receiving players with pace and direction.
In the image above, we can see how much Hamburg attempted to stretch their own back-line in order to draw players wider for the short passes, but this approach rarely yielded results with the system of Leverkusen proving to be the perfect counteraction for the short-passing approach.
Hamburg happy to sit deep
While the Hamburg forwards were relentless in preventing Leno from starting attacks from the back, the away side were much more reluctant to press high up the pitch from other areas.
This image shows Kevin Kampl picking the ball up in the wide position following a throw-in, and you can see the amount of space that Hamburg are allowing him. The two forward players, Wood and Kostić, are happy to sit around the centre circle while the rest of the defensive outlet is camped within their own half.
It’s also evident from the match that Hamburg were trying to prevent Leverkusen from playing through the central areas of the field, as the likes of Çalhanoğlu and Chicharito are influential players when on the ball, and the narrow approach taken by Hamburg didn’t allow an opportunity for these players to shine. While crosses into the box are always dangerous, Hamburg were clearly confident in their defensive ability as they often allowed their opponents to switch the play and play wide, but rarely through the middle.
This moment in the game occurred during the second half, and it’s clear that Hamburg’s narrow defensive structure was still evident throughout the game. In this image, Hamburg are effectively sitting with two banks of four behind the ball as Leverkusen proceed into the final third. Again, the central players are well covered and the only real option for Kampl is to play the ball down the left, although the pass to that area is well covered with the right-back being prepared to move across if the first line of defence is breached.
This structure was maintained throughout the match and began to frustrate Leverkusen as they often took shots from long-range in an attempt to break the duck on the scoreline. It was excellent coaching from a Hamburg perspective and a well-executed game plan up to this point.
Leverkusen break with speed
While Hamburg were responsible for the majority of the counter-attacking football, there were occasions where they were caught off-guard while pushing bodies forwards.
An intercepted throw-in in the Leverkusen half saw the home side break with the ball, which eventually found Kampl, who was an influential figure all match. The pace at which the ball was switched from right to left saw an overload on that side of the pitch with Mehmedi and Wendell free to run into dangerous areas. This caused yet more problems for Hamburg as the shift from left to right in the defensive block also allowed space down the left side for the attacking figures to run in to; an all-around nightmare for any side in that position. Leverkusen had countered with sublime pace.
Once again, the home side broke quickly from a Hamburg attack and, while the away side were well structured in the middle, there were moments when the central lines were breached by the skill and quality in the Leverkusen side.
In the above picture, Çalhanoğlu was able to execute a deft touch and turn to create space while escaping three Hamburg midfielders. After creating this space, the defensive block was caught off-guard and left gaps both inside and outside that were able to be exploited by the brilliance of Çalhanoğlu’s vision. Luckily for the away side, the ball to Mehmedi was flagged for offside, but giving a side like Leverkusen this many opportunities would inevitably result in goals.
Leverkusen’s defensive troubles
While Leverkusen looked dangerous on the attack, there were times when they committed too many bodies forward in search of a goal and were caught off-guard by the opposition.
In this image, we can see eight Leverkusen bodies being committed to the attacking phase of play and, while in possession this worked well for them as they were outnumbering their opponents, when they lost the ball it caused problems at the back against a side who often enjoyed passing forward quickly.
With all four of the attacking players being drawn to central areas of the pitch, the wide areas were left exposed time and again.
This next image immediately follows on from Hamburg winning the ball back; you can see in the centre that the midfield triangle wasn’t able to recover in time allowing Hamburg to create an overload on the other side of the pitch. The ball from Gregoritsch ended up at the feet of Bobby Wood, and with the defensive line failing to step up in time, it was left to Bernd Leno to sweep up the danger. He was unable to do this and the deadlock was broken by the away side. It was a naive period of play from Schmidt’s side.
Pohjanpalo the saviour
Although the home side attacked constantly throughout the game, they were unable to find the breakthrough until the 79th minute, with the introduction of Joel Pohjanpalo adding a new dimension.
While Chicharito and Mehmedi were sporadically effective, neither was found inside the box by the creative players within the Leverkusen ranks. This, however, changed during the last period of the game. Pohjanpalo, the lone scorer for Leverkusen against Gladbach, proved to be a super-sub once again, with the Finnish forward netting a 15-minute hat-trick to throw the game into Leverkusen’s favour.
Leverkusen had been creating overloads all game but the final ball into the box wasn’t of the required quality or the players trying to get on the end of them had made poor runs. However, Pohjanpalo was happy to stay on the open side, unmarked and ready to strike.
In this occasion, the hat-trick goal, a one-two between Julian Brandt and Chicharito saw the Mexican burst towards the near post of the Hamburg box. A delightful chip to the back post saw the sub net his third of the game with a simple back-post header, with Adler being drawn to the other side of the goal. This fox-in-the-box style of play was what Leverkusen had lacked throughout.
Credit: Sky Sports
The image above shows just how pass-oriented each team was throughout the majority of the match. Leverkusen adopted a much more possession-based style of play with the full-backs marauding down the sides of the pitch. Çalhanoğlu was the influential figure in terms of passes, with the Turkish international spreading the play all over the pitch with a dominant performance reflective of Leverkusen’s play.
Hamburg, on the other hand, were at times uninspiring, with Bobby Wood their main man. The direct, long-ball style of play saw him finish as the player with the most passes while holding the ball up, with the full-backs receiving possession far less often than Leverkusen’s.
Considering this is only the second week of the league campaign, there are already signs of the intent laid out by both sides. Hamburg, who have suffered years of last-gasp relegation survivals, looked far more intense in the attacking half, with the side looking to exploit the pace of Bobby Wood. Defensively they looked well organised and denied a strong Leverkusen on a number of occasions through intelligent positioning and structure.
Leverkusen look like a side that will once again be competing for the top positions. Roger Schmidt’s team were often strong in defence – bar the odd individual naivety – and pressed the opposition well for 90 minutes in an attempt to win back possession high up the pitch. In the attacking half, the sheer speed at which they attacked the opposition was a terrifying sight; they craftily exploited weaknesses and created overloads, which will no doubt lead to many goals over the course of the campaign.
By Alexander Werrett. Follow @WerrettFM