Analyst Lee Scott (@FMAnalysis) joins These Football Times to break down the biggest tactical battles of the season from around Europe. Providing coverage of key games throughout 2016-17 campaign, join him this week as he looks at the titanic clash in Bundesliga week one between Gladbach and Leverkusen.
Last season the race for the Bundesliga title was a foregone conclusion for the majority of the campaign. Bayern Munich pulled away from their closest challengers early on and the gap only increased from there.
The true intrigue in the Bundesliga season occurred at the bottom of the table in the relegation fight and more pertinently in the battle to qualify for European competition. While Bayern and Borussia Dortmund occupied the top two spots in the league and qualified automatically for the Champions League, the competition for the remaining places for the top four was more fierce.
In the end, Bayer Leverkusen and Borussia Mönchengladbach secured Champions League qualification with the former in third place and the latter in fourth. Each side suffered periods of prolonged inconsistency throughout the campaign; indeed, Gladbach started the 2014-15 season so poorly that they parted company with popular coach Lucien Favre after a handful of matches.
The internal appointment of André Schubert provided stability and ensured that Gladbach continued their run of impressive league finishes.
That the Bundesliga fixture computer offered us this fixture in week one would allow us to see the changes and development put in place by both sides over the summer break.
Gladbach had already experienced competitive football having come through a qualifying round in the Champions League against Young Boys of Switzerland. Interestingly, the second qualifying match – and indeed this one – saw Schubert opt for a back three with a 3-4-1-2 system.
The dynamic youngster Mahmoud Dahoud was left on the bench but there was still a fluid look to the Gladbach selection. Schubert chose to use André Hahn as a second striker alongside the dangerous Raffael. Hahn is a difficult player to contain for any side given his pace and willingness to continually attack pockets of space. He operated largely on the right-hand side, combining with the equally quick Ibrahima Traoré.
Leverkusen were without their prolific Mexican international striker Javier Hernández but were still strong with new signings Kevin Volland from Hoffenheim and Julien Baumgartlinger from Mainz slotting straight into the starting lineup.
Leverkusen press relentlessly
Roger Schmidt is one of the most highly regarded young coaches in Europe and his sides are famed for their relentless high energy pressing style. This style of play first became evident during the time spent by Schmidt as the head coach of Austrian side Red Bull Salzburg.
Setting up in a 4-2-2-2 system with the two attacking midfielders sitting in a narrow positional slot, the entire system was built to react to the first press in any defensive moment. This season we seem to be seeing a similar approach, although this may change when Chicharito returns to full fitness.
The key to the pressing system for Leverkusen is their willingness to commit four attacking players in the initial press with two more supporting from a deeper position to prevent the short pass through the first pressing line.
Whilst the initial pressing line from Leverkusen in this example is not particularly high, they are positioned in such a way to cover the passing lanes into the space behind the line.
Against the three at the back system being utilised by Gladbach this pressing structure was extremely effective in the early stages of the match. The ball could be cycled between any of the three defensive players but then any passes through to connect with their central midfield team-mates were covered by Leverkusen players.
The structure of the Gladbach system was designed to allow the wingbacks to push into advanced positions when building up play from the back with the ball meant to circulate from defence to midfield and then either out to the wide areas of into the final third.
This build-up method was rendered ineffectual by the way that Leverkusen applied pressure to the man in possession.
Again we can see the positional superiority of Leverkusen as Gladbach look to build up through their defensive third.
On this occasion, Oscar Wendt is in a deeper position in the left wing-back role and there is the potential for the ball to be switched out to him and for him to progress play up the field. The spacing across the pitch of the Leverkusen players, however, means that they can adapt and shift their focus very quickly.
If the ball is played into the left centre-back with the intention of switching across to Wendt then the pressing structure will move across with the far side player covering the pass wide and his central team-mate pressing the left centre-back in possession.
Leverkusen clever in possession
The structure of the Leverkusen side also led to some interesting darts of movement and interplay both in their defensive third and in the attacking third of the pitch.
Leverkusen were not the only side to favour a high defensive block and high pressing in this match and Gladbach did their best to prevent the away side from building any meaningful attacking play from the back.
In this instance, I’ve chosen to highlight how proficient Leverkusen – any especially keeper Bernd Leno – were at bypassing the line of pressure and creating opportunities for their team-mates to advance with the ball. Leno is looking for a way through the defensive block. Just before this image was captured he had played a simple pass out to his left-sided centre-back and received the ball straight back.
There are times that these passing movements can seem to be pointless and simply possession for possession sake. In this instance, however, the two passes have shifted the near side of the defensive block over as Gladbach look to react to the first pass out to the centre-half.
This simple movement has created a passing lane down the middle of the field. When Leno plays the pass through he plays it into the fourth receiving line and he bypasses three pressing players. The man taking possession in the centre can then turn and advance up the field or look for the next vertical pass.
In this example, the positions taken up by Kevin Kampl (left attacking midfielder) and Wendell (left-back) are of particular interest. Kampl has moved into an extremely high and wide zone on the pitch while Wendell has picked up possession and moved into the left-hand half space.
While the right wing-back (Traoré) has advanced to engage Wendell in possession, it has forced the right-sided centre-back of the three to move out of position to account for the danger of Kampl. As soon as he cheats out to the wide area a passing lane is created between the central defender and the right-sided central defender.
All it takes is for the attacking player to make a simple out and in movement into the gap and for Wendell to find the through ball for a chance to penetrate the defence’s penalty area.
Again we see Leverkusen in comfortable possession of the ball. On this occasion Leverkusen are in an established attacking pattern and the Gladbach defensive block has dropped deep into a low and passive zone.
The narrow positioning of the front four for Leverkusen forces Gladbach to congest the central areas and, as a result, this empties space for Leverkusen in the wide areas.
In this instance, the key is the timing and the speed of the delayed run from Wendell in the left-back slot. This interplay was a key component of the attacking strategy from Leverkusen, with Wendell and Kampl working closely together to create pockets of space for one another in the attacking transition.
Gladbach counter at speed
One of the keys for Gladbach in winning this match 2-1 was the dynamism and the pace that they were able to display in quick transitions on the occasions that they were able to bypass the press from Leverkusen.
Players like Raffael, Traoré and Hahn, in particular, are extremely adept at finding weak points in the opposition’s defensive structure and attacking them.
A clever turn in tight space from the man in possession has allowed him to bypass the defensive press and opened up space in the attacking third. The key in situations like this and when facing teams that are aggressive in their approach to pressing is to take full advantage of the spaces left behind whenever you get a chance.
The 3-4-1-2 system from Gladbach is perfect in this regard. The only issue is bypassing the press in the first instance as the central attacking midfielder can act as a hook or pivot around which the more dynamic players can rotate.
In the photo above, the man in possession immediately has support from two players running at different angles and looking to stretch and open the defensive unit.
Above, the attacking midfielder (Lars Stindl) has taken possession of the ball via a simple vertical pass that has found him sitting in a pocket of space. This time, his two forwards are man-on-man against defensive opponents and, when Stindl turns, then Gladbach will have numerical superiority in the final third.
As both attacking players look to initially split off towards the corner of the Leverkusen box, then Stindl has the option of playing a pass to either side or trying to carry the ball vertically to force one of the defending players to engage him.
Even at this early stage of the domestic season, this match encompassed all that is great about the Bundesliga. Both sides were attacking and inventive with the ball and relentless in their attempts to win it back. There were enough moments of both individual and collective quality to suggest that both sides will be challenging again this season at the top of the table.
Where Leverkusen will fit the prolific Javier Hernández into this starting line-up remains to be seen although he will without a doubt give them a more potent attacking edge.
By Lee Scott. Follow @FMAnalysis