Most news about Leverkusen nowadays usually involves updates on Michael Ballack’s latest injury and whether the veteran has any possibility of reclaiming his spot on the National team. Amidst that, Leverkusen’s impressive season is often glossed over. Jupp Heynckes has turned der Werkself into arguably the most consistent team in the league and if it wasn’t for Dortmund’s historic season Leverkusen would surely be regarded as the primary title contender. Leverkusen came into this game on the back of an impressive 4-0 win in the Europa League and with Bayern’s win the day before they needed to get the 3 points to keep up with the pack and stay on course for a Champions League spot. Heynckes fielded his preferred 4-2-3-1 again with Kiessling spearheading the attack instead of Derdiyok.
Stuttgart’s fortunes are less favorable. They lost an early lead and eventually the game against Benfica in the Europa League midweek and are also battling relegation domestically. Bruno Labbadia has been appointed as the proverbial savior-in-chief and is in desperate need of points if Stuttgart are to stay up. Labbadia fielded a more conservative line up than last week’s 4-1-3-2, starting Boulahrouz, Cacau and giving Japanese international Okazaki his Bundesliga debut. Player for player, it was identical to Levekusen’s formation.
Ping Pong football
The tempo and back and forth action of this game was a good advertisement for the Bundesliga and its brand of football. Both teams clearly showed up to play and were eager to find the most direct route to goal as possible. Cacau had his first chance after 3 minutes but Adler was up to it. Kiessling opened the account with his 66th career goal in his 200th Bundesliga appearance just 3 minutes later after Sam sent in a cross from the right that Castro scoffed and Kiessling pounced on. Credit to Stuttgart though for not sitting back as they equalized just 10 minutes later. Hyypia stepped out of his backline and allowed Hajnal to set up Harnik with a brilliant through ball, which the Austrian striker buried in the bottom right corner. The action continued and Leverkusen took advantage when Kadlec found enough space on the left to cross the ball to an oncoming Castro.
The 2nd half continued in similar fashion and it was not long before Stuttgart equalized yet again. Schwaab and Vidal were having disappointing matches and as a result Molinaro was able to get into space and set up Kuzmanovic for a wicked shot from 30 meters out. Stuttgart picked up their game from then on and gained more momentum until Heynckes replaced Vidal and Rolfes and brought on a second striker in Derdiyok. Labbadia made changes of his own, bringing on defender Niedermeier and attacker Gebhart for Harnik and Okazaki, making his shape much more defensive. Instead of halting Levekrusen’s pressure it effectively put them on the back foot and allowed Leverkusen to score two goals in the last 10 minutes of the match. The first came off a corner earned by a seering Sam run down the right, finished by Reinartz. Sam was also involved in the second. Seeking a third equalizer, Stuttgart pushed up towards the end of the match, leaving room for Sam to exploit on the counter. After a brilliant run the young winger set up Kiessling who scored his second of the day.
Substitutions alter course of the match
Heynckes noticed that Rolfes was increasingly losing his grip on the game while Vidal struggled in an unusually quiet game from him. In a risky yet brave decision, Heynckes decided to alter his entire central midfield. Sometimes this can backfire but the game was tied and he needed to regain the momentum he lost after Stuttgart’s second goal. Ballack and Bender replaced Rolfes and Vidal respectively. Both players had a significant impact and Leverkusen slowly started to regain control of the match around the hour mark and had as much as 85% possession thanks to Heynckes’s changes. Leverkusen’s passing also improved tremendously. Vidal, one of the league’s better performers so far, uncharacteristically gave the ball away one too many times. His proclivity to cover a lot of ground backfired this time around as he left Rolfes isolated and without cover.
Changing to a midfield rhombus basically opened up the channels for Castro and Kadlec to exploit. Leverkusen’s fullbacks were now the primary providers of width while their midfield was outnumbering Stuttgart’s without taking away from their dual strikers. Ballack and Bender dropped back to cut out the threat of Stuttgart’s attack while Sam and Augusto more than occupied Kuzmanovic, Traesch and Niedermeier.
Labbadia did well to motivate his team prior to kickoff. Stuttgart got back into the game after going down twice and never let Leverkusen’s goals deter them but Labbadia made crucial errors that effectively cost him the match.
Instead of being proactive, Labbadia decided to protect the draw. As a result, he introduced the defender Niedermeier. The logic was that Niedermeier would help Tasci and Delpierre against both Leverkusen strikers but it detracted from their midfield and the attacking impetus Harnik produced throughout the match. Labbadia also removed Okazaki around the hour mark. Before that Stuttgart had the lions share of possession but now they were outnumbered in midfield and could no longer get the ball up to their attackers. The formation was now rather disjointed and lacked the fluidity that was evidenced up to that point in the match. It was neither effective defensively or offensively and created a giant gap between defense and attack that was ripe for picking.
The substitutions slowly turned the tide and handed Leverkusen control of the game. After Leverkusen’s third goal Stuttgart became desperate for another equalizer and pushed up. By doing that they exposed their new shape even more and made it rather easy for Leverkusen to score their fourth.
Despite losing the match late on, Stuttgart played arguably their best game of the season. They looked motivated and willing to get forward. Labbadia’s interchangeable front four of Cacau, Okazaki, Hajnal and Harnik has enough creativity and workrate to trouble most defenses in the league and could be a good solution going forward. On this day however he was outsmarted by Heynckes. The Leverkusen manager made fantastic use of all three substitutions. Rather than waiting around, Heynckes took initiative and made the necessary tactical adjustments. It might have been risky but Leverkusen showed that they have the personnel, ability and manager to rightfully claim a Champions League spot this season
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