Adrian Sertl takes you through Leverkusen’s Hinrunde.
A 3-0 home defeat at the hands of lowly Nürnberg on the last match day of the 2011-2012 Hinrunde appears to speak volumes about how Bayer Leverkusen’s season has gone thus far. The loss meant that after 17 matches their record stood at 7-5-5, good for 6th position in the Bundesliga and a qualification round spot for the 2012-2013 Europa League. While this shouldn’t be classified as a disaster by any means, the reality is that Leverkusen hasn’t lived up to the lofty expectations held by the club and, perhaps more importantly, the supporters. The following is how the tale unfolds.
A Case for Optimism?
The end of the 2010-2011 Bundesliga campaign saw Bayer Leverkusen occupy an all too familiar spot, at least in recent times, in the league table. ‘Vizekusen’, as they are sometimes known, finished 2nd in the league 7 points behind the gold and black buzz saw called Borussia Dortmund but 3 points ahead of the perennial title favourites F.C. Bayern München. The nickname is sometimes used with a tone of mockery as a few of these 2nd place finishes have coincided with some form of fantastic late season collapse, most notably in 2000 and 2002. This time however 2nd place appeared to be earned and was not merely a championship lost.
A valiant effort by Die Werkself in last season’s Rückrunde, going 11-2-4 over the last half of the season, saw Bayer Leverkusen maintain a tight grip on the 2nd spot in the table, and were even within 5 points of catching Dortmund on both match day 29 and 31 when a 2-0 home loss to F.C. Köln sealed the title for BvB. A victory on the final day of the season cemented the team’s table position and assured them of Champions League football as it was the aforementioned Bayern that would require qualification to the group stage; all in all things appeared to be going rather well for Bayer heading into the 2011-2012 Bundesliga season, but they were going to need to go about it with a new manager.
When Bayern München parted ways with manager Louis Van Gaal in March of 2011 they had already decided that the only man they wanted for the job was Jupp Heynckes. Heynckes, the then manager of Bayer Leverkusen, decided against renewing his contract with Bayer which was set to expire at the end of the current season so it could be easily deduced that his intention was to head back south to join the Bavarian giants. Seeing that the writing was on the wall, Messrs Holzhäuser, Völler and Co. wasted very little time naming SC Freiburg’s Robin Dutt as Heynckes’ replacement. While he didn’t possess much in the way of top flight managerial experience, Dutt’s tenure with Freiburg could generally be seen as successful; after joining Freiburg in the summer of 2007 he led them to promotion, and a 2-Bundesliga title, in his 2nd full season. He managed not only to keep Freiburg in the top flight but also made them into somewhat of a competitive side. The Leverkusen faithful were hopeful that this infusion of new blood could take the squad to the summit of the Bundesliga. But as one looks back at the Hinrunde as a whole you can’t help but notice that things haven’t exactly gone to plan. Why?
Key Departures, the Injury Bug, and Consistently Inconsistent
Replacing a coach of Jupp Heynckes’ quality, character, and experience was always going to be difficult; he is generally regarded as a likeable manager that gets along fairly well with his players. A former striker himself he emphasizes an aggressive mentality on the pitch that is intended to produce scoring opportunities, shots on target, and ultimately goals. During his 2 year tenure Leverkusen were at or near the top of the league in shots on target and goals for; they are currently in the middle of the pack in both of those statistics this season. While it is the job of the players to actually put the ball into the net, the importance of having a coach that instils this mentality in his squad cannot be overlooked.
Not only did they lose Heynckes to Bayern, but midfielder Toni Kroos also returned to Munich after his 18 month loan was up, taking with him his playmaking abilities and quality on delivering from set pieces. Experienced Finnish international centre back Sami Hyypiä was lost to retirement along with his stabilizing influence at the back and his prowess at both defending and attacking set pieces. But the key loss came not in the form of Hanno Balitsch’s move to Nürnberg this winter (though his experience and positional diversity will be missed) but in Arturo Vidal’s move to Juventus.
The Chilean midfielder was Leverkusen’s standout player of last season. Not only did he lead his club with 10 goals and 11 assists, but was also very important to his side without the ball as he was one of league’s best in terms of tackles and interceptions per game. It also comes as no coincidence that he was also the player who suffered the most fouls against in the entire league as teams had no other option but to focus their attention on the midfield maestro. Unsurprisingly Vidal’s outstanding play attracted significant interest from large clubs both domestic and abroad and it appeared a foregone conclusion that Vidal would depart the BayArena. Vidal was sold to Juventus for a fee of 12.5 million Euros rather than lose him to league rivals Bayern, and so far there has been no one on the current squad able to replicate what Vidal brought to the club (more on that later).
Injuries to key players have also contributed to Leverkusen’s average Hinrunde. Neither first choice goalkeeper Rene Adler nor Swiss midfielder Tranquillo Barnetta have seen the pitch at all this season as the pair of them are recovering from long term knee injuries; Barnetta has been out for an entire calendar year. In addition Brazilian attacking midfielder Renato Augusto suffered (what else?) a knee injury and has been out of action since October with no concrete return date expected soon. To make matters worse number 2 goalkeeper Fabian Giefer was concussed in the first match of the season against Mainz. While he managed to finish the game he has yet to play again this season (more on that later as well). It is difficult to downplay the effect the injuries have had on already the smallest squad of the league (23 senior team players at last count), but it is then up to the manager to make the necessary preparations to overcome these inevitable setbacks. As we will investigate, the results have been inconsistent at best.
For the most part Leverkusen’s Hinrunde results have been somewhat of a mixed bag. The season started off with a shock exit in the first round of the DFB Pokal courtesy of a 4-3 loss in extra time away to 2-Bundesliga newcomers Dynamo Dresden. A week later in their Bundesliga opener Leverkusen were dispatched 2-0 away to Mainz before embarking on a 4 match unbeaten streak which included a pair of 1-0 wins over Werder Bremen (home) and Stuttgart (away), a well earned draw at home to reigning champions Borussia Dortmund, and finished off with a 4-1 away thumping of newly promoted Augsburg.
This momentum was short lived as Leverkusen was battered, in a very poor showing at home no less, 4-1 by Rhineland rivals Köln. Their losing ways were to find no respite 7 days later as they were swept away with relative ease 3-0 away to Bayern, who were, in fairness, mowing down all opposition at the beginning of the season. A brief return to the win column via a 3-1 victory at home to woeful Wolfsburg, featuring a true traumtor by Eren Derdiyok (seriously if you haven’t seen it look it up) preceded a run of 4 rather poor outings, which began with a fortunate 2-2 draw away to Mönchengladbach; a game in which an Andre Schürrle wonder goal 3 minutes from time salvaged a point for the visitors. Next came a 1-0 home defeat to Schalke before Leverkusen travelled to the badenova-Stadion for Robin Dutt’s homecoming against Freiburg. In spite of Leverkusen pulling off a 1-0 victory it was largely uninspired performance whose score line greatly flattered the visitors. The downswing was completed with a 2-2 home draw with Hamburg, which saw the hosts blow a 2-0 first half advantage.
The home stretch of the Hinrunde saw a succession of fairly positive results. Leverkusen were 2-0 away winners at Kaiserslautern before a late goal in the capital saw them share the spoils with Hertha 3-3; this 2nd game coming after an emotional midweek win versus Chelsea in the Champions League. Bayer then came home and defeated a lacklustre Hoffenheim squad 2-0 before earning a hard fought 0-0 draw away to Hannover; but the momentum was again halted in the final match before the winter break by a very poor outing at home losing 3-0 to Nürnberg. It is not difficult to see an emerging trend of decent stretches of football being completely ruined by a few bad matches, which is something that is going to need to be worked on if Leverkusen have any hope of qualifying for next season’s Champions League.
A Silver Lining?
While it may not seem like it, it hasn’t been all doom and gloom for Bayer Leverkusen thus far. Their play in the Champions League has been more positive than negative and has glossed over the fact that Bayer are no longer playing in the domestic Pokal competition. At the draw Leverkusen were handed a challenging group which included favourites Chelsea, a tough Valencia side, and the minnows Genk; most pundits I imagine had Bayer as the favorites to finish 3rd in the group and advance to the Europa League competition. Leverkusen had other ideas. Going into the final match day, on the strength of 3 strong home performances (including a 2-1 thriller against Chelsea) Die Werkself needed only to defeat lowly Genk to win the group and advance to the knockout stages as a seeded team. Unfortunately a victory was not in the cards as the match played out to a 1-1 draw. The single point was good enough for 2nd spot in the group behind Chelsea and advancement to the next stage of the competition, where they have been drawn against some small Catalan club whose name escapes me at the moment. See you in the round of sixteen!
But (relative) European success was not the only reason for supporters to smile. This season has seen the emergence of three bright young talents at the BayArena in the form of midfielder Lars Bender, attacking all-rounder Andre Schürrle, and goalkeeper Bernd Leno.
Appearing in all 17 league matches, Lars Bender’s most impressive trait is his ability to run for days, which is then combined with his excellent defensive presence (roughly 3.5 tackles and interceptions per game) and an emerging passing game, which makes him a very well rounded player. Bender appears to be on the cusp of making Leverkusen supporters forget all about Arturo Vidal.
Andre Schürrle is a versatile attacking threat who is amongst the league leaders in shots on target. While only 2 of those shots have found the back of the net this season, the former Mainz sniper knows what it takes to score goals at the top level. His 15 goals for Mainz last season helped them to an all-time best 6th place finish. It is only a matter of time before Schürrle is among the league’s top goal scorers; he’s too good not to be.
The surprise of the Hinrunde has to be Bernd Leno. Initially signed on emergency loan after a concussion sidelined Fabian Giefer, Leno’s performances in goal gave the Leverkusen brass no choice but to sign him to a permanent deal at the end of November. Possessing poise far beyond his 19 years, Leno rarely makes a mistake and is an above average shot-stopper. He has single-handedly kept his side in matches (most notably in the 0-0 draw with Borussia Dortmund) and has made the seemingly untouchable Rene Adler nearly an afterthought.
What does the Rückrunde hold for Bayer Leverkusen? Both Rudi Völler and Wolfgang Holzhäuser have said that qualification for the Champions League is a must; but since Herr Völler has already conceded the league to either Bayern or Dortmund, the spot that Leverkusen apparently needs to aim for is 3rd in the table. When asked about the future of the manager Robin Dutt both Völler and Holzhäuser have given him their vote of confidence (kiss of death) in spite of calls for Dutt’s dismissal, mainly from disappointed supporters.
The bar has been set high and the only way to achieve the lofty goals that have been set is to bring stability and consistency to Leverkusen’s game. In the winter training sessions Dutt has drilled the team on quickly moving from defending to attacking. Clearly he has identified that his side needs to be more organized at the back which will mean fewer goals conceded and then hitting back on the counter attack. If Bayer is going to have any chance of success, they will need to replicate the scintillating form of last season’s 2nd half. Dutt and his men will have their work cut out for them but one thing is for certain it will be fascinating to watch it all unfold.
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