Season Preview – Bayer Leverkusen – Drawing a line under the Dutt era

Sami Hyypiä and Sascha Lewandowski steadied the ship enough towards the end of last season to be awarded the joint role of Bayer Leverkusen coach for the coming season. They took over in April, originally on an interim basis, guiding the team unbeaten through its final six matches of the campaign to finish fifth and qualify for the UEFA Europa League.

The final position was well short of pre-season expectations. Talented coach Robin Dutt had inherited a side which had finished second the year before, and, after sizeable summer investments, a title challenge was one the cards. Dutt’s short-lived reign was defined by in-fighting, bad relationships with players, confused tactics and poor results. Meanwhile, off the pitch, he was reportedly unpopular with bosses Rudi Völler and Wolfgang Holzhäuser long before his dismissal. After a run of five consecutive defeats in March/April, four in the league and a humiliating 7-1 thrashing against Barcelona, patience with the former SC Freiburg coach had worn thin and he was sacked.

Sami Hyypiä, the former defender who saw out the final days of his career at the Bay-Arena, was joined by Sascha Lewandowski, previously the coach of the Under 19 squad and a successful youth trainer, to take the team through to the end of the season as co-trainers. Hyypiä lacked the necessary professional coaching licences in Germany to take the reins by himself. Officially, he was appointed first team coach to Lewandowski’s head coach, as the latter holds the required certificates. But Hyypiä is seemingly the more hands-on of the pairing.

The duo’s initial success with the team, taking fourteen points from the final six games, led to the partnership being continued, and both were offered contracts in the summer to extend their tenure until 2015. After an off-season of attempting to eradicate as many of the problems from last season as possible, the outlook for the coming season looks positive for this fledgling partnership.

Transfers and team changes

In terms of transfer activity, Bayer Leverkusen have been among the quietest of the Bundesliga clubs in the summer market. Few players have come in, but several have left. In defence, Bastian Oczipka has joined Eintracht Frankfurt, Vedran Corluka’s loan spell finished, and Danny Da Costa has joined FC Ingolstadt on loan. Further forward, joining Michael Ballack out of the door are Tranquillo Barnetta (joining Schalke 04) and Eren Derdiyok (1899 Hoffenheim). René Adler also left the club in the summer.

At most clubs, the loss of so many high-profile first team players without replacing them would be a cause for serious concern heading into the new campaign. Here, though, the reduced squad size isn’t, in itself, a bad thing. The squad had become swollen. Ballack, for one, was not content with a place on the bench, and with so many big names in the set-up, not all of them were going to be able to play. Dutt could never maintain control of this balance. After declaring Ballack and Simon Rolfes ‘incompatible’ in the midfield, Dutt ignored his words and tried to find a way to accommodate both stars towards the end of his reign. There was also a case of over-rotation and over-complication within the team, even with Barnetta missing for most of the year, as Leverkusen struggled for goals at times and conceded far too many as well.

Hyypiä, Lewandowski and the club management have sought to fix this in a few ways. Letting some of the bigger-name players go could be a positive for both squad harmony and team balance, for there is still great strength in the areas of the team which have suffered losses. We are set to see a trimmer, leaner and more efficient Bayer Leverkusen post-Dutt. In attacking areas, the team still looks strong. There is still plenty of quality in wide areas with €8 million summer transfer from last year André Schürrle, Renato Augusto and Sidney Sam. In the middle, Lars Bender became one of the best players in the league last season and will be looking to increase his influence on the team this year.

With the focus mainly on the departures, it’s true that few new players have been brought in. There are two players returning from long loans, one being the Japanese defensive midfielder Hajime Hosogai, who spent 18 very successful months at FC Augsburg, while Jens Hegeler, who can play in defence or midfield, returns after two seasons in 1. FC Nürnberg’s first team. But a couple of signings have been made, both of which look like astute acquisitions, again pointing to a better-balanced team under the new management team. One is Junior Fernandes, the 23 year-old striker who joins from Universidad de Chile for a fee of €3 million. Fernandes scored on his competitive debut for the club with a late goal in the convincing 4-0 victory at Carl Zeiss Jena in the DFB Pokal last week.

With many of the tools already in place in the midfield and attack, the one area of Leverkusen’s team which needed strengthening was the defence. The club couldn’t settle on a regular back-line last season and the likes of Oczipka, Schwaab and Toprak struggled for form, while Hanno Balitsch was rather suddenly cast aside by Dutt and sold in January. The transfer of Philipp Wollscheid, then, Nürnberg’s  imperious young defender, could be one of the transfers of the summer. Aged just 23, the centre-back already has the ability to settle straight into Leverkusen’s back line and the prospect of Wollscheid partnering a fit-again Manuel Friedrich offers much promise to a defence which suffered from poor form last season.

Tactics and what to expect

Judging from personnel, pre-season and their cup win in Jena, Hyypiä looks set to continue with a 4-3-3 formation with which he finished last season.

Projected line up

Especially in attacking positions, there’s still much competition for places, meaning Leverkusen’s first eleven is by no means set in stone. Renato Augusto and Sidney Sam will vie for one attacking spot, while players like Reinartz, Hosogai and Castro will be battling it out for one of the three midfield places. There have been indications, too, that some of the club’s young talents will be given playing time this season. German junior international Samed Yesil has been promoted to the first team, while Karim Bellerabi, the attacking prospect who featured irregularly for the first team last season, scoring the late consolation in the 7-1 defeat at the Camp Nou, played 70 minutes in Jena and scored. Before that match, the club disappointed in a 3-1 loss against Liverpool, suffered further defeats to Augsburg and SSC Napoli, but thrashed FSV Frankfurt in between. Another young player, 20-year old goalkeeper Bernd Leno, is already a firmly-established member of the first team, so much so that the Werkself would suffer badly if he falls victim to injury.

The confidence gained from the cup win, even against a side like Jena from the Regionalliga, shouldn’t be underestimated. This time last year, the Werkself lost their first round tie in calamitous fashion against Dynamo Dresden, surrendering a 3-0 lead to lose 4-3. It was a result which first raised serious concerns about the defence, prompted them to turn to untested teenage goalkeeper Bernd Leno, well down the pecking order at Stuttgart, and set Robin Dutt’s reign off to a bad start.

Hyypiä and Lewandowski had nothing to lose last season, and the squad was undoubtedly freshened by the more relaxed training ground atmosphere. But the target for the season is, as it should be, Champions League qualification. The club managed to reach the last 16 last year amid their league woes and have the squad to expect a return to the top four. For this reason, the pressure, unlike in April, will be on Hyypiä and Lewandowski to deliver, both of whom are in their first senior coaching roles.

Looking towards the positives, Leverkusen have blended some very clever squad additions with allowing several big-name players to leave, a daring but necessary move. The defence, for example, looks instantly better. Pre-season results suggest there is still work to be done, but it should come as no surprise if Leverkusen enjoy a much better season with their leaner and more harmonious squad, and if the Hyypiä/Lewandowski collaboration, however long it lasts, brings stability and improvement to the Bay-Arena. Champions League football is a realistic ambition, and it will be fascinating to see how this unusual coaching partnership develops.

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Jonathan Lines

Jonathan is a teacher and football writer based in the UK. He writes mostly about German football, with a particular interest in clubs from eastern Germany, past and present. Follow him on twitter @JDL_1989

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