Perennial bridesmaid Bayer Leverkusen is off and running to a solid start, taking all three points in all three of their matches to date, continuing the show of strength exhibited last season. With Stefan Kießling looking to continue a scoring pace that made him the league’s top goal-getter last season, a healthy Sidney Sam as a running partner, and Heung-Min Son purchased from Hamburger SV to replace London-bound Andre Schürrle, could Die Werkself be on the verge of successful runs both domestically and in Europe?
Early returns at least hint the answer to that question is a firm “JA!”
Saturday’s match with Borussia Mönchengladbach had easily been Bayer’s toughest test of the young season. When fans saw a 2:0 halftime lead disappear in a matter of moments. First, Patrick Hermann danced through the Bayer defense to find Martin Stranzl with enough space to grab one back. About three minutes later, keeper Bernd Leno mishandled a somewhat soft cross that by all rights should have been caught quite easily. The ball landed directly in the path of Juan Arango who barely needed lift his boot to equalize for the visitors.
Yet Sami Hyppiä’s side did not let the quick turn of fortune crush their spirits, quickly shifting back into an offensive mode, which brought the match’s third goal in six minutes, as Sam tallied his second goal of the afternoon from just outside the penalty area.
The visitors were similarly not deterred, however, returning the pressure looking to earn at least a point for their trouble.
Then, a bit of a fortunate bounce, a long run from Sam, and a solid strike from Gonzalo Castro put an exclamation on Leverkusen’s message of, “Not today!”
It looked a bit like this, except less fuzzy (hey, I take what I can get and am grateful for it!):
Having opted to play their corner kick short, rather than simply launch it into traffic, Raffael finds himself with enough space to make an unc0ntested play and spots the waving arm of Tony Jantschke, who would probably be fairly dangerous if served with a properly targeted pass.
The pass, however, came up a bit short. Sebastian Boenisch has no problems rejecting Raffael’s application for entry. All seven Bayer players quickly turn upfield in hopes of a counter.
Boenish’s clearance heads toward Gonzalo Castro, who cannot quite beat Raffael to the ball. With the Leverkuseners having just shifted forward, Raffael has a slight advantage, a bit of space, and a wide-open Patrick Hermann on the right. The degree of difficulty needed here is considerably lower than a moment ago.
Though Max Kruse is also wide open with plenty of space, Hermann is the much safer pass. With all nine opposing players crammed into the middle of the field and two of Mönchengladbach’s more-creative players roaming free, a real chance for a go-ahead goal is in play.
Hermann lofts the ball perfectly over all the red shirts in the middle, setting the scene perfectly for the former Freiburg man (Kruse) to rifle the ball toward the net, looking to beat Leno, of course, but also with Raffael and Alvaro Dominguez available for follow-up opportunities.
And Kruse does get a bit of a deflection with the ball striking either or both the midsections of Dominguez and Emir Spahic, causing the ball to float rather harmlessly into the mitts of Leno.
Leno seems happy to get rid of the ball, while Castro is game for getting play out of their defensive zone altogether, heading upfield with plenty of room to run, as six of the men in white have begun their retreat into their defensive half.
An outlet pass to Sam effectively gets the ball in front of one-third of the Mönchengladbach players dropping back into defense, but Son is the only Leverkusen player out front at this point. In other words, it’s hardly the most obvious opportunity for a counterstrike.
Remarkably, Sam runs up the right flank unimpeded by anyone.
That whole Gegenpressing thing you keep hearing about? Yeah, this ain’t that.
Sam is actually handed off from one defender to the next, and, with a few others now giving him their full attention, the end of the run is nigh. Unfortunately, all of Sam’s support is either behind him as he’s facing the near sideline or moving in a direction counter to his and the ball’s momentum.
Oh well, it was never a clear counter chance, really, was it. Still…a shame to run all that way and not try something, so…
Clearly, Sam DOES see Castro running in the periphery of his sphere of limited options and takes advantage with the appropriate stylistic flair, which, now that you see it is the perfect end to his turning a seemingly harmless situation, thanks to a little lax defending, into a potentially dangerous spot for the visitors.
Castro easily runs onto the ball as he also is running without a marker, meaning Sam never needed to be precise with his play, just creative. Mission accomplished on that account.
As you can see, with three defenders in red-alert status, Castro could certainly play the ball forward where both Son and Kießling would potentially have room to operate. With all that space, there is also time for Sam to put himself into play for a return pass, though he remains here amid the teeth of what defense is there. He also has Giulio Donati who has been on the pitch for about 13 minutes, which allowed him to sprint from near his own goal line to fill some open space on the right flank.
As I’ve said before, those guys from the back like to be rewarded with involvement when they make that sort of effort. Hence, arms out in a “How do you not see how available I’ve made myself out here?” gesture.
I always enjoy that.
Marc-Andre ter Stegen is a lengthy and capable keeper. If the Torfabrik ball that is used in the Bundesliga were wont to travel in straight lines, this would likely be saved by the Mönchengladbach keeper.
Of course, we all know the ball does wicked things.
Castro also knows this, having put enough spin on this one to make it bend toward the post just as it gets to the critical point in its flight path.
It’s a gorgeous strike that must be rewarded.
The ball hooks, as I implied, just beyond the Mickey Mouse gloves of ter Stegen and into the net. Clearly, the shot by Castro cannot be undervalued, but Sam putting pressure on the Gladbach defense was the catalyst to the entire thing and essentially put the match out of reach for the visitors.
Despite taking just three points from their first three matches, Borussia Mönchengladbach finished the weekend at tenth in the table, which isn’t bad considering two-thirds of their matches took place at Leverkusen and at Bayern. That is likely two of the three-toughest away matches of the season finished before the end of August and relatively little harm done in the standings. The schedule will only get easier.
But, Bundesliga beware, if you let Sidney Sam cover about two-thirds of the length of the pitch unchecked, you may find yourself watching your opponents celebrate more often than you might like.