It’s been a tale of two seasons for Bayer Leverkusen, so it might be a good time for the team’s fans to recall Rudi Völler’s pronouncement before Matchday 1 when he asserted that the team’s goal was to finish high enough in the table to qualify for the European stage. Thanks to a blistering Hinrunde that saw Bayer enter the winter break as Herbstvizemeister, expectations going into the second half of the season were understandably high. A Champions League spot seemed a certainty and a somewhat troubling run of form at the end of the first half was quietly swept under the rug and labeled an aberration.
Now Völler’s initially cautious approach to the question of what he expected from the team is looking more and more like the smart move. Champions League aspirations are giving way to Europa League realities, and although the club is still well-positioned in second place, their poor form, coupled with the resurgence of some of their closest competitors – like Dortmund, Schalke, and Wolfsburg – suggest that B04 may not finish the season in that always comfortable role of Vizemeister. Leverkusen only gaining a paltry six points in the Rückrunde has allowed Wolfsburg and Schalke to close the gap for the Champions League spots, and after Leverkusen’s performance against Paris Saint-Germain last week, you couldn’t be blamed for asking whether this competition is ultimately too big for the team.
So how does a team who went into the winter break alive on three fronts (BuLi, UCL, and DFB Pokal) suddenly find itself playing in only one competition? (Because let’s be realistic, they ain’t winning the return leg in Paris, 0-5)
As noted above, the train began to go off the rails at the end of the first half of the season. Losses to Frankfurt and Bremen seemed to suggest that some teams had figured out how to play effectively against Leverkusen by following this plan: don’t let them counter, give them possession, and make your own chances count. Thus, Sami Hyypiä’s team went into the winter break promising to work on build-up play and on more effective ball possession. The results have been, shall we say, mixed. Two rather gritty victories against Mönchengladbach and Stuttgart have not made up for the losses to Freiburg, Schalke, or Wolfsburg, and any evidence of new tactics is scarce at best. Meanwhile, Hyypiä, who has yet to work out a possible contract extension with the club, suddenly finds himself in the spotlight, a position in which the laid back and reticent Finn is clearly not comfortable. He certainly hasn’t helped his own cause by alluding to how quickly it could be over for him in an interview with Bild back in August, or more recently in a Sky interview in which he suggested he could “do something else” besides train footballers. With each poor performance the question about whether or not the quiet Finn is the right man to lead this team grows bigger.
The players themselves, however, shouldn’t be without blame. After strong, individual performances by key veterans and new additions early on, their form had already dropped noticeably before the final two matches of the 2013 calendar. Stefan Kießling, arguably the most popular player at Leverkusen and certainly one of the most important, has only found the back of the net once since December. Leverkusen fans know as Kieß goes, so does Bayer, but he isn’t the only player with performance issues. Lars Bender is having an uncharacteristically weak season, Gonzalo Castro has been Jekyll and Hyde all season – with more Hyde than Jekyll recently- and injuries have led to long periods of rest for Sidney Sam and Stefan Reinartz. Factor in Bayer’s defensive frailties on the wings, and all of a sudden their record in the first half seems like a minor miracle.
Team morale is shockingly low at the moment, too, with Reinartz making some pointed comments after the PSG debacle about the team’s lack of fight in recent matches. Kießling, perhaps looking to remind fans of Bayer’s current position in the table, said in somewhat tongue-in-cheek fashion that “at least [Bayer Leverkusen] weren’t playing against relegation,” a comment that he would probably like to have back. No, Bayer Leverkusen needn’t worry about relegation, but for a team with “European aspirations” they shouldn’t need to bring it up either.
Both trainer and team have expressed a rather worrying sense of disbelief at Leverkusen’s current plight, and neither has been able to come up with solutions to arrest the slide. Rudi Völler, whose hand print is all over both, can only continue for so long to publicly defend the side without sounding contrived and, ultimately, self-serving. And with Leverkusen so adrift at the moment, it’s rather disheartening to remember that Sami Hyypiä is still a relative neophyte when it comes to the trainer game. He has yet to acquire his official trainer’s badge, and a great part of his time on the bench has been spent with co-trainer Sascha Lewandowski by his side. The current slump is Hyypiä’s first major hurdle in an otherwise successful run at Leverkusen, so how he reacts to the slump may tell us a lot about the kind of trainer he could be one day. It will almost definitely have an effect on his upcoming contract discussions.
So what’s the solution? How do Bayer Leverkusen rediscover their early season form again? I don’t have the answers to that question (which should theoretically qualify me for a role in the trainers’ innermost circle), but I do know it won’t be a simple solution, like Hyypiä emoting more, or the team railing against its Neverkusen moniker; on their own, neither of these things will turn things around. Instead, it will be a combination of factors including (but not limited to) developing tactics for when Plan A doesn’t work (the coach), learning to deal with the occasional mistake without completely losing the plot (the players), and buying some quality defensive wingers (the management).
Easier said than done? Sure, but so is qualifying for Europe.