This article was originally published on theoriginalcoach.com.
Part of Europe’s new breed of young, exciting coaches, Roger Schmidt is creating waves in Germany with his exciting brand of attacking football at Bayer Leverkusen. Lee Scott break down his tactics.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen are a difficult club to categorise. As a club founded by employees of a pharmaceutical company named Bayer SV04 they are regarded by fans of many other clubs in Germany as being the proverbial “plastic club”. It’s almost the norm in Germany for clubs to have close associations to their fan base and for the fans to retain close connections to their working-class roots and values. Leverkusen on the other hand is treated as an artificial club that is effectively an extension of its parent company.
This perception certainly makes is difficult for an outsider to like or even empathise with the club; that is until you consider the heart-breaking period in the clubs history when between 1997 and 2002 the club finished second in the Bundesliga four times. On two of those occasions they even had the title in their grasp before capitulating to allow another side to win the league. We also can’t forget that in 2002, as well as allowing Borussia Dortmund to overtake them and top the Bundesliga, Leverkusen also managed to lose the final of the DFB Pokal Cup to Schalke and the final of the Champions League to Real Madrid courtesy of a stunning Zinedine Zidane volley.
Since those heady days of near misses the club has gone through something of a rebuilding process with a plethora of new coaches being hired and then dismissed as the club sought a return to the top of the table. None of those coaches were ever really able to capture the imagination of the footballing public. That is until they hired Roger Schmidt.
Roger Schmidt, like many of the progressive new coaches that are taking over the European scene, never had much of a professional playing career as he bounced around the lower reaches of the German leagues. Indeed his coaching career threatened to take a similar path until, in 2012, he was appointed as head coach of Red Bull Salzburg in Austria.
It wasn’t until last season that the wider world began to sit up and take notice when, in a Europa league tie against Ajax, Salzburg utilised an aggressive system resembling 4-2-4 with two advanced midfielders splitting and pressing high up the field, either side of the two forwards. They pressed in such a ferocious high block that despite being a technically excellent side, Ajax were all but overwhelmed.
Since taking over at Leverkusen, we have seen Schmidt use a slightly modified version of his tactics from Austria, however there are certain elements of the system that occur time and again, suggesting that they are key components to the setup.
Shape In The Build Up
I’ve written before of my belief that numerical formations are all but obsolete in modern football, but if we are forced to use numbers then the shape as Leverkusen build up under Schmidt is a 4-2-2-2, with the four midfielders forming a box with two sitting deep in front of the back four to form a double pivot, and two playing in more advanced areas with licence to split wide to support attacks and open spaces.
The width in the system is then provided by the two full-backs who encouraged to move into advanced areas as soon as the build-up starts, often finding themselves on the same line as the two advanced midfielders. The strikers operate slightly differently with one used as almost a static focal point and the other encouraged to roam and interchange periodically with one of the two advanced midfielders. This willingness to interchange is a constant headache for their opponents, with opposition defenders constantly having to reassess who it is they should be marking. It also allows the Germany club to overload for large periods.
In Image One you can straight away see the initial box shape in the midfield. The players in the double pivot tend to maintain a close connection to cover and support one another whilst the two advanced players will operate more loosely, keeping a basic shape but splitting out wide when they need to.
The key in the entire build up, though, appears to be the attacking full-backs as they not only provide width but they also stretch the opposition’s defensive shape, creating pockets of space for the attacking midfielders and strikers to drift in to.
In this example you can also see that one of the strikers has split off from his partner and dropped in to the advanced midfield area. It is at this stage that the defender has a choice to make: should he step out to cover the striker or keep a deep position and allow him to drift freely? If he steps out then the centre of the opposition defence becomes immediately weak and vulnerable to a more direct route (hence the static striker). If he maintains the defensive line then the second striker creates a numerical overload in the centre of the pitch allowing Leverkusen to easily build an attack.
In Image Two, the immediately obvious aspect of the build up is the shape of the midfield; even though the shape is slightly distorted due to the position of the ball on the near side of the field, it is still a discernible box shape. Again, the right-back has advanced to a high position, stretching out the opposition defence and making full use of the space that has been left on that flank.
The capacity to allow your team to press the opposition high up the field has almost become a pre-requisite for a young, fashionable coach, and Schmidt certainly doesn’t let us down. At Red Bull Salzburg we would see four advanced players almost attempting to smother the opposition by pressuring them as close as possible to their own goal. The approach he is currently using with Leverkusen is slightly more nuanced but very similar.
In Image Three, Borussia Dortmund are about to restart play from a goal-kick and Leverkusen have remained in an extremely high block. Dortmund are known to be a side that like to build the initial phase of play with short passes out to their centre-backs before gradually bringing the more creative central midfielders in to play. All three potential recipients of the short pass are well covered by the positioning of the Leverkusen players and Dortmund are forced to play a medium to long ball from the restart.
In Image Four, Dortmund again have the ball in a deep position but this time they are attempting to rest in possession to allow some time to regain the initiative in the attacking build up. Leverkusen immediately dispatch three players in an advanced area to press Dortmund back towards their own goal. It is especially interesting that Leverkusen are happy to commit a third man in a secondary pressing movement to ensure they have at least numerical parity should the ball be passed back to the goalkeeper.
Whilst Schmidt does prefer to have his team try to press the opposition as far up the pitch as possible there are times (Image Five) that this is simply not possible. We can see that Leverkusen have dropped to a medium block and are happy to briefly allow the opposition to construct a measured attack out of defence. In terms of positioning, the presence of the two strikers dropping into the same zone as the advanced midfielders has pushed them slightly wider, distorting the shape of the midfield box. This does, however, mean that even with slightly more time to create an attack from deep, the options for the next forward pass are limited and the opposition will still be forced to play the ball long.
Perhaps the key aspect of the high tempo style that Schmidt has looked to implement with Leverkusen is the speed at which they launch attacks. There is no tendency to build up using patient possession football; instead they look to move from back to front using a series of quick forward passes that are similar to those coached by Marcelo Bielsa during his time in charge of Chile and Athletic Bilbao. The ball is moved to an advanced player – at that point, a wave of Leverkusen players will start to attack spaces of zones making it very difficult for the opposition to transition quickly from attack to defence.
In Image Six, the ball has been moved quickly from defence to attack and the opposition are almost completely overloaded straight away. The most important runs from this point are made by the far-side strikers and the right-back, both of whom move into spaces, making the two defenders that are in position choose between engaging the runner or the man with the ball. The fact that there are another three players making secondary supporting runs makes it almost impossible to defend against.
Finally, in Image Seven, you can see an example of Leverkusen this time transitioning from the first phase of an attack to the second phase. Space has become crowded as all four attacking players have flooded the near side of the pitch, effectively dragging the opposition’s back line over to cover. This has opened up a huge area on the far side of the pitch that is unguarded. When the initial attack is stalled, it is easy for the man in possession to quickly shift the ball into space for the right-back to move on to at speed. By the time the defence is able to readjust and balance out, Leverkusen will already be threatening the penalty area.
The system used by Roger Schmidt so far is fascinating but it certainly is not infallible. Such high, intense pressing comes at a cost should the opposition be able to find an effective pass beyond the initial press, but there is also high reward in producing attacking, penetrative football. There can be absolutely no doubt that should Schmidt continue to develop his system in this manner, that Leverkusen will become one of the most engrossing sides to watch anywhere in the world.