Bayer 04 Leverkusen’s vital victory at FC Schalke topped off an almost perfect month for the Bundesliga’s form side, no small part due to Die Werkself’s stingy defence.
Many could forgive the Bundesliga’s inform side for letting slip in the six-pointer in the Rhineland on Saturday following a penalty shootout defeat in Madrid on Tuesday night. But Leverkusen are in pole position to play in the competition that was the source of heartache last week, after a solid victory away at Schalke.
Karim Bellarabi’s strike meant that Leverkusen’s run stretched four wins (five domestic if you count the DFB Pokal) on the bounce without conceding since a draw away at Augsburg prior to the current streak. This has catapulted the Reds into 3rd, six points ahead of Saturday’s opponents in 5th. Not bad for a side that’s position in next season’s European elite was in serious jeopardy a few weeks ago. Last year’s 4th place finishers were under fire after they had won just once in five league games before their winning streak began with a 1-0 victory against Freiburg February 28th at the Bay Arena. Schmidt’s side have also leapfrogged Bourissia Mönchengladbach in the process despite Die Fohlen’s steady Ruckrunde so far.
Of course Augsburg and Schalke’s recent dips have made Die Werkself’s league position look even healthier, but Leverkusen have taken advantage of their rivals’ recent frailties by patching up their own.
After conceding 9 in their first three games of February including five to fellow Champions League hopefuls Wolfsburg in an agonising home defeat, Leverkusen have not conceded in the Bundesliga, a defensive record that has endured their run of four consecutive victories. Including their Pokal and Champions League matches, Die Werkself has only conceded once in the last seven matches.
The back four’s transformation to brick wall-esque rear-guard is difficult to put a finger on.but the turnaround may be linked to the five-goal leakage against Wolfsburg in February. Young Brazilian left back Wendell returned from injury for the 1-0 win over Freiburg, but Roger Schmidt did not make wholesale changes to his backline. Kyriakos Papadopoulos was dropped after Leverkusen again conceded late on at home to Augsburg (this to a goalkeeper), but was swiftly recalled for the 3-0 win at Paderborn in which he opened the scoring.
There has been no specific pattern to the defensive line up since this mini resurgence, Schmidt opting for the odd tinker here and there (sometimes forced, sometimes not) during a spell which has seen them go 480 minutes without conceding on German soil (including the Pokal against Kaiserslautern). More importantly, though, has been a change in attitude at Leverkusen. Captain Simon Rolfes explains
You can see that we really want to win every single tackle. Our back four in particular do that very well. They win an unbelievable amount of challenges, including headers and aerial duels. They’re always aggressive and tight to their man, but are fair all the same. They deserve a lot of praise for that but they can’t do it all by themselves. It’s the whole team that is showing a great defensive discipline and a willingness to help their team-mates.”
Significantly Saturday’s victory over Schalke was a perfect example of their defensive quality and great character, two things that people were questioning whether Leverkusen had them or not. Many Bayer-doubters would have been waiting on Saturday’s result to see whether Leverkusen could produce against a ‘decent side’, to the respect of who they have played recently. Those who were in the former category will be running out of reasons to explain why they won’t retain their top four position come May, with Leverkusen sitting comfortably in 3rd with favourable looking fixtures coming up.
Of course many plaudits will go the way of Karim Bellarabi and Heung-Min Son, and rightly so, but goalkeeper Bernd Leno, Wendell, Emir Spahić, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Ömer Toprak and Roberto Hilbert deserve their credit for not giving opposition attackers an inch. Veteran Spahić provides a shining example of what a motivated defender can accomplish, as he’s won 64% of his tackles, including 67% of his aerial challenges this season, while Toprak has won 61% of his tackles and the resurgent Hilbert has also won 67% of his aerial duels. And the news gets better for Leverkusen’s defending — the young Croatian Tin Jedvaj, signed permanently from AS Roma, is back in training after a prolonged injury absence.
Schmidt and company will look to continue their shutout string Saturday when they host Hamburger SV, the lowest scoring club in the Bundesliga.
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