Tactical Analysis: Bayer Leverkusen 1-1 Schalke

The initial starting shapes in Leverkusen vs. Schalke.
The initial starting shapes in Leverkusen vs. Schalke.

Issues in Leverkusen’s build-up structure

Both teams fielded similar basic shapes, 4-2-3-1, but displayed different positional play. As ever, the front four (Calhanoglu, Mehmedi, Bellarabi, and Hernandez) in Roger Schmidt’s system frequently switch areas and narrow their shape. The 6 duo of Kampl and Kramer played a specific role, particularly during Leverkusen’s first phase of build-up.

Back to his time at Red Bull Salzburg and continuing at Leverkusen from 2014-2015 season until now, Roger Schmidt has improved his sides’ possession-game, since he doesn’t rely too much anymore on vertical play, which often see long balls from the back to the front line – something we often saw from his sides in the past.

Back to the match against Schalke, one of Leverkusen’s 6s, usually Kampl, dropped deep to the back line, forming three at back. Kampl frequently filled the left half-back post with Omer Toprak in the center and Jonathan Tah moved to the right wide. The other 6, Christoph Kramer, stayed slightly higher. This dynamic made Leverkusen develop their deep build-up in a mini-diamond shape. This strategy was a good idea, because the first wave of Schalke’s press consisted of two players. Moreover, from Schalke’s point of view, tracking Kampl with a 6 didn’t make sense, because it would have opened the central area. Meaning Leverkusen were far more numerically superior. 4 against 2 Schalke’s first wave of press. With Kampl agility and speed, asked him to drop deep and then roamed forward to support the later development was also a nice initial idea.

The diamond in Leverkusen build up had pushed their wing backs further forward forcing Schalke’s wide-men to stay even deeper than they were supposed to be. This potentially gave Leverkusen a lot of opportunity to create their play on more advanced areas.

But then the issue was straightly observed. A good initial idea on the build up was not followed by a good overall positional structure. The first point was how Schalke first wave press, Klass Jan Huntelaar and Maxmilian Meyer, managed to block the passing lane from the back three to Kramer. The second point was the too-aggressive-positioning of the wing backs and the front four attacking players.

This created huge space between the diamond and the advanced players. No connector means both lines needed more time to move onward or vice versa, giving Schalke more time to adapt and settle their defensive structure. This also eased Schalke 4-4-2/4-4-1-1 initial press to not only isolate Kramer, but also helped the to secure the central area.

Leverkusen deep build-up structure. Schalke central block managed to cut off any passing lane to Kramer.
Leverkusen’s deep build-up structure. Schalke’s central block managed to cut off any passing lanes to Christoph Kramer.

As Tom Payne pointed out in his analysis on Spielverlagerung of Dortmund 3-2 Schalke, the man-orientation in Schalke defensive system meant the wide-men had to man-mark Dortmund’s wing backs. This made Schalke defended with 6 players alike, as the opponent’s wing backs moved far forward, forcing them to sit too deep. Against Leverkusen, this issue emerged again, also opening up the half-space in the midfielder line, because Schalke played with similar approach.

Ilustrative graphic on Leverkusen build-up structure.
An illustration of Leverkusen’s build-up structure.

Three weeks ago, Dortmund managed to make use of the space through by moving Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Ilkay Gündogan, or Shinji Kagawa into that area, the vertical access for any 18-yard box penetration. Unfortunately, Schmidt seemed to be unaware of this possibility as Leverkusen didn’t exploit it.

Space on Schalke right half-space. Leverkusen might have exploited the space had Kampl moved into the space and Hernandez realized it.
Space on Schalke’s right half-space, which Leverkusen might have exploited had Kampl moved into the highlighted area and Hernandez realized it.

Despite the lack of more beneficial positional play that could have improved their chances, Leverkusen, as ever, played their pressing well. This can be seen on their touchline or central press (followed by some of traps), which often forced Schalke to play the ball back or lose possession. Until the second-half, Leverkusen deserved to lead by, at least, one goal. Indeed, they had two very good chances via Karim Bellarabi.

On the other hand, with their defensive-approach, Schalke didn’t seem to be potent on attack. However, Schalke benefitted from the presence of Maxim Choupo-Moting and Max Meyer, who have very good individual ability, and could create some promising initial attacks with their dribbling.

Second-half

As the game progressed and Schalke led by one goal, Leverkusen made some positive adjustments, Particularly in their attacking positional structure. This adjustment brought them into more suitable situations for attacking. First, the timing of wing backs pushing forward was more gradual and the player presence within the build-up structure was improved. For example, Kevin Kampl or Christoph Kramer shifted from between both half-spaces to reinforce the build-up structure and provided vertical passes for any promising positionings in more advanced areas.

Leverkusen structure adjustment which allowed them to circulate more comfortably.
Leverkusen’s structure adjustment, which allowed them to circulate more comfortably.

This structure also had another advantage as it gave Leverkusen a stable defensive transition through gegenpressing.

Leverkusen equalized. Kevin Kampl shifted to the right half-space. Along with Kramer, they lead the progression. In the final third, Kampl made a through-pass to Javier Hernandez and lead to an own goal, as Hernandez’s low cross deflected of Sascha Riether.
Leverkusen equalized. Kevin Kampl shifted to the right half-space. Along with Kramer, they lead the progression. In the final third, Kampl made a through-pass to Javier Hernandez and lead to an own goal, as Hernandez’s low cross deflected of Sascha Riether.

As Schalke led, Leverkusen pushed their attack forward for an equalizer. This surge actually benefited Schalke, who gaining huge space for counter-attacking. They made some promising chances, but failed to capitalize them.

Conclusion

Again, Schalke showed some defensive weakness as the consequence of their man-oriented system. It costed them when playing against Dortmund as Signal Iduna Park. Thomas Tuchel’s boys managed to build appropriate attacking structure which exploited the weakness. In this match, although they showed some similar weakness, Leverkusen failed to capitalize it particularly caused by the-too-aggressive-positional-approach in their build-up in the first-half. After the break, Schmidt made some adjustment which gave them more comfortable shape for build-up phase and final-third penetration.

Overall, Leverkusen deserved more than one point. They created more promising chances than Schalke did. Man of the match? Kevin Kampl or Choupo-Moting.

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Ryan Tank is crazy about football tactics and crazy insightful when writing about them. Check out Ryan's site, ryantank100.wordpress.com. You can also follow him on Twitter at @ryantank100.