October 22, 2017

2016-17 Report Cards: Bayer Leverkusen

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. For a club of Bayer 04 Leverkusen’s pedigree and track record of success, a 12th place finish is a thorough embarrassment. Of course, 12th place is where the Pill City club finished, something like 8-9 spots off its usual Champions League spot. It’s going to be a long hot summer in Leverkusen, as the club and its supporters reflect on what went horribly wrong this season.

Prior to this season, Leverkusen hadn’t finished below a European spot since 2008-09 when the club finished 9th, earning less than 50 points. In total, Leverkusen earned a pitiful 41 points this season (11 wings, 8 draws, and 15 losses) with a sad -2 Goal Differential. However, it’s difficult to pinpoint a single moment when the season turned sour. For example, at die Winterpause, Leverkusen was 9th, wedged between SC Freiburg (8th) and Mainz 05 (10th). Sure, 9th place was a mid-season disappointment, but not something that torpedoes one’s entire season. In fact, a month later Leverkusen had even climbed up a spot to 8th place. However, by the end of March the slide had begun, as B04 slipped down to 11th place — a region where the club remained until season’s end.

And yet Leverkusen didn’t have any majorly disastrous months, like Schalke 04 for example, who basically lost every game for a spell. Instead, Leverkusen defined tepid mediocrity with five instances of back-to-back losses measured against only three instances of back-t0-back wins. Der mittelmäßige Verein, indeed. In chronological form, Leverkusen’s season looked like this bar graph:

I mean, it all looks like a poorly-executed Kindergartner’s bead bracelet, pattern-wise. (Too much orange, kiddo.) By the way, I am not joking about Leverkusen’s Mittelmäßigkeit (“mediocrity”) this season. For example, I was astonished to find that Leverkusen literally defined the statistical mean in countless categories, like, take a random example, the club scored 70% of this goals from open play, which is precisely the Bundesliga average; or B04 needed 19.9 seconds of build up play on average for scoring chances, while the Bundesliga average was 19.1.

Aside from die Mittelmäßigkeit, Leverkusen’s season was defined by a couple other general traits: too frequently Leverkusen conceded the match’s opening goal, or slightly less frequently, failed to protect a 2nd half lead. Three grotesque instances of the latter trait were the 2-3 loss to RB Leipzig on November 11th, the 2-3 loss to Mönchengladbach on January 28th, and the 3-3 draw to VfL Wolfsburg on April 3nd. In all cases, Leverkusen blew a two goal lead.

Finally, I suppose I should temper my criticism of Leverkusen just slightly, because B04 got a nasty injury bug during the season. For example, both forwards Chicharito and Kevin Volland suffered broken hands; meanwhile Karim Bellarabi, Ömer Toprak, Kevin Kampl, Lars Bender,  and Jonathan Tah all missed crucial periods of time because of injuries. Basically, I just listed two-thirds of Leverkusen’s finest. Moreover, B04’s arguably best player, Hakan Calhanoglu missed the entire Rückrunde thanks to a suspension for a transfer dispute with his old club, Trabzonspor, back in 2011. I don’t think we’ve made a big enough deal about this suspension, given Calhanoglu’s role as Leverkusen’s play-maker, set piece specialist, and goal-scoring brilliance. He’s the attacking cog in the B04 machine. His absence loomed large.

Bet you can’t predict what grade I’m assigning to this season’s biggest underperformer …

Highlight

Really? You’re serious? Okay, let’s say the March 5th sacking of Roger Schmidt. Or, I know, the season finished so that supporters didn’t have to endure a second more of the lamest of lame duck coaches Tayfun Korkut as care-taker manger.

Actually, let’s go with the Champions League as Leverkusen’s highlight. B04 survived a vicious knockout group of CSKA Moscow, AS Monaco, and Tottenham Hotspur, even winning 0-1 at Spurs and beating Monaco 3-0 in the 2nd legs of each match up. I’ll stop here without mentioning the weirdness that was Leverkusen vs. Atletico Madrid in the knockout stages. But hats off to B04 for showing up in Europe.

Lowlight

Here are some candidate moments:

  • Getting knocked out of the DFB Pokal by Sportfreunde Lotte.
  • Losing 0-3 to Hoffenheim, thanks to a 6′ red card (October 22).
  • Losing 2-3 to RB Leipzig after twice giving up the lead (November 18th).
  • Losing 2-3 to Gladbach after spotting 3 straight goals (January 28th).
  • Losing 6-2 at Dortmund (March 4th).
  • Hiring Korkut (March 5th).
  • Losing 1-4 to a deadbeat Schalke 04 (April 28th).

Take your pick. I might go with the loss to Lotte, simply because of the disparity between the two clubs, and, in a narrative-sense, how the loss could be read as foreshadowing and predicting Leverkusen’s disappointing season.

Attack

Oddly enough given Leverkusen’s narrative of disappointment, B04’s attack didn’t disappoint in 2016-17 — even without Calhanoglu during the Rückrunde. For instance B04’s 53 goals was 6th best in the Bundesliga, while its 13.1 shots per match was 5th best and its 5.2 shots on target per match was 4th best. These are Euro-worthy numbers. Of course, Chicharito led Leverkusen with 11 goals, which, in hindsight seems like a low tally for the Mexican star (and it is). However, get this, Chicharito’s Expected Goals number was 7.11 (!) this season, according to Alex Rathke’s model. Wow. So he actually over-performed, i.e. probably even got a bit lucky this season. B04’s other key goal scorers were Hakan Calhanoglu, Joel Pohjanpalo, and Kevin Volland, who all had 6 goals each.

Remember Pohjanpalo? The dude who scored a substitute’s hattrick? Heh, I’d forgotten about him too. In total, the Finn only appeared 11 times this season and after scoring 5 times in the first two Matchdays, only scored once again for the entire season. He’s the Flock of Seagulls of the 2016-17 season. Let’s pay tribute to the Finn:

Anyhow, my bottom line is that Leverkusen lacked a reliable go-to guy for goals this season. And no, Chicharito isn’t a go-to guy; he plays off others. He needs decoys. He enters what is always already happening around the goalmouth. This is precisely how the Mexican experiences the game and dwells within it. Thus, I argue, with a broken hand in the Hinrunde and without Calhanoglu in the Rückrunde, Chicharito suffered this season. Furthermore, Leverkusen’s old forward, Stefan Kießling, was a ghost this season, appearing in only 14 matches. So lacking a clear target man hurt Leverkusen this season, especially in matches when it conceded the opening goal or lost a lead. Although Leverkusen did score plenty of goals, I think B04 didn’t seem able to consciously or intentionally score when it had to — the sort of ability that separates the Bundesliga’s European-bound sides from the pretenders.

Going back to the numbers, Leverkusen scored 60% of its goals during the 2nd half of matches and 28% in the final 15 minutes, just above the Bundesliga average of 25% in the 15 minutes. (Aside: it’s no wonder that Bundesliga matches feel so exciting during the last 15 minutes; this time period is the league’s most fruitful goal-scoring time!) Conversely, Leverkusen’s worst goal scoring time period were minutes 15-30 when the club only scored 3.8% (!) of its goals. Finally, Leverkusen defined the Bundesliga average by scoring 70% of its goals from open play.

In terms of attacking build up, Leverkusen averaged 19.9 seconds of possession per scoring chance (the Bundesliga average = 19.1) and 6.6 passes during these opportunities (the Bundesliga average = 6). Oddly, the B04 average also spelled the Bundesliga average with a shot conversion rate of 11.2% and shooting PDO number of 29.3 (recall that PDO is something like an index of luck — the Bundesliga shooting PDO number was 30.3%, for example). I could go with similar bit of attack data, which basically all show Leverkusen sitting right at the Bundesliga average, so I’ll spare you. But the averageness, man, it’s uncanny.

In attack, Leverkusen didn’t shy away from dribbling — especially with the likes of foot whiz Julian Brandt — successfully dribbling almost 60% of the time and 10.1 times per match (3rd most in the Bundesliga). Speaking of Brandt, he led the team in successful Key Passes per match with 2.4. And yeah, Brandt led B04 with 8 assists, followed Bellarabi (6), Calhanoglu (5), and Havertz (5).

You wouldn’t be crazy in claiming that Brandt was Leverkusen’s best player this season.

Defense

Leverkusen had a choppy defense, conceding 55 goals with a -2 GD for the season. These 55 goals were the 6th most conceded in the Bundesliga. Interestingly, Leverkusen conceded “only” 60% of time from open play — 10% below the league average, which means Leverkusen was far above average in terms of conceding set piece goals; in fact, B04 led the league in this category. Of these set piece goals, 55% were conceded off corners.

Time-wise, Leverkusen conceded more goals during the 2nd half (62%), which was 5% above the league average (57%). During the second half of matches, Leverkusen was seemingly most vulnerable during minutes 45-60 and minutes 75-90. The later time slot especially stands out, as B04 conceded 27% of the time during this crucial stretch, which was Leverkusen’s most vulnerable time for conceding goals. Stylistically, Leverkusen was a fairly physical club, making 20 tackles per match (4th most in the Bundesliga). And yet B04 only earned 50 yellow cards, which was the 3rd fewest in the Bundesliga. Leverkusen did its business cleanly, it seems.

Statistically, Leverkusen was actually a bit unlucky defensively, as its Expected Goals Conceded number was only 0.25 goals less than its Expected Goals Scored number, meaning Leverkusen could have finished something 9th place. Digging deeper, B04’s opponents’ shot conversion rate was a whopping 13.0% — the highest in the Bundesliga (the league average was 10.5%)! Which also means that Leverkusen’s PDO number is 97, below the necessarily Bundesliga average of 100, all of which means Leverkusen suffered some degree of bad luck, defensively. Digging even deeper, B04’s opponents’ shot conversion rate during set pieces was 16%(!), easily the highest in the Bundesliga, as the league average was 7.8%. Whoa. Did you catch that? Again, we see Leverkusen getting battered on set pieces.

One culprit to explain this bad luck could be keeper Bernd Leno, whose shot saving rate at 67.7% was below the Bundesliga average of 69.7%. Leno had a tough season. He conceded more goals (1.6 per match) than his Expected Goals Conceded number allowed (1.22 per match). However, Leno’s struggles were simply poorly timed, given B04’s many other issues this season. Normally, Leverkusen doesn’t need to think about its keeper, who had been Germany’s #2 man between the sticks. Leno’s solidity was a priori for Leverkusen’s defensive plans. But not this season.

Alex Rathke’s goal keeper dashboard for Bernd Leno.

Speaking of individuals, a shout out to BVB-bound Ömer Toprak, who committed 11 individual defensive errors that led to goals in 2016-17, among the league leaders of misfortune.

Midfield

It’s all about Calhanoglu. Or rather the absence of the man. I’ll repeat my observation again: I think underestimated the effect his suspension had on Leverkusen. However, I’d argue that even when he appeared this season, he was misplaced or simply moved around too much by Roger Schmidt:

Hakan Calhanoglu’s journey around Leverkusen’s midfield in 2016-17. Source: WhoScored.com

My two cents on Calhanoglu is that he’s probably best as the central midfielder, since in the past he’s seemed to work best with a midfield alleyway to exploit with lovely passing or dribbling — or even crashing the box and shooting the ball. Perhaps I’m oversimplifying, but I’m led to believe that an incoherent role for Calhanoglu also meant an incoherent midfield for Leverkusen.

However, I shouldn’t overstate my case. Leverkusen did possess the ball 52.8% on average per match, which was the Bundesliga’s 4th highest possession rate. This rate makes sense, since Leverkusen’s roster is filled with supremely skilled players capable of retaining possession. Moreover, Leverkusen averaged 929 actions (i.e. something like ball touches) per match, the Bundesliga’s 5th highest tally, while possessing the ball for 28:55 on average (the league average is 26:39) with 114 possession occurrences per match (the league average is 111), and an average time of 15.3 seconds per possession (the league average is 14.4 seconds). Finally, Leverkusen possessed the ball 63% inside the opponent’s half, which is just above the Bundesliga average. So ball possession isn’t necessarily an area of concern for B04.

The club’s leading passer was midfielder Kevin Kampl (58.8 per match), then after Toprak we find Calhanoglu (51.5 per match). Kampl, who was excellent this season for Leverkusen, completed a high 83.8% of his passing, which is impressive considering his ability to spring long balls and generate attacking sequences. Moreover, the Kampl-Brandt pairing on Leverkusen’s leftside was impressive all season long.

The location of Kevin Kampl’s Key Passes during 2016-17. Source: Alex Ratthke.

To Improve for Next Season

I have a concrete list:

  • Defense, specifically centerback coordination.
  • Bernd Leno’s stress levels. Seriously.
  • Grooming a target man scorer, which will then free up the other attackers.
  • Coherent positioning for Hakan Calhanoglu.

Sound good? Oh, let’s add one more:

  • Stick to one coach.

Speaking of coaches, Leverkusen does already have a new coach, Heiko Herrlich, previously of Regensburg. Famously, Herrlich was the guy who got the vampiric Olli Kahn treatment.

Leverkusen’s new coach (L) is vampire bait.

You might’ve already read about Herrlich here at the Fanatic. The bottom line is that the guy turned around his playing career, survived cancer, then took Regensburg from the fourth tier to the 2.Bundesliga. He’s a compelling and charismatic character. Leverkusen supporters will be happy to note that, given his experience coaching German national youth sides, Herrlich has extensive experience developing young players and giving them chances to succeed. This trait is very important for Leverkusen, given the staggering young talent brewing at the club right now.

Transfer Preview

Of course, there’s already been movement. Ömer Toprak is off to Dortmund (for 12 million €) and Danny Da Costa left for Eintracht Frankfurt (for 1 million €). And veteran right back Roberto Hilbert left on a free transfer.

For arrivals, so far the only confirmed transfer is central midfielder Dominik Kohr from FC Augsburg (for 2 million €), who will probably provide depth behind Calhanoglu in the midfield. Additionally, Leverkusen have number of loanees returning: Andreis Ciganiks, Patrik Dzalto, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Marc Brasnic, Andre Ramalho, Paterson Chato, Marlon Frey, Seung-Woo Ryu, and Lukas Boeder. I won’t pretend to know anything about many of these guys. Let’s just see who makes the first team roster.

Currently, the biggest transfer rumor involves, you’ll never guess, Hakan Calhanoglu. I guess sitting out half a season gives you plenty of time to look around Europe, especially to England with all its TV deal money. At this point, it looks very likely that Calhanoglu is out and off to the likes of England; for example, see the betting odds on his departure from Turkish betting sites in his own country. Of course, Julian Brandt is also tickling the transfer wire a bit. As is Chicharito, around whom the consensus seems to be that he’s already out. Otherwise, I’ve got nothing else on Leverkusen, rumor-wise.

However, here are some roster needs:

  • Holding Midfielder, a hole that never really been filled after Christoph Kramer’s departure back to Gladbach and Julian Baumgartlinger’s sad season of anonymity.
  • Centerback to pair with Tah.
  • Attacking Midfielders, specifically central attacker and winger, given that Calhanoglu appears long gone, given Bellarabi’s lack luster year, and given Brandt’s eventual departure someday. Of course there’s starlet Kai Havertz, but needs a surrounding cast and B04 needs depth here.
  • Forward to replace Chicharito, who seems out already, and Kießling, who despite Herrlich’s promise to play him this upcoming season, is almost finished with a long and successful career.

What’s nice about Leverkusen though is that young home-developed talent could eventually fill many of these positions. The club has an exciting few seasons coming up, I think.

Grade

C

You saw it coming from a mile away, right?

Leverkusen was the league’s most disappointing side in 2016-17 — results-wise and in terms of what it got from its deep talent. Anything higher than a C is delusional, given the club’s expectations, and disrespectful, given the club’s talent and pedigree.

You expected more. The club expected more. And its supporters certainly expected more.

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U8s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!

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