July 21, 2017

2016-2017 Season Preview: For Bayer Leverkusen, the Time is Now

Basics

Name: Bayer 04 Leverkusen Fußball GmbH

Nicknames: Werkself- “Factory Team” Pillendreher- “Tablet Twisters”

Founded: 1 July 1904

Club Colors: Red and Black

Primary Rivals: 1. FC Köln

Fan Friendship: Kickers Offenbach
BayArena
Capacity: 30,210
Attendance: 494,196 (average of 29,070 per match)

Trophies
German Cup Winners- 1992/1993
Bundesliga 2. Winners- 1978/1979
UEFA Cup Winner- 1987/1988
UEFA Champions League Runners-up- 2001/2002

2015-16 Finishes
Bundesliga: 3rd with 60 points (56 goals scored, 40 allowed, +16 GD)

DFB Pokal: Quarterfinals (1-3 Loss to Werder Bremen)

Number of Matches won by 2 or more goals: 8
Number of Matches won by 1 goal: 10
Number of Matches drawn: 6
Number of Matches lost by 1 goal: 6
Number of Matches lost by 2 or more goals: 4
Number of matches in which a lead was blown, resulting in loss: 1
Number of matches in which a lead was blown, resulting in draw: 0
Number of matches in which a deficit was overcome to earn a draw: 4
Number of matches in which a deficit was overcome to earn victory: 6

Top 2015/16 Scorers

Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez: 26
Karim Bellarabi: 12
Julian Brandt: 10

Summer Friendlies

Record: 5-2-0
Goals Scored: 17
Goals Conceded: 4

Sc Verl 1:1 Bayer Leverkusen
Delbrücker 0:4 Bayer Leverkusen
Koblenz 0:4 Bayer Leverkusen
Bayer Leverkusen 1:1 FC Porto (Portugal)
Bayer Leverkusen 3:1 Fiorentina (Italy)
Kickers Offenbach 1:2 Bayer Leverkusen
Bayer Leverkusen 2:0 Real Sociedad

Questions with an expert:

Eric Bruehl is the host of the strong contingent that produce the Neverkusen Pod, a show that focuses on Bayer Leverkusen and beers. Whether you are of a fan of the Werkself or not, I highly recommend taking a listen to this group to get a better understanding of the club.
Follow him on Twitter: @Schnix04

Player who we should keep an eye on?

There are a few on Bayer’s squad who warrant close attention: 1. Kevin Volland, because he’s the team’s most expensive ever signing, 2. Jonathan Tah, because he’s going to be the future of the CB position in Germany, or 3. Benny Henrichs, because the youngster seems to have the talent to play almost anywhere on the pitch and has only impressed during his time with the first team.

That said, if you watched the Olympics you know that there’s really one player set to steal the spotlight this season, and that is Julian Brandt. If the Games were any indication, he has added a new dimension to his game to go with his speed and technical ability. Brandt’s vision and eye for the right pass led to his teammates scoring shed-loads of goals while he racked up 7 or 9 assists (depends on whom you ask) during the tournament. This eye for his teammates has always been there, but during the Olympics Brandt seemed to make it a priority of his game. If he can accomplish the same with Bayer during the season look for Volland, Chicharito, and Karim Bellarabi all to score in double digits.

The Terrace’s favorite player?

kiessWhile every fan has their favorite player or players (mine are Kampl and Mehmedi) and will sing about each and every player on the team when the occasion arises, the fan favorite here continues to be (and will always be) Stefan Kießling. Currently working his way back from hip and back pains, the longest-serving current player in Leverkusen, and really, the face of the club, is held in massively high esteem by the fans because of his unending loyalty to the club, its fans, and the city of Leverkusen itself. He will go down as one of the top three most beloved players of all time at the club (Kirsten and Schneider the other two).

What player would fans drive to another club?

At the moment there isn’t anyone on the team who actively makes Bayer worse. A player like Robbie Kruse is probably the most likely to leave in the near future, but you wouldn’t say that Bayer fans are calling for him to be released. Personally, I’m starting to feel some ill will towards Omer Toprak, who made no secret of his desire to go to Dortmund. Bayer Leverkusen kind of went out on a limb when it acquired him from Freiburg, something other teams weren’t lining up to do. To watch Toprak repay that kindness with this unexpected disloyalty has been a surprise. And now he’s gone and dyed his hair yellow, so he looks like a giant (ridiculous) matchstick.

What Advice would you give to Roger Schmidt?

I can’t even pretend to know what kind of advice I’d give Roger Schmidt if I had the chance. He seems to have a handle on the team and the individual players. The last two years have been, for the most part, very successful and he’s still growing and learning as a manager. Sure, there have been the odd missteps here and there, but that’s typical for a young coach, and as much as he was pilloried last season for not leaving the field when he was thrown out by Felix Zwyer, I really celebrated his “up yours” attitude that day. He’s done a lot to remove the dreaded “comfort zone” mentality from Leverkusen and that can’t be understated.

What is one opposition player you despise?

Franck Ribery. He’s a criminal on and off the pitch. As Steve Jones might say, “a f—— rotter.”

What will opposing sides underestimate?

Hopefully the depth of the squad. In the past, Bayer haven’t had the kind of competition for starting spots that now exists, and that has sometimes compromised in-game tactics. With the quality on the squad now, bench players coming in mid-way through the second half don’t represent a drop-off in performance and allow Schmidt to continue with his game-plan or, if necessary, alter it completely without fearing that team structure will fall apart. I hope that opposing teams will be quite surprised by the relentlessness of this team over 90 minutes and the course of a full season.

What are fans overestimating?

There is certainly a higher sense of optimism and expectation this season than I’ve seen/felt in a long time. Because the team is so well stocked, many fans would have you think that there’s no loss of quality at any position even if injuries occur. That may be true, but another first half of the season like last year, when it seemed absolutely everyone got hurt for a few weeks at least, would probably put a real damper on the year. Also, as exhibited in Bayer’s recent Pokal victory against SC Hauenstein, Bayer can still have problems unlocking deep-lying teams and remain susceptible to counter-attacks played over the top. That has everything to do with finding the right balance on offense and defense, and Bayer is not all the way there yet. But they’re getting close!

What tip would you give to foreign fans visiting BayArena for the first time?

Make sure to stop at the Stadioneck, the supporters bar, before the match for cheap drinks, great merchandise (to support the fan scene), and that important feeling of camaraderie that comes with a home match-day. Travel by train is usually more reliable as the A3 highway can be nightmarish. Also, stop at the Schwadbud inside of the stadium to grab another beer (you can never have too many) and see some truly iconic Bayer 04 paraphernalia.

Where will Leverkusen finish?

Second, maybe first. Definitely no lower than sixth. ☺

Best Memory of Leverkusen from last season?

My personal favorite was the last game of the Hinrunde in which Stefan Kiessling and Chicharito absolutely destroyed Borussia Moenchengladbach to the tune of 5-0. It was especially cathartic because rumors were swirling around that Kies would leave during the winter break. This match seems to have lit a fire under management’s ass, and they soon after extended his contract. There were many good memories (matches against Roma and Stuttgart, Kampl’s goal after injury and only being back on the pitch for 28 seconds, etc.), but Kies’s performance in this match (against a bitter rival) made the winter break tolerable for Bayer fans.

Fan Friendship with other teams

kickers offenbachSince the mid-1980s, Leverkusen fans and fans of the Kickers Offenbach have cultivated a serious friendship that is, in my opinion, one of the best things about being a Bayer Leverkusen fan. How the friendship came about is a bit of a long story, but let’s just say that as so often happens both clubs shared an antipathy towards another club – in this case, Eintracht Frankfurt, the club across the Main River from Offenbach. Out of this dislike grew an honest friendship, however, and one that the management from both clubs has sought to promote. In addition, Bayer’s Director of Sport, Rudi Voeller, started his professional career in Offenbach and he’s almost as beloved there as he is in Leverkusen. Our own podcast, the Neverkusen podcast, shares a very close relationship with one of the premiere Kickers Offenbach blogs, Blog Rot und Weiss, whose author and Kickers super-fan, Markus Horne, is a frequent guest on the pod.  – Eric Bruehl

When we last saw them

Bayer started off the season on the wrong foot. After opening with two wins, they dropped their next three matches including identical 3-0 losses away to Bayern and Dortmund. The Werkself struggled to find their rhythm until matchday 26 at which point they ran off eight wins from nine matches, to lock up 3rd place and qualified for this season’s Champion’s League group stages. They were led by Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez who was a goal scoring dynamo when he arrived at the BayArena, scoring 26 times.

Aspiration

It may seem strange to say winning the Meisterschale considering the recent list of champions in Germany, but this seems to a good time for Leverkusen to do just that. Both Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich have more questions surrounding them this season than in previous years. BVB have had lots of turnover losing Mats Hummels and Ilkay Gundogan this summer, and the Bavarians are supposedly going through a managerial and playing philosophy change that could take time to implement. It may seem farfetched to say that Bayer could win the league, but this year their odds are better than they’ve been in recent memory.

Reality

The gap between them to 2nd place Dortmund last season was a massive 18 points. It was another ten to the Champions, so even if there are more question marks than normal, are there enough to allow Leverkusen to make up that much ground? It’s possible, but highly unlikely. Third place would be viewed as a success, but might also raise the question of the existence a ceiling that the club cannot break.

The Boss

Roger Schmidt will remain at the helm again this season. The match away to Eintracht Frankfurt will be the 100th match at Leverkusen’s helm for the 49 year-old Austrian. Schmidt has been a huge proponent of Gegenpressing ever since his time in Austria with Red Bull Salzburg. While Jurgen Klopp got much of the plaudits for using the style to take Borussia Dortmund to great heights, Schmidt has been creating an exciting side using that same approach. Schmidt previously spent time in Germany as a lower level player before shifting into management. He spent one season managing Paderborn back in 2011/12, guiding them to a 5th place finish on 61 points.

Philosophy

Schmidt’s style was often based on a 4-2-3-1, but the side often played a 4-4-2 with two holding midfielders (it has also been mentioned as a 4-2-2-2). The high press has allowed the team to generate instant offense. That offense has become even more potent with the addition of Kevin Volland this season from TSG Hoffenheim. It seems more likely that the club will  play two strikers more often, and as such dropping a midfielder might leave opponents more space to play out of the pressure.

Plan B

Should a more attacking formation with two strikers fail to have the impact expected, then I would anticipate Schmidt returning to a 4-2-3-1 with a challenge of where to play Volland being the crucial question he’d have to face. However, should the offence fail to spark, the defense wouldn’t let the situation should get so bad that relegation would be a concern. Schmidt would be fired and a new coach would come in to stabilize the ship. This would be a massive regression and see key players moving on, causing the club to restart in its bid to win that elusive title.

Notable Transfers

Out:

Christoph Kramer (Borussia Mönchengladbach)
Jonas Meffert (SC Freiburg)
David Yelldell (SG Sonnenhof Grossaspach)
Dario Kresic (Omonia Nicosia)
Levin Öztunalı (1.FSV Mainz 05)

In:

Kevin Volland (TSG Hoffenheim)
Aleksandar Dragovic (Dynamo Kiev)
Julian Baumgartlinger (Mainz 05)
Ramazan Özcan (FC Ingolstadt)
Danny da Costa (FC Ingolstadt)

Strengths

Depth. The club has done a fantastic job of strengthening many areas. Kevin Volland will be the biggest signing to most pundits and fans, and getting him and Chicharito’s chemistry working early on will be the most important aspect early on. Bringing in Austrian International Ramazan “Rambo” Ozcan from Ingolstadt was a move that signaled intent, considering he’ll be the back-up to Bernd Leno, but had a very good season last year with a fellow Bundesliga side. The same can be said for bringing in Baumgartlinger as well. But the signing I am most excited to see is the most recent one, getting center back Aleksandar Dragovic from Ukrainian giants Dynamo for €18 million. He should not serve as just depth however, as I anticipate him challenging for a regular place in the starting XI.

Weaknesses

Mentality. Some could say that there is a feeling of complacency the past few years at the BayArena. And given how powerful BvB  and Bayern have been in the past few years it would be easy for Leverkusen to not push on and raise their level to break that duopoly.

Crucial Stretch in Schedule

18 Nov. Home vs. RB Leipzig
22 Nov. Away vs. CSKA Moscow (UEFA Champions League)
25 Nov. Away vs. Bayern Munich
2 Dec. Home vs. SC Freiburg
7 Dec. Home vs. AS Monaco (UEFA Champions League)
9 Dec. Away vs. Schalke

Squad balance will be crucial through this four week period of late fall. Both the newly promoted sides could be desperate for points at this time and Leverkusen can’t afford to drop points at home to them if they’re going to be in the hunt of the Meisterschale. The Champions League matches will be match days five & six respectively in the group stage, so Bayer could still be playing for qualification to the knockouts or (hopefully) locking up first place in the group where they would theoretically have an easier opponent in the round of 16. To then follow those matches with trips to both Munich and Gelsenkirchen will then paint a very clear picture as to whether Leverkusen can remain in the title hunt.

Verdict

Second Place I think that the improvements the Werkself made coupled with the loss in talent that Dortmund suffered through this summer should see Leverkusen move into second place. However, it is hard to envision the Bavarians having enough problems this season to let anyone else beat them to the title. I view Leverkusen closing the gap to 7-10 points between them and Munich, but not getting too close at the business end of the season. In terms of the Champions League I think that Leverkusen were given a very balanced group and should reach the knockouts, possibly even the quarterfinals, but anyone hoping for a repeat of 2002 when the side lost to Real Madrid in the final will be disappointed.

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Andrew Smith

Born in Indiana, Andrew is a 27-year-old Social Studies teacher who has traveled to Germany on multiple occasions. He enjoys learning more of the tactical side of the game and can be followed on Twitter at andsmith_46.

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