Leverkusen Compact, But Mönchengladbach Deadly On Counter

André Schubert and Roger Schmidt clashed in one of the most anticipated tactical match ups of the Bundesliga’s 2016-17 season. Back in 2014/2015 campaign, we analyzed how the former Lucien Favre’s squad excelled in their victory against Schmidt’s side, as the Foals managed to pick up a 3-0 win. On Saturday night, Borussia Mönchengladbach once again managed to get the maximum points as they triumphed over Bayer Leverkusen with a 2-1 final result.

A great first three points!

The Line-Ups

Gladbach vs. Leverkusen: basic line-ups and shape.
Gladbach vs. Leverkusen: basic line-ups and shape.

Schubert lined-up in a 3-4-1-2 basic shape against Schmidt’s 4-2-2-2 extremely narrow one. Despite having Christoph Kramer and Tobias Strobl at the 6, as shown above, in practical terms Strobl was the only devoted 6, since Kramer occasionally moved wide or even partnered with Lars Stindl at the 8 or 10. The back three was filled by Nico Elvedi, Andreas Christensen, and Tony Jantschke, flanked by Ibrahima Traoré and Oscar Wendt, respectively on the right and left side. Lars Stindl was behind the two strikers, Andre Hahn and Raffael. Schubert also had Stindl occupy the “pocket space” as he (along with the two strikers) needed to create passing lane for Gladbach progression in their 1st phase of their build-up. Along with both strikers we would often see this pattern occurred in the match.

For Leverkusen, Schmidt started Charles Aránguiz, Julian Baumgartlinger, and Kevin Volland. The former Hoffenheim man was partnered up front along with Hakan Calhanoglu, while Aránguiz and Baumgartlinger were played in the central midfield. In this match, Leverkusen seemed to attack slightly more through the right side. Consequently, and because Schmidt’s team has been known to be a heavily ball-oriented side, it affected Kevin Kampl’s movement, who was often found roaming from the left flank to the far ball-side area (half-space and even flank) to support the circulation and final-third penetration.

Baumgartlinger and Aránguiz were also interesting in their roles. Those two held very important midfield jobs. Apart from the heavy ball-oriented and narrow wide-men, the 6-duo played a crucial part in maintaining the very good level of compactness. They positioned themselves well and created some numerically-superiority situations, which positively impacted B04 both on and off possession. Aránguiz even made himself more valuable as the Chilean often had a positive impact in bringing the ball from deep to the advanced areas (will be explained later in this piece).

Gladbach against Leverkusen’s 4-2-2-2 Pressing

As always, Schmidt built his first line press with a forward-duo, which was supported by the wide-men. Calhanoglu and Volland tended to let the back three have the ball as their pressing orientation blocked the central access in addition to the Gladbach 6s.

As Leverkusen blocked the central access, BMG would try to progress through the wide area, through the wide CB’s. Here, Kampl and Karim Bellarabi, depending where the ball was circulated, would move up to press the ball-carrying CB.

As always, it’s been a difficult task to play through the Schmidt’s press. If the Foals insisted on playing through the central area, there were real possibilities that they would be trapped and allow a quick counter to Leverkusen.

Leverkusen's initial pressing shape vs Gladbach's build-up play.
Leverkusen’s initial pressing shape vs Gladbach’s build-up play.

So what did Gladbach do to overcome Leverkusen’s press?

The solution was to play wide and reach the “pocket area” in the ball-side half space. By feeding the ball to the “pocket player” (e.g. Stindl or one of the 9s), the Foals tried to create direct progression centrally.

In one sequence, Stindl occupied the ball-side half space. One of Gladbach’s ball-carrying CBs would try to reach him with a quick ground pass. In the centrer, at 2 o’clock from Stindl, there would be Kramer ready to support as the alternative passing-option if Stindl didn’t find good enough option directly to the front liner.

The other scenario was to generate the third-man run so they could penetrate Leverkusen’s half. In this scheme, BMG used Kramer as the player in the initial wave of play. As we can see, Kramer would move wide to the touchline, and in doing so, created three possible options.

First, he could ask for a pass and played it fast forward to the ball-side half-space occupier. Two, he might ruin the horizontal compactness so the ball-carrying CB in the first line would be able to directly feed to the ball-side half-space player. Or, three, Kramer could ask for a pass and made a dummy-move to allow the ball rolled to the wide-man.

But, it was never easy to beat Leverkusen’s compact press. When Gladbach were able to reach the touchline, Schmidt’s boys had been ready for their trap as that was the situation they wanted. Trapping the opponent on the wide area and shifted the block horizontally to overload (4-v-2 or 4-v-3) and trap the opponent.

It was hardly an efficient tactic, as Gladbach’s players missed many passes from such play. B04 got some throw-ins from such mistakes. On the other occasions, Schubert’s boys were simply stopped as there was not enough space to play through.

But, hey, such a pattern led to Gladbach’s equalizer!

Mönchengladbach's progression through the wide area.
Mönchengladbach’s progression through the wide area.

Because when The Foals insisted to play it through the central area, this happened:

Tobias Strobl received a pass in the central area. The support was bad and he was forced to play it back. You can see how well Aránguiz pressed Strobl. He put a press from the back (blind side) at the right time. It didn’t result a possession-gain, but it stopped the progression.

On other occasions, such compact pressing had helped Leverkusen to generate an effective trap. One moment was from the first half in 11:32. From the right touchline, Traore passed horizontally to the half-space to Strobl.

As soon as Traore released the ball, Volland and Baumgartlinger pressed Strobl (backward and forward press) and, guess what? Leverkusen stole the ball. Unfortunately, Traore was able to regain it as he stopped Baumgartlinger’s movement. But, the point is clear. Again, Schmidt’s players created a good press in a numerical superiority situation.

Here the deficiency was observed. Leverkusen failed to consistently maintain their compact press. When that occurred, Borussia Mönchengladbach managed to exploit the situation by gaining access through the 6. It happened when Bayer’s wide man positioned himself too wide from the central players, resulting in poor defensive access.

Quick forward passing gave Gladbach the chance to overload the ball side area near half-space and the touchline, before switching it to the underloaded side of Bayer’s defense. Sounds fit to Leverkusen heavy ball-oriented style, doesn’t it?

Another factor that helped The Foals in overcoming Leverkusen’s press was the excellent ball-keeping skill of their players. There were 3-4 occasions where Leverkusen managed to trap the ball carrier with a good press, but the likes of Strobl, Traore, or Kramer were able to beat it.

Such pressure-resistance combined with staggering shape within the structural block, in turn, had also enabled them to create some promising counterattacks.

Mönchengladbach 3-4-1-2 Press versus Leverkusen’s Deep Build-up

4) BMG initial pressing shape. Gladbach initial pressing shape. A good initial shape. Blocking the central access and creates a numerical superiority (3v2) in the crucial area, as Stindl and two BMG’s players (white dots) occupied two Leverkusen players.
Gladbach’s good initial pressing shape, blocking central access and creating numerical superiority (3-v-2) in the crucial area, as Stindl and two other Foals players (white dots) opposed two Leverkusen players.

Good but not that good. Leverkusen managed to gain some access, particularly caused by the premature pressing-movement by Lars Stindl. In this situation, Leverkusen responded by (as one of their deep build-up progression schemes) using Aránguiz as the vertical access and also dropping Volland slightly deeper to the 10.

5) Using 6 for progression access combined with the dropping-deep 9 to create numerical superiority in the middle.
Using the 6 for progression purposes, combined with the deep-dropping 9 to create numerical superiority in the middle.

Stindl and Hahn were out of position. Bernd Leno passed the ball to Aránguiz. Raffael, the nearest opposite player, pressed the Chilean. Take notice of Volland’s positioning. He dropped deep to engage Strobl (whilst Baumgartlinger held Kramer up) so Aránguiz had more time and space to think what to do next. In this moment, Aránguiz passed it back to Jonathan Tah. The pass fits the situation. It allowed Tah to move forward because no one kept him from progressing, as Raffael had been dragged deeper by Aránguiz. Tah passed it to Tin Jedvad on the wide area, Aránguiz made use of it by moving up to the near-ball half-space. By occupying the ball-side half-space, the midfielder was able to make three consecutive actions shortly by overloading the near-ball area, receiving the pass from Jedvaj, and progressed the attack. As the attack progressed to the final third, the problem occurred. In Leverkusen’s third phase of attack, Calhanoglu and Volland were barely able to make positive plays to help penetrate into the box. It might be simply that Volland is still relatively new to the squad and Schmidt’s tactics. He often found it difficult to find proper space etc.

On other occasions, their wide area penetration (diagonal move from wide to more central area) didn’t get enough support. The support-players was just too far (can it be considered as support, then?) from the ball carrier, making it easy for Gladbach to overload the carrier (even in a 3-v-1) and taking back possession.

The Need to Equalize

Leverkusen’s greater intensity in their first wave high block press resulted in imore long ballw forward from BMG’s early third. But, on the other hand, BMG seemed to play it deliberately. They directed it to Andre Hahn, making him the initial target.

Some changes were also made by both coaches. Joel Pohjanpalo came in to replace the injured Aránguiz resulting in Kampl playing in central midfield.  That actually was a  positive change, because of Kampl’s play-making abilities . The other two changes also impacted positively, Julian Brandt and Admir Mehmedi brought some fresh spirit and more aggressive play up-front.

By the way, Roger Schmidt clearly altered his usual approach. His team was less aggressive and not heavily emphasize on transition play and counter-pressing. Leverkusen were more passive than most of the match they played. If Schmidt able to improve this kind of defensive play and also the way they distribute the ball, we’ll see next level of Leverkusen which more capable of reaching higher achievement.


To say Leverkusen was inferior to Gladbach is wrong-headed. They were not. And, on the other hand, if someone said Schmidt’s side were slightly better I’d not argue that. But it doesn’t mean Schubert’s side were worse. What they were capable of, particularly their fast counter attack, was also worth mentioning as it gave them many promising chances.

Saturday’s match revealed some positive tactical play from both teams, which surely will be useful not only in their Bundesliga campaigns but also in their respective European challenges.

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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.

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