Tottenham Hotspur 0-1 Bayer Leverkusen: Two Pressing Machines With Different Approaches In Attack

After being eliminated from the DfB Pokal and dismantled by a three goal to zero margin  by Julian Nagelsmann’s Hoffenheim on MatchDay 9, Bayer Leverkusen flew to London for Wednesday’s Champions League second leg matchup with Tottenham Hotspur. The Wembley Stadium contest was a match of two pressing machines, with different approaches on attack by each sides, with Die Werkself winning by a narrow 0-1 scoreline on a goal from Kevin Kampl.  In the October 18 first leg encounter at the BayArena, Die Werkself and Spurs had played to a scoreless draw.

Leverkusen press vs Tottenham build-up and progression

On Wednesday, with his usual 4-2-2-2 basic-shape of press, Leverkusen Coach Roger Schmidt played Admer Mehmedi and Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernandez  to occupy the first-line and Tottenham’s central-defenders. In this phase of play, both Tottenham full-backs pushed higher, occupying the same horizontal line with the six-axis. One of the double-pivot, alternately dropped either to occupy the intermediate-defense or directly got into the back-line to overload the first-line. Julian Baumgartlinger or Charles Aranguiz would follow Tottenham’s 6 to deny the host gaining direct-access through the central area.

Spurs’ Coach Mauricio Pochettino realized this. He didn’t insist on playing through the press in the initial phase of attack. This was why he pushed both full-backs high as he needed them to be the vertical access of the progression. In some specific moments, Tottenham full-backs would have received the direct-pass from Hugo Lloris and managed to create a 2v1 situation against Leverkusen’s full back. Spurs generated such rare moments especially when Leverkusen’s wide-man tucked-in too narrowly towards the center of the pitch and left some space on the wing.

From the full-back, Tottenham would be inverting to the center utilizing the passing-combination between the full-back and the wide-man. Or, if the opportunity occurred, they played directly to the front-line, particularly to Leverkusen’s intermediate-defense trying to exploit the pocket-space between the lines.


Tottenham’s wing orientation and progression scheme.

Against such an offensive-scheme, a defending team have to make sure they defend the intermediate-defense to the right. The role of the central defenders, and other backliners, is crucial here, since they are the ones whose bodies face the opponent’s goal.

As we can see, when Spurs’ defender Kyle Walker released a pass to the elipse-space (the intermediate-defense) the ball reached the area behind the back of all the Leverkusen’s midfielders (the blind-side). It created a quite difficult situation to put any proper immediate press to the receiver. This is why the proper anticipation from the back-line players was crucial, as it might provide the right intensity for onward-presses.

So, were Leverkusen’s central defenders that good at defending the pocket-defense? Not really. They did it well, sometimes, but, at other moments, they didn’t display enough intensity when the need was to move out to make an onward-press to stop Spurs from exploiting that space. The central defenders seemed to be reluctant to vacate their spaces, possibly because of coaching instructions.

Whatever it is, Spurs didn’t always capitalize on such tactical-advantage. But, for Leverkusen and Schmidt, an improvement in this area possibly provided more stablility in their defensive-play.

Tottenham didn’t only try to exploit the vertical space in their penalty-box penetration phase. Within the 1st phase of attack, we can observe the same intentional play. Such opportunity occurred since one of Leverkusen #6 moved up to press the dropped-deep central midfielder of the host. In this specific situation, Lloris would access Walker or Moussa Sissoko with a diagonal long ball and relied on the physical-advantages of the Spurs’ wide-men over Wendell. Theoretically, a flick on to Leverkusen 8 area might give Tottenham a good chance for progression, as one of the guest’s central midfielders, (Baumgartlinger, for instance), was out of his position.

But, again, the structured-press allowed Leverkusen freedom from such situation. The key was the narrow positioning of the far-side wide-man and the proper intensity of backward-press by Baumgartlinger himself.

When the Austrian international moved up, the far-ball wide-man adjusted his positioning by dropping slightly deeper to the middle-line to enable him to access the vacated-space. With such adjustment, he positioned himself in a good defensive-access to the space in the midfielder-line. The far-ball wide-man might have shifted to the center had Baumgartlinger been unable to access the opened-up space. But, the quality intensity of backward-press by Baumgartlinger meant he could track back successfully and give adequate cover to the vacated-space.

Such proper intensity of press also enabled the far-ball wide-man to stay slightly wider – to the half-space – and placed him in the right position to man-mark any Tottenham player around who tried to create progression access through the half-space, in the space between the lines.


Spurs long ball plan against Leverkusen initial pressing-shape

There was also an issue of pressing-intensity within Leverkusen’s middle-press. Spurs gained some natural advantage since they had more players in the central area of the midfield. The staggering between the midfielder-trio combined with the lack of intensity and coordinated pressing from Leverkusen’s central midfielders had sometimes opened up space for Spurs to progress in attack. Again, this showed us how Spurs continuously tried to open and exploit the space in front of Leverkusen’s back-line.

Again and again, Spurs tried to gain the advantage by playing the ball to such vertical-space. The natural numerical-advantage (3v2) played its own part here. Spurs’ central midfielder attempted to engage Leverkusen’s six-duo to provide enough time and space for both wide-men and Dele Alli to occupy the vertical-space. Some promising situationa resulted, but the intensity of the press between the lines  managed to stop many potential progressions.

On the other-side, Son Heung-min didn’t perform as the manager needed him to be. Not a good day for the South Korean. In the second-half, the former Leverkusen and HSV man was subbed out.

Overall, Schmidt’s pressing-play managed to prevent Tottenham from playing comfortably. The diagonal ball to the full back was a good idea but practically it would be hard to gain clean progression from such play, let alone against an intense side like Schmidt’s Leverkusen. Not the best possession-based style display by Pocchetino’s boys.

Who says long-balls are rubbish?

In his initial press, Pocchetino wanted his boys to press as high as possible and force the goalkeeper or the opponent’s first-liners to play a lot of uncomfortable long balls. Against Leverkusen this pressing-style became more logical as Schmidt’s boys are not known to be a good side at playing from the back. By pressing them high, the opponent would have definitely have forced Leverkusen to launch a number of long balls, with Spurs making a lot of recoveries and regaining possession.

Sounds good, doesn’t it? Yes, but, not!

Schmidt, for sure, had realized he would have had to face such a pattern of pressing. Thus what Schmidt did was something he has been well-known for. Spurs wanted him to play it long, then Schmidt said yes to the invitation. In responding to this kind of press, Schmidt focused more on the transitional phase. The transition-play means a team tries to force the opponent to get into the transitional-phase and counter-press them to regain possession.

He asked his troops to play it long on their goal kicks or other possible longball situations. And, guess what? Die Werkself managed to gain a lot of second-balls from their long ball plays. Leverkusen earned no less than 17 recoveries or advantage-situations from such play. Schmidt’s purposely long ball worked well this time.

It worked very well particularly on the static long-ball (free-kick or goal-kick) play that allowed enough time for Leverkusen’s players to regroup and be shaped in a proper formation. By establishing a proper shape, it was easier to regain possession by winning the second-ball battles.


Individually, if there was a player to get a lot of applause, it was Javier Hernandez. For such a specific long-ball plan, Hernandez was the one who fits the bill. The Mexican has been well-recognized by his very intelligent-positioning in an aerial duel. This is a very unique ability. Hernandez is definitely not a tall player. But somehow, Hernandez’ skillset includes very good anticipation which enables him to win a lot of aerial battles. This unique ability earned many flick ons for Leverkusen to gain possession in the opponent’s half.

When it came the chance to play a more established-possession, Schmidt also used the wide-area to get through the center of Tottenham’s defense. Leverkusen tried to play quick-passing play to create space to get through. One of the 6, usually Baumgartlinger, would move up and wide to overload the ball-side flank or half-space, create a numerical-superiority situation, and to help penetrating the ball into the opponent’s 18 yard box.

Final words

After couple of bad results, Roger Schmidt’s fans should have been more relaxed, as this crucial win might have loosened the pressure on the emotional tactician. Leverkusen played their football and they reacted well to the host’s pressing-play.

Tottenham were not particularly impressive in possession. They tried to implement their plan, but couldn’t generate it to the maximum level. Leverkusen’s press, despite some deficiencies within, managed to halt the host’ possession and offensive-plan.

In summary, it was an interesting tactical battle, as expected, and a much better match than the scoreline suggests. This was the clash between two unique managers who advocates the highly-interesting and intense pressing-style of play.


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

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