The 2017/2018 season for Bayer Leverkusen was much more positive than many had anticipated. However, with the realization of just how close the side was to finishing in the Champions League places, it’s challenging to see just how good things were for the club and its fans. It would be a tough pill to swallow for that issue alone, but considering that players could move on now that the side has missed out on Europe’s premier competition, it makes this even harder to take.
Leverkusen seemed to really hit their stride at the start of the Ruckrunde. Despite beginning the second half of the season with a 3-1 loss at home to Bayern Munich, they immediately regained top form. A 4-1 victory away to Hoffenheim, vaulted the club into second place. They would remain there for both Matchdays 21 and 22, with a win over Mainz and a draw at Freiburg. Lucas Alario continued to show his seamless transition to the Bundesliga at this time, netting a brace at Hoffenheim, and then assisting twice in the 2-0 victory over the 05ers. Alario was named to the Bundesliga’s Team of the week following the game over Mainz, while winger Leon Bailey was named as the Bundesliga’s man of the matchday for his sublime backheel goal in the victory for Hoffenheim.
After Matchday 30, the 4-1 win over Eintracht Frankfurt that moved the club into third place, Leverkusen scored just three times, all in the win over Hannover to finish the season, and finished in 5th place, missing out on Champions League next year solely by goal differential. It was clear that the attackers wore out as the season progressed. Indeed it appears that Coach Heiko Herrlich didn’t rotate his squad enough in his first season coaching in Germany’s first division. Strikers Joel Pohjanpalo and club legend Stefan Kiessling made just 8 appearances apiece for the club this season. At the other end of the spectrum, Kevin Volland made 35 appearances and played over 3000 minutes this season, while Julian Brandt appeared in every match the club played this season. A touch more rotation through these parts of the squad and things could have ended better.
Die Werkself conceded 44 goals this season, good for the fifth fewest in the league. But there were still some issues that will raise eyebrows. InStat data shows that the club conceded 13 goals from set pieces, which is 30% of the season total. Those who have been following Bayer for a few years won’t be surprised by that information and can only hope that Herrlich finally finds a way to correct this in the offseason. Those same statistics showed that opponents attacked nearly equally through the center and both flanks, however they sent in roughly 50% more crosses into the box when attacking down the right side.
The Index score shows what people already knew, that despite playing just one half of football, Aleksandar Dragovic earned the lowest index score of a 256. Surprisingly, or maybe not so much, Tin Jedvaj was just marginally better, with a score of 257. Sven Bender and Jonathan Tah were the consistent ones on the back line. Both were also adept at moving the ball, with them completing 89% and 88% respectively. As well they were dominant in the air, as both won at least two-thirds of their aerial duels. Backin goal, Bernd Leno posted a respectable save percentage of 73%. He averaged conceding a goal every 77 minutes and posted 10 shutouts, good for a tie for fifth most in the league. However, many would argue the 26-year-old is not consistent enough, which might explain why the club has already made a move at this position.
One problem that plagued Die Werkself this season was conceding early goals. Seven goals, or 15% of the opponent’s goals were scored in the first 15 minutes of the match while Leverkusen scored just three times in during this early segment of matches. When conceding during that stretch the team earned just one win and two draws this season from a total of six games like this.
The Bayer midfield was certainly one of the stronger ones in the Bundesliga, showing excellent amounts of flair and graft when necessary. Leon Bailey became a household name this season, scoring nine goals and assisting six others. He also seemed to be on a mission to destroy as many defenders one on one that he could. Unfortunately, Bailey could be on the move this summer, but we’ll get into that later on.
Also showing their talents were Julian Brandt and Kai Havertz. Despite having a combined age that would be acceptable for a mid-life crisis, together they scored 12 goals and had a dozen assists. One reason for Brandt’s strong season is his ability to play throughout the midfield. While he played mostly on the left, he also spent time on the right and centrally. Havertz almost exclusively plays through the middle, providing another headache behind the attackers.
.The steel in midfield was provided by Julian Baumgartlinger, Lars Bender, and Charles Aranguiz. Bender earned the highest Index score of any Leverkusen player despite playing in only 21 games. He also tallied six assists, tied with Bailey for the second most on the squad. Aranguiz and Baumgartlinger helped to set the tone with their possession, as they averaged the most passes per 90 minutes of anyone on the team, which 65 and 59 respectively.
The Leverkusen attack was quite proficient this season. Kevin Volland finished in a tie for third for the Torjägerkanone at 14 goals, alongside Niclas Füllkrug from Hannover, and Mark Uth, who spent this season at Hoffenheim but will be with Schalke next season. Volland has seemingly taken the next step with the club in terms of goal scoring. He is the focal point of the attack but could still work to improve his passing, as he completed only 76% of his passes, and provided only two assists this season.
If Bayer had a newcomer of the year award, Lucas Alario would be the runaway winner. The 25-year-old Argentine arrived in September following a protracted transfer of €24 million from River Plate. But it seemed that Alario’s talent would be able to compensate to the challenge of overcoming a new country, language, and culture. However that was quickly dispelled in his first game at home to Hamburg SV. Alario started the match and scored in the 23rd minute, before assisting on Kevin Volland’s late goal to complete a 3-0 romp. All told he scored nine goals assisted on four others playing only about half of the team’s minutes.
Leverkusen’s biggest problem in attack was depth, as Herrlich did not seem to trust the other attackers in the squad. Club legend Stefan Kiessling played just 103 minutes all season, which many would argue he deserved more in his final season considering all that he had given the club in his 444 matches across all competitions for the club. Herrlich also didn’t show much faith in Joel Pohjanpalo. A super-sub early last season before suffering injury, the Finn played just 127 minutes and scored a solitary goal this season. Integrating both Kiessling and Pohjanpalo better into a rotation might have helped the club late in the season, when both Alario and Volland were missing games for card accumulation.
The club brought in four players who ended up making key contributions this season. As mentioned before Alario stepped seamlessly into the attack this season, while Sven Bender joined his brother’s team and brought stability to the backline. Other newcomers were Dominik Kohr and Panagiotsis Retsos. The defensive midfielder Kohr joined from Augsburg in a deal for €2 million. Kohr brought an increased stability to the midfield and actually played more minutes this season than both Lars Bender and Julian Baumgartlinger.
The 19-year-old Retsos joined from Greek side Olympiakos back in August and seemed to transition fairly well to the Bundesliga. The Greek international made 24 appearances and scored once, while adding three assists. He also provided some flexibilty, transfermarkt.co.uk shows that he played at least five matches at each position in defense.
At the other end of the spectrum, die Werkself saw many talented players leave the club. Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Hakan Calhanoglu, Omer Toprak, Javier Hernandez, Admir Mehmedi, and Kevin Kampl all left the club before the window closed in August, earning the club €90 million. While it is hard not to think about what the season might have been had some of these players stayed, it was clear that these talents were looking to move on, so keeping them could have been damaging to the squad chemistry.
Looking ahead to this summer the club has already started to get some of its business taken care of. Goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky from Eintracht Frankfurt has joined the side on a free transfer.Hradecky had an excellent season for Die Adler, keeping seven clean sheets. He also helped the club win the DFB Pokal, their first piece of silverware since 1988. Mitchell Weiser is moving over from Hertha BSC. The right defender made 24 appearances this season and will cost the club €12 million. In many ways this is an odd move considering the club already has players like Wendell and Benjamin Henrichs to man the full back positions, so paying that much for someone who may only be a depth player and spell the others during weeks with European matches seems like a mistake.
The one transfer that seems to have gotten everyone excited is the Brazilian teenager Paulinho. The 18-year-old left winger will following his 18th birthday in July from Vasco de Gama for €26.4 million. He started this season brightly for the club but unfortunately he fractured his arm at the beginning of April so it’s uncertain whether he’ll be healthy for the start of the team’s training camp at the end of July. Prior to that he shown talent at both club and country levels. He was a member of Brazil’s U-17 World Cup squad who finished in third place in India last summer. He finished as joint top scorer for his country with three goals and scored the winner against Germany in the quarterfinals in the video below.
Considering that Leverkusen returns to European competition next season, it is imperative for the club to bring in more attacking options. Personally I hope that Pohjanpalo gets more chances next year, but either way a 4th and 5th attacking option will be necessary if the club is to achieve their goals in both competitions. However, it is a real possibility that larger clubs come in and poach either Bailey, Brandt, or both. Using Champions League play as an incentive would have been able to possibly entice those players to stay and ignore those offers, but I doubt the opportunity of Europa League matches will have the same allure.
Player of the Season
There are many candidates for Leverkusen’s season, but all also have some flaws to them. Leon Bailey immediately comes to mind. However, he lacked consistency and finished the season with a whimper, as he scored zero goals and assisted just once in the last 10 match days. Julian Brandt could also earn the nod, with similar statistics while playing every match for the club, but I’m going to give the award to Kevin Volland. He was near the top of the league in goals, and was a constant threat going forward. At 25 years old he can still grow and improve to be one of the most dangerous strikers in the Bundesliga.
While many did not believe that Leverkusen would be challenging for European places (myself included), Herrlich’s squad certainly overachieved in that regards. However, considering how badly they slipped up in order to miss out on Champion League football with four matches remaining, and the season has to be considered a disappointment. Reaching the semifinals of the DFB Pokal is a great accomplishment, but also leaves a sour taste in the fan’s mouth considering how quickly Bayern Munich dispatched them in the 2nd half of a 6-2 thrashing. Hopefully that can give them the confidence to go far in the Europa League, and also qualify for the Champions League next year.
*All stats provided by InStat and Transfermarkt.co.uk.