November 18, 2017

Bayer Leverkusen – 2017-18 Season Preview — It’s Gotta be Better

Basics

Name: Bayer 04 Leverkusen Fußball GmbH
Nicknames: Die Werkself (an original 50+1 escape route), Vizekusen (Neverkusen; originated from 2001-02 close shave season and embraced (or surrendered) by club fans with time)
Founded: 1 July 1904 (the football department separated from the sports club – TSV Bayer 04 Leverkusen e.V – in 1999 to become Bayer 04 Leverkusen GmbH)
Club colors: Red, white and black (they ditched their traditional “red and black” for “red and white” in 1984 until the retro jersey (reduced to the anonymity of the third kit, by then) made a great impression on fans in a memorable league game against Eintracht Frankfurt – which also produced Bernd Schuster’s Goal of the Decade (1990s) – ten years later.)
Primary rivals: 1. FC Köln (a class war. Peter Stöger’s altercations with Roger Schmidt were the recent highlights), Fortuna Düsseldorf (allegedly bonded with Köln in “we all hate a plastic club” bandwagon), KFC Uerdingen 05 (also used to have Bayer AG as their sponsors back in the day)
Fan friendship: Kickers Offenbach (little did he know, Cha Bum-Kun, long before his move to Leverkusen, played his role here)

BayArena

Former name: Ulrich-Haberland-Stadion (1958-1998)

Capacity: 30,210 (league), 29,412 (international – no need for at least another season)
2016-17 attendance (source: transfermarkt) : 483,269 (28,428 per match) (6 sold out matches, 94.1% of full capacity)

Trophies

2. Bundesliga: 1978-79

DFB Pokal: 1992-93

UEFA Cup: 1987-88

2016-17 Finishes

Bundesliga: 12th with 41 points (53 goals scored, 55 allowed, -2 GD)

Champions League: Round of 16 (4-2 agg. defeat to Atlético Madrid)

DFB Pokal: 2nd round (6-5 loss on penalties to third-tier Sportfreunde Lotte)

Number of Matches won by 2 or more goals: 7 in Bundesliga (8 in total)
Number of Matches won by 1 goal: 4 (6)
Number of Matches drawn: 8 (13 – 5 of 8 Champions League matches)
Number of Matches lost by 1 goal: 11 (11)
Number of Matches lost by 2 or more goals: 4(5)
Number of matches in which a lead was blown, resulting in loss: 2 (3)
Number of matches in which a lead was blown, resulting in draw: 2 (5)
Number of matches in which a deficit was overcome to earn a draw: 5 (5)
Number of matches in which a deficit was overcome to earn victory: 3 (3) – none since October

Top 2016-17 Scorers

Javier ‘Chicharito’ Hernández: 11 in Bundesliga (13 in total)

Kevin Volland: 6 (9)

Hakan Calhanoglu: 6 (7)

Joel Pohjanpalo: 6 (6)

Summer Test Results

Record: 1-3-3
Goals Scored: 15
Goals Allowed: 15

8 July: Leverkusen 6-0 VfB Speldorf (Highlights) – B04’s only test win and Stefan Kießling’s goal was the difference between the sides until the match entered its final quarter.

14 July: Würzburger Kickers 3-0 Leverkusen (Goals) – The club who got relegated from Bundesliga 2. (and well ahead of Die Werkself in preparations since they were only one week away from the 3. Liga season start at the time) secured a comprehensive win against Leverkusen in Hollenbach.

19 July: Bonner SC 2-2 Leverkusen – In Sven Bender’s Leverkusen debut, the Regionalliga side left it late to come from two goals down, scoring the equalizer three minutes from time.

23 July: SV Sandhausen 3-2 Leverkusen – B04’s opponents, once again, only had a week before the season starts in form of the Bundesliga 2. campaign. Sandhausen opened the scoring through Richard Sukuta-Pasu, who joined Leverkusen at the age of 10 and also started his professional career at the club. Leverkusen turned the tables before another comeback, this time from Sandhausen, left them with their second defeat of the pre-season.

27 July: Leverkusen 1-1 Antalyaspor (Goals) – Another late goal denied Leverkusen a win in their first test match in Austria’s training camp. Heiko Herrlich was able to welcome the newly-crowned Confederation Cup winners Bernd Leno, Julian Brandt and Benjamin Henrichs for the first time. Kießling, who is no stranger to the physically strained business of professional football, caused the huge scare after he was left lying on the ground in the center circle. After the match, Herrlich confirmed it was, fortunately, only “a dead leg”.

30 July: Leverkusen 1-3 Lazio (Highlights) – There were more returnees for Herrlich’s squad with Jonathan Tah and Lars Bender running out for the first time. The latter’s inclusion meant the Bender twins played together at the club level for the first time since their seven-year stint at 1860 Munich. It barely confused the Serie A side, however, as they scored all the three goals before the hour mark.

5 August: Leverkusen 3-3 Celta Vigo (Goals) – After going two-goals down, Leverkusen fought back to take the lead with three goals in space of twelve minutes. A late goal from the visiting La Liga side denied Leverkusen another victory, leaving Herrlich’s troops with only one win from seven test games.

Questions with a fan:

Like the previous season, the excellent crew over at Neverkusen Podcast opened the door for us to collaborate for this section. Patrick (@mundilev), one of the four regulars on the show, will answer our questions this time around. Neverkusen Podcast will be back with a new episode in the next few days.

What is your standout Bayer Leverkusen memory from last season?

We are all trying to put behind our disappointing 2016/17 campaign and you dare to ask this question? 🙂

There is not really a standout memory for us in the Bundesliga, having finished 12th, the lowest ranking in 14 years (season 2002/03: 15th).

So the only positive memory that stands out is the Wembley CL victory against Tottenham with Kampl diving into our fan crowd. That was an amazing outburst of joy in front of the TV for me, I can’t imagine what it was like for the people like our podcast colleague Frieda who was in the stadium.

At that point, you would think that this kind of moment would turn a season around, but we ended up suffering throughout, culminating in a typhoon right till the end (Tayfun Korkut).

Leverkusen’s highlight of 2016-17 season: Kampl celebrating his match-winner with the traveling supporters in Wembley

Keep an eye out for . . .

Having to let go some of our more experienced players at very lucrative prices (Toprak 12 million EUR, Chicharito 18 million EUR, Calhanoglu 22 million EUR) it will give more playing time to some players that already showed last season to have the necessary quality to play in a team targeting Champions League places.

Foremost, our 18-years-old wonderkid Kai Havertz, who we just extended on a five-year deal. Being our youngest Bundesliga debutant (17 years and 126 days), he has an amazing touch on the ball in Mesut Özil kind of fashion but also demonstrates Michel Ballack attributes such as toughness and well-timed penetrations into the rival’s area.

Based on his pre-season performance, Leon Bailey, who we signed from Genk in the last winter break despite interests from several Premier League outfits (Chelsea, Manchester United), also likely to get more playing time. In terms of pace, he is one of quickest wingers in Europe but not only that, he is able to pair that with excellent ball handling and finishing. The only concern is whether he will focus on the pitch or as last season produce outside headlines, such as the social media incident with a boxer who was trying to hunt him down to teach him a personal lesson.

Lastly, don’t forget to keep an eye out on Danger, Joel Pohjanpalo, he had a good scoring record last season in his limited playing time coming off the bench. He doesn’t need to think too much in front of goal and knows how to effectively convert goal scoring chances, which is something that Volland and Kießling have not been very effective last year.

Terrace favorite . . .

Stefan Kießling, for living Bayer Leverkusen in the way every hard-core supporter does.

Player that should be driven to another club . . .

Julian Baumgartlinger, we signed him to add age to the squad, but he was not able to accommodate well to Schmidt’s football idea. Under Korkut, he did get more chances to play, but the difference in technical quality between him and the rest of the squad is very apparent. He is on the way out, surely a good move for him too, as he can be an important player to a middle of the table Bundesliga team.

Advice you’d give your manager . . .

Use this season well to develop the team as the Calendar is going to allow for more training sessions and try to find the equilibrium again between defending and attacking.

Reaching a Europa League position with a fairly consistent season will already be enough relief to a lot of fans. If you can make the Champions League and/or advance to the final stages of the DFB Pokal, you are going to ride on the wave of euphoria again as in the first season of Roger Schmidt.

Opposition player you despise . . .

Any Cologne player, now also Tim Handwerker, a Leverkusen youth player who decided to move to the other side of the Rhein. (Writer note: You’ve been warned, Baumgartlinger)

What will opposing sides underestimate?

Our work-rate, hopefully. Heiko Herrlich has put a lot of emphasis on fitness and toughness in the pre-season, which he blames for the poor pre-season results and the need for extra-time win against Karlsruher SC in the DFB Pokal.

What are fans overestimating?

There is a good awareness that the domestic competition is not becoming easier with Leipzig joining the fight for the European positions. We have a hefty positive transfer balance, the team is being reshuffled, so the sense is there that Champions League position is not a must for this squad.

Tip you’d give foreign fans visiting BayArena for the first time

Arrive 3-4 hours before the game to the stadium, grab some beers with the crowd at the Stadioneck. This will make up for it, even if Bayer doesn’t play as expected on that day.

Whose summer departure will hurt the team the most throughout the season?

Compared to the form of the said players last season, none, as everyone was playing well below their potentials. A good Chicharito (like when he joined us) will be missed in the same way as Manchester United missed him two seasons back. Nevertheless, we are expecting to the next generation of talented players making their break-through.

Where will B04 finish?

Close to the Champions League spot, but slightly outside: 5th place

When last we saw them

Leverkusen’s 2016-17 campaign was one for those who love to lecture you about Bundesliga’s competitiveness bar the party-poopers from Bavaria. With Borussia Dortmund indulged in a busy summer to replace star names with prospects, the general pre-season prediction went that Roger Schmidt’s reinforced side will be the club to present the perennial champions Bayern München the faintest of title races. Of course, Bayern lifted their fifth championship on the bounce with familiar ease. Leverkusen? Well, how about their worst showing since the minor fluke in which Klaus Augenthaler had to come to rescue the club from relegation in 2002-03, for a change?

There were hardly any signs of decline at the season start. They did lose the league curtain raiser at Borussia Mönchengladbach, but, all told, it was only after a tantalizing game of football, which was enough to throw the familiar “great advertisement for Bundesliga” tag. A new hero emerged from Leverkusen’s first home game of the season, as the guy with a tongue-twister name scored a hat-trick in space of eleven final minutes to secure a stunning late win against Hamburger SV. Joel Pohjanpalo, who spent the previous two seasons at the Bundesliga 2. side Fortuna Düsseldorf on loan, meant business by scoring all of Leverkusen’s four goals after two round of fixtures, despite being on the field for thirty minutes.

He continued to struggle for playing time throughout the campaign, however, with his early exploit quickly forgotten with the existence of some highly-rated strikers in Bayer’s squad. None met the hefty expectations, unfortunately, as Kai Havertz and Benjamin Henrichs – both yet to celebrate their 20th birthday – had to emerge in shaping Leverkusen’s season. With all due respect to the future stars, that was a far cry from what has been expected in Rodger Schmidt’s third season at the helm.

Speaking of the much-heralded manager, who has been on the radar of some of the big clubs despite creating a rather unpleasing headline a season earlier, Schmidt was sacked by Leverkusen ten days before celebrating his fiftieth birthday. In the wake of his team’s 2-0 victory against Borussia Dortmund on the first day of October, Schmidt had to defend his aggressive approach. When the two sides met in the reverse fixture back in March, Thomas Tuchel, who was left infuriated with the defeat at BayArena as Leverkusen committed 21 fouls and only had 35% of the ball, provided the final straw in Schmidt’s Leverkusen tenure with a 6-2 success.

Schmidt was living on a borrowed time, with the memorable night at Wembley the exception to the rule. The side struggled for consistency in the league, as they finished the season without avoiding defeats in three consecutive matches since September. The news that former Hannover and Kaiserslautern coach Tayfun Korkut replacing Schmidt was met by Leverkusen fans with the same vein as Barcelona supporters are reacting towards Paulinho’s recent arrival. And..the fans discontent was reasonable — under the Turkish manager’s tutelage, Leverkusen only managed to win two matches from eleven league games – one against cellar-dwellers Darmstadt and the other in the final matchday at Hertha Berlin, when there was nothing left to play for.

In fact, Korkut had to save the club from the danger zone he brought in at the first place. Leverkusen were still in the relegation mix before salvaging a comeback draw in the penultimate weekend against fierce rivals Köln. For all the drawbacks of Korkut, the new man in charge had a similar fate as Schmidt, one in which star players consistently performed below expectations. Usually a proven goal scorer. Chicharito went eleven games without a single strike in the first half of the season, starting the season with a broken hand before muscular problems furthered his struggles to find form. Leverkusen’s marquee summer signing, Kevin Volland went until February to get his first league goal in B04’s colors, as the early dismissal against his former team Hoffenheim and niggling injury problems didn’t help his cause.

As expected, Stefan Kießling is easing to retirement – now confirmed to be at the end of this season – as the former Torjägerkanone winner only managed nine league goals over the past two seasons. If you love going through record books, it was another memorable campaign for Karim Bellarabi after notching Bundesliga’s 50,000th goal, but he spent almost the entire Hinrunde on the sidelines after his muscle torn in the second matchday. The likes of Admir Mehmedi and Kevin Kampl are known for their workhorse attitudes but they didn’t have the best of seasons, while Hakan Calhanoglu was suspended for four months in 2017 by football’s governing body for a breach of contract that had nothing to do with Leverkusen. Looking at his impressive tally of assists, Julian Brandt had a much better season but he was too often missing in action on big occasions.

Saving the “best” for last, Leverkusen’s progression from a highly competitive Champions League group gave the fans some distraction from their indifferent domestic form (they also crashed out of the DFB Pokal by the hands of third-tier club Sportfreunde Lotte). They started the competition with three successive draws before the stunning success at Tottenham Hotspur revived their chances of salvaging another Champions League knockout spot. They thrashed last season’s sensations Monaco 3-0 in the final match of the group to keep intact their unbeaten streak but only finished second behind the eventual Ligue 1 champions. With their previous hard-fought meeting still fresh in mind, Leverkusen were confident ahead of their tie against Atlético Madrid but Diego Simeone’s side all but sealed their progress with a comprehensive 4-2 win at BayArena in the first leg.

Aspiration

If there is any lingering thought of Leverkusen playing to knock Bayern off their perch, the lack of something similar to this from Leverkusen’s camp will ruin the dream. Europe – even Europa League will do – is the main motive at this time. Despite the departure of players who are regular fixtures to Bayer’s strong starting lineup, Leverkusen will hope to get back midweek football with the help of some of the league’s brightest talents.

Reality

As we mentioned in Schalke’s preview, the number of teams fighting to restore their reputations makes predicting the teams finishing in European places a daunting task. We noticed that the gap between teams fighting for continental football berth and relegation dogfight was not as big as one envisaged from last season’s competitive campaign. Add the promotions of former regular mainstays Hannover and Stuttgart in place of perennial underdogs Ingolstadt and Darmstadt to the equation, and what remains is a legitimate, highly competitive league.

The Boss

Former Bayer Leverkusen striker Heiko Herrlich is appointed to the task of lifting the club to its former heights; at least, following the forgettable times under Korkut. Although Leverkusen were the club to give Herrlich his first professional contract in 1989, it was with Borussia Dortmund he enjoyed his best years as a player, winning two Bundesliga titles, the Champions League, Torjägerkanone (1994-95, jointly) and a memorable bite from Oliver Kahn. He was diagnosed with malignant brain tumor in 2000, and even though he made his comeback after successful therapies, his playing career was effectively over before he turned 30.

He coached Germany U-17 and U-19 sides preceded by brief spells at VfL Bochum and SpVgg Unterhaching. After three years of hiatus, he returned to the hot seat with Regionalliga Bayern side Jahn Regensburg in 2015. Following two successive promotions, the Red Shorts are currently playing in the 2. Bundesliga. For his part in lifting the modest club to the second-tier, Herrlich is rewarded with his first managerial post in the Bundesliga. At age 45, he could look insanely old for some of his Bundesliga counterparts, but he will surely bring a fresh perspective for the side keen to put behind their last season’s misery.

Philosophy

Leverkusen looked susceptible at the back and unable to finish off their chances in front of goal in the pre-season actions. Against Karlsruhe, Herrlich’s side needed the help of extra-time to seal their progress to the second round of the cup, although the final scoreline (3-0) rather gave an impression of a comfortable win. Summer arrivals Sven Bender and Kohr will certainly keep the fighting spirit of the side, as Leverkusen are filled with players who will fight for every ball for the entirety of the match. From the exuberant fullback Wendell to criminally underrated all-rounder Admir Mehmedi, Herrlich will have no problem of instilling energetic playing style at BayArena (fruits of Schmidt’s excellent work).

Plan B

Go with a starting XI of U20 players. When big things were expected from the star players, the services of Benjamin Henrichs and Kai Havertz proved priceless in steadying the ship for Leverkusen. With the new coach’s experience of working in youth level, one could expect similar outputs for the upcoming season.

Notable Transfers

As it can be seen from the below list, the players seeing the exit door is excessive compared to incoming transfers. That could be a bad thing by itself even if we don’t consider the bad season Bayer Leverkusen had last term. But, in Bender and Kohr – putting aside the excessive cash splashed to reunite the former with his twin brother – they signed versatile players who could bring stability in the middle of the park. Kampl was lurking on his departure from Leverkusen and could still leave before the final day of August, although the move to follow Schmidt’s footsteps to Chinese Super League ruled out for at least another six months.

Out:

  • Hakan Calhanoglu (AC Milan)
  • Javier “Chicharito” Hernandez (West Ham)
  • Ömer Toprak (Borussia Dortmund)
  • Kyriakos Papadopoulos (Papa) (Hamburger SV)
  • Danny da Costa (Eintracht Frankfurt)
  • Roberto Hilbert (Free)

In:

  • Sven Bender (Borussia Dortmund)
  • Dominick Kohr (Augsburg)

Strengths

Youth, grit, preseason and no European distractions. Havertz graduated from high-school – remember the exam Vs. Champions League? bit – and signed a long-term contract extension (raise your hand if you believe players respect these things anymore), while fullback Henrichs was part of the Confederation Cup winning side (risking a fine by his club, whose age-old motto is staying away from trophies). Lest we forget, Brandt was one of the star performers of Joachim Löw’s makeshift side and he’s still only 20, like defensive stalwart Jonathan Tah.

For those of you who like to complain that young players are soft, Leverkusen are blessed with players who run their socks off for their team as previously mentioned. Both on and off the pitch, Chicharito’s exit will clearly need more time to get used to – unless you’re that guy who sent golden tweets on the behalf of the club – but there are still plenty of options for Herrlich in the final third of the pitch. With Leverkusen’s European adventures usually ending with heavy defeats in recent seasons, the fact that there will be none this season could not be a bad thing at all, in addition to easing the calendar for the team. The financial guys would beg to differ, of course.

The preseason results were hardly impressive but the fact that Leverkusen were able to avoid chaotic and overhyped friendlies (looking at you, International Champions Cup) could prove vital in their season.

Weaknesses

Key players departures, consistency and lack of experience. Although they were overachievers in last season’s abysmal campaign, Leverkusen lost three bona fide starters – Toprak, Calhanoglu and Chicharito – at the same time after keeping the core of the team last term. Herrlich brings a decade of managerial experience but this will be the first time he leads a first division squad. Addressing Leverkusen’s inconsistency will certainly be one of the main objectives for the guy who received his coaching license back in 2005.

Crucial Stretch in Schedule

Bayer Leverkusen were selected by the DFL to feature in the league’s curtain raiser against the five-time defending champions Bayern München, who scored eleven goals without a reply in the previous two opening day fixtures. Although they felt hard done by last season’s narrow defeat at the Allianz Arena, little will be expected from Leverkusen on Friday, automatically making the home game against Hoffenheim as their first test of the season. The fixture list will be more generous in the coming weeks until the crucial head-to-head matchups against fellow European-hopefuls midway through the half season. They will face Schalke, Wolfsburg and rivals Borussia Mönchengladbach in succession before finishing off October with a big derby clash against Köln.

Verdict

7th. Leverkusen will be fighting for one of the European places but they could only make it if the cup winners already secured their place via league position (by my calculations). Alternatively winning the DFB Pokal could be another route – Herrlich was part of the team who lifted Leverkusen’s only domestic cup in 1992-93, although he didn’t feature in the cup run at all with Andreas Thom and Ulf Kirsten starring up front – to return midweek action to Leverkusen.

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Eskender born and raised in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Despite the geographical difference, he is interested in every detail of German football. He breathes football to the point that he gets pleasure from nutmegging his innocent kid. You can also follow him on Twitter @eskeBMG

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