November 22, 2017

Leverkusen 4 – 4 AS Roma: Schmidt’s Zunkunftfußball on Tour

Regardless of what happens today, yesterday’s 4-4 feast of a draw between Bayer Leverkusen and AS Roma at the BayArena is the match of the round. Perhaps feast is the wrong descriptor. Let’s try avant-garde installation piece instead. Adapting this descriptor instead, has avant-gardeism ever been so much fun? (Hmmmm.)

Of course, all the fun should be attributed to Roger Schmidt’s vision and tactics for Tuesday’s match. For over a season now, in the Bundesliga, we’ve come to identify Schmidt’s hyper-pressing system at Leverkusen, which features an excessive number ball-seekers flooding forward to win back the ball quickly (a la Kloppian gegen-pressing) then flooding the width of the opponent’s box. To pull off this goal, Schmidt shoves his backline high (high, damnit!) up the pitch and clogs the central midfield. Oh, did I mention his system requires running? Lots of running. More running than anyone else, perhaps. And yet because every footballing system contains the seeds of its own demise, Schmidt’s system is very vulnerable to counter-attacks, aerial balls over the top, or errant turnovers from his own boys.

But, golly if it isn’t fun.

I can think of no other club playing this consummately courageous, risky, and avant-garde football. Call it Zunkunftfußball, that is “future football” or “football of the future.” I call it avant-garde, because, like any functional piece of avant-garde art, I sometimes don’t know what I’m first seeing or am in the presence of. It’s that feeling Bob Dylan describes: you’re at the party (i.e. football match), but what the hell is going on? “Something is happening, but you don’t know what it is, do you, Mr. Jones?” Zunkunftfußball, or football match as a party at Andy Warhol’s “The Factory.” Believe me, I could turn this comparison into a full blown allegory, but I’ll spare you. Zunkunftfußball.

On Tuesday, we saw a distilled version Leverkusen’s Zunkunftfußball when AS Roma visited the BayArena. Distilled to purity. And I suspect the reason for this display was simply because the match was Champions League play, rather than the Bundesliga. For whatever reason, other European teams seem woefully unprepared for stylized tactical systems from the Bundesliga. Here, I’m thinking of Borussia Dortmund, who, by the end of Klopp’s reign, were really only able to play their standard gegen-pressing stuff in Europe. At home, other Bundesliga coaches had figured it out. Do European coaches simply ignore all German sides, unless they’re playing Bayern Munich?

You could say that for at least a half worth of football here and there, Rudi Garcia’s Roma looked like an embarrassingly unprepared side, victimized by Schmidt’s hyper-pressing system. These large swaths of play were instructive, because they displayed Leverkusen’s Zunkunftfußball in a purely distilled form, which, in turn, allows us to speak about it and comprehend that which is sometimes unsyable and incomprehensible.

So what did I see? The apotheosis of gegen-pressing system introduced by Jürgen Klopp into the Bundesliga years and years ago now. By apotheosis, I mean that Schmidt’s brand of pressing pushes the line so that it’s a stylized version of the thing itself, i.e. extending the premises of gegen-pressing to their logical (and natural?) conclusions.

Let me start with an analogy. In American sporting vernacular, Schmidt’s footballing system is an exhilarating fusion of a “spread offense” from American football and a “full court press” from basketball. From what I observe, Schmidt is in an age-old pursuit with these tactics: controlling space. But you already knew this.

Schmidt’s Leverkusen has a touch of Dutch totaalvoetbal to it in the Austian coach’s pursuit of spatial control, the wide-ranging territory each player wanders into, and the coach’s use of tactics, like a high backline, to constrict the opponent’s midfield play. But here’s where things get interesting – where the we wander into Warhol’s The Factory, so to speak: Schmidt’s side presses aggressively as soon as possession is lost, coupled with (or catalyzed by) with sending “reckless” numbers of players forward in these moments. Wanna see it in one visual? Well, let’s try something like this:

Leverkusen's total heatmap vs. AS Roma. (Courtesy of WhoScored.com)
Leverkusen’s total heatmap vs. AS Roma. (Courtesy of WhoScored.com)

 

In quantitative terms, there’s something like one Leverkusen presser for every opponent trying to circulate the ball out of his own half. Of course, the corollary is that there’s only one Leverkusen defender waiting for each opponent who’s crept into his own attacking third. 50-50 ball. Dice-rolling stuff. Casino football. You will win some, and you will lose some when Schmidt’s system operates in its purely distilled form.

In football parlance, Leverkusen “gets numbers forward.” It all begins with the press:

 

Sometimes, Leverkusen’s resemblance to BVB’s gegen-pressing under Klopp is so chillingly similar, I forget who I’m watching play. With the press, the idea is obvious to create quick turnovers, then ping passes off to the spread-out and streaking B04 attackers flooding in. Given how constant Leverkusen press is – especially in the first half – the opponent is bound to make mistakes.

To facilitate his press, Schmidt relies on keen ball-winning players, like Wendell, Kevin Kampl, Karim Bellerabi, Giulio Donati, or even Hakan Çalhanoglu. Moreover, this core group of players are speedy and could dribble through a rush hour subway crowd. Schmidt’s Zunkunftfußball doesn’t happen without this crew. With their speed, these players spread out after they’ve won a turnover, which, in turn, stretches the opposing defense. On Tuesday, Roma kept getting pulled out of its desired compact defensive shape in order to keep up with the speedy “spread attack.”

Moreover, Levekusen has the valuable ability to catalyze attacks from part of the pitch (right, left, deep, shallow, etc.). Just take a look at their most common link-up and passing combinations from a few instances during the match:

Into this pressing and attacking mix, Leverkusen can now throw in Chicharito, who already is a new creation (old things are passed away!) in the Bundesliga. After languishing on the bench and as a poacher at Manchester United, a super smart and skilled Chicharito has been reincarnated at Leverkusen. The Mexican adds a terrifying dimension to Schmidt’s pressing and attack. First, there’s his movement:

A heatmap of Chicharito's touches against Roma.
A heatmap of Chicharito’s touches against Roma. (Courtesy of WhoScored.com)

 

In this heatmap, he’s certainly not lurking as a poacher. Instead, he’s actively involved in the Leverkusen press and roping passes off to teammates. For all 90 minutes, Roma was menaced by Chicharito’s movement, passing, shooting (despite his brace, the Mexican should’ve had four goals), and turnover-creating.

But here’s the kicker, the newcomer Chicharito is doing his thing amidst a well-harmonized device that precedes him. For example, there’s Kevin Kampl (another relative newcomer). At BVB, Kampl was a shiny new thing, who ran fast and collided with opponents. Reunited with his old coach, the Slovenian is suddenly one of the Bundesliga’s better midfielders. In true Schmidt-fashion, Kampl roamed far and free against Roma, exerting influence from seemingly everywhere, as illustrated by his passing chart:

Kevin Kampl's passing work. "Something is happening here. Right, Mr. Jones?" (Courtesy of Squawka.com)
Kevin Kampl’s passing work. “Something is happening here. Right, Mr. Jones?” (Courtesy of Squawka.com)

I don’t know where to begin with this passing chart. From it alone, I certainly couldn’t deduce the player’s pitch position or place in the starting lineup. Hence, the point. Zunkunftfußball?

I could go on. Even seemingly more transparent things, like Bernd Leno’s role as an active “sweeper keeper,” take on an over-sized role within the context of Schmidt’s pressing and attacking vision.

And yet.

You knew it was coming. Sporting tactics are always a zero-sum game. You gain something, you lose something. If not immediately, then always eventually. This dynamic underscores the genius design of the games / sports we play, in which strategical balance always finds a way.

Take Leverkusen’s own half of the pitch: a lush and fertile area for Roma on Tuesday – the Italian side did score four damn goal after all! In sport’s zero-sum nature, an advantage in one place leads to a disadvantage somewhere else – if the opponent gets the ball there! And sometimes Roma did. Case in point, Leverkusen’s high backline:

Once Roma started slipping through the offside trap, Leverkusen needed “clutch” one-on-one tackles in front of goal and Leno saves to prevent disaster. Risky football living at its finest. And sometimes the likes of Jonathan Tah and Papadopoulos were up for the task, and sometimes they weren’t. But this isn’t the point. Rather the point is that Schmidt’s Leverkusen is comfortable playing football in which an opponent’s goal is just poor tackle attempt away. Anyhow, it’s frequently one-on-one stuff, like this Roma scoring attempt at 52′:

Whew! Leverkusen survive a Roma attempt at 52'. (Courtesy UEFA.com)
Whew! Leverkusen survive a Roma attempt at 52′. (Courtesy UEFA.com)

In this example, after some midfield pinging, Roma launches an aerial ball in/through/around/above/etc. the Leverkusen’s defense.

And yet we wouldn’t get the fun breathless pressing and attacking stuff on the pitch’s other side without this defensive scapegoat. For Leverkusen, offense and defense exist in a dialectical distance apart from each other that is rare in modern football. And, I think, it’s precisely at this moment that Schmidt’s Leverkusen emerges as an avant-garde assemblage of footballing space.

Of course, I can only assert all this thanks for the distilled football we got for parts of the Leverkusen-Roma match. Of course, Roma got their stuff together and scored four straight goals – some from set pieces, some from open play. And the home side needed a late brace of goals to tie the match. Such things are to be expected within the dynamic and fluid vicissitudes of football matches, which is why I can even more deeply appreciate what we saw in distilled form at other moments in the match.

I fear I’ve overstated myself by turning a random football match into an archetypal case study. So allow me to qualify myself with a more modest claim. If watching Leverkusen play AS Roma on Tuesday was an archetype of anything, it was a personal archetype about why I love football, or sport itself. Like many human pursuits, football tactics try to give form to the formless and exert, complicate, or scrap this form as contingency demands. Schmidt attempts this task with a freshness, fearlessness, and flourish that is all too often rare in professional sports. Besides, his Leverkusen needs an ode. So allow me to give it one.

 

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Travis serves as an editor and regular columnist here. He writes for Howler magazine's website. Born and groomed in Santa Fe, New Mexico, Travis is a college English instructor in Pittsburgh. Coffee, books, and coaching the U8s are his passions. His writing has also appeared in Bloomberg Sports, the Good Man Project, and his former blog, Sportisourstory.tumblr.com, and elsewhere. He tweets at @tptimmons. Heja BVB!