August 19, 2017

The start to Bayer Leverkusen

At the beginning of the 2014/15 Bundesliga season, Bayer Leverkusen were something of a media darling due to a frenetic attacking style displayed in their early matches. The attention focused on new trainer Roger Schmidt’s innovative attacking philosophy and the recent acquisitions responsible for executing his vision. Record signing Hakan Calhanoglu, wonder boy Tin Jedvaj, prodigal son Karim Bellarabi, and quasi-veterans Heung Min Son and Julian Brandt had all given Bayer fans and management reason to feel confident about the immediate future. And indeed, all of them have grown or flourished under the ex-RB Salzburg trainer, perhaps no one more so than Bellarabi, who recently received his first national team call-up under Jogi Loew. In the face of this new style of play at Bayer Leverkusen, implemented by up and coming world stars, it’s natural to think that some of the older players in the squad might suffer in comparison. On the contrary, Schmidt’s style, energy, and insistence on (to partially quote Otto Rehagel) “attack, attack” injected new life-blood into the veterans on the squad.

Of those veterans, I am of course talking about such Bayer “oldies” as Stefan Kiessling, Simon Rolfes, and Stefan Reinartz among others. Little needs said about Kiessling. Bayer’s second-best goal-getter of all time continues to produce no matter who sits on the bench or what kind of style is being preached. His strengths as a poacher, hold-up man, set-piece terror, and challenge winner rank among the highest in the Bundesliga, even if he does find himself in a bit of a dry spell at the moment. And until his injury, long-standing captain, Simon Rolfes looked worlds apart from the only sometimes-engaged midfield director from last season. Reinartz, who was himself recently injured and is now out for up to three months, briefly took up the midfield mantle, providing cover for Lars Bender to go forward and carving out his own opportunities with his excellent positioning. But perhaps the player to have benefitted the most from the new trainer’s philosophy is Bayer Leverkusen’s poster child of the last decade, Gonzalo Castro.

Fans of Bayer Leverkusen already know the story of this sublimely talented home-grown boy. With his first call-up to Bayer Leverkusen’s senior side at the age of 17, his first appearance for Germany as a 19-year-old, and his natural talent, Gonzalo Castro was supposed to take over the role of club icon Bernd Schneider. A natural attacker who is comfortable dribbling, passing, or shooting, his versatility was often unfortunately exploited to help cover up deficiencies in Bayer’s defense. The early promise as one of Germany’s best young players was replaced by a feeling there was no real place for him, neither in Germany’s squad nor Bayer’s. Castro’s career reached one of its lowest points last season when he was specifically called out by Leverkusen’s sporting director, Rudi Voeller, for his underwhelming performances under trainer Sami Hyypia.

Singling out the once poster child of the team by name, Voeller criticized Castro’s body language and attitude after a particularly disappointing (and fortunate) 1-1 draw against Frankfurt. It’s not entirely unlike Rudi Voeller to single out an individual player here and there, and, to be fair, he always maintained how much values and genuinely likes Castro, but by making the player a symbol of the team’s lethargy and lack of passion, Voeller would have seemed to have cleared the way for his release this past summer. Instead, thanks in large part to Sascha Lewandowski, Castro became one of the symbols of the gutsy Leverkusen team that managed to right the ship just in time to capture fourth place and qualify for the Champions League play-off spot. Perhaps the best indication of his new-found desire to silence his critics and prove his value can be summed up in this goal celebration not long after Voeller’s words hit the media. His disdain for the constant chirping manifested itself into a rare, but cathartic, salute to his critics. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZM3DgoAwMa8)

Any lingering resentment between Castro and Bayer seems to have been handled during the summer break. The appointment of Roger Schmidt may have played a part, as Castro likely saw an opportunity to prove himself to a new trainer – something he would have had to do in unfamiliar surroundings, had he forced his way out. Schmidt rewarded that loyalty, albeit to some extent because of injury concerns to Lars Bender, by playing Castro in the starting eleven from the first minute. Furthermore, Castro was the primary link between the offense and the defense, initiating the attack with his deadly passes and his high match intelligence. That proved to be all the incentive he needed, and Castro proceeded to reel off a series of successful Bundesliga, DFB Pokal, and Champions League qualification matches as one of Bayer’s best players. In fact, prior to the injury he suffered against Wolfsburg, he had averaged a kicker grade of 2.71 in all matches – a testament to his rediscovered confidence. To say that it was good to see him out on the field spraying those dynamic passes to Heung-Min Son and Karim Bellarabi would be an understatement. His consistency in those opening matches, in all aspects of the game, quickly reminded fans that in addition to the aforementioned players, Gonzalo Castro was yet another important weapon opponents would have to account for. One also has to wonder if the addition of Calhnaoglu hasn’t helped alleviate some of the pressure on Castro to take almost all of Leverkusen’s set pieces. His proclivity to boot free kicks into the stands and corner kicks into the first defender’s shins elicited groans from the Bayer faithful for the past year and a half. That certainly can’t have helped his confidence.

Castro’s strong start to the season was interrupted by an injury suffered in the final training before the CL match against SL Benfica. Although it initially seemed like a fairly innocuous thigh muscle injury that would heal with a couple of weeks rest, more than a month later, Castro still has not been able to resume training. The prognosis seems to be that he will return sometime after the international break. He has started running again on his own, but the club want to be cautious bringing him back. His early-season performances have shown what a healthy Gonazalo Castro can do in Roger Schmidt’s system, and even with their dearth of defensive midfield players at the moment, Bayer Leverkusen will not risk long-term injury to such a valuable component of this team. Castro’s contract runs to the summer of 2016, at which time he’ll still be only 29 years old, and that means a decision about his future with the club will likely be made this summer. Much depends on his return from injury in the coming weeks, and due to all of Bayer’s injuries in the defensive midfield, there should be no shortage of opportunities for him to prove himself to Schmidt once again. One thing is clear, if he returns to early season form quickly, the minutes will come. And maybe there’ll be an opportunity to see another elegant goal celebration like this one:

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