The charge of the Leverkusen brigade
This week, Statsbomb’s Bundesliga digest takes a look at one of the most fun teams in the German league: Bayer Leverkusen. The squad of Peter Bosz has recovered just in time to shake things up in the Bundesliga title race. But how legitimate is the recent uptick in form from Bosz’ Boys?
The start of the Bundesliga was shaped by a wide-open race at the top. Only a few weeks ago all nine teams in the top half of the league table were within striking distance of the top. Things are starting to take a more definitive shape: Bayern München’s play has picked up under interim Hansi Flick (the results haven’t quite caught up yet), Lucien Favre seems to have weathered the storm at Borussia Dortmund, RB Leipzig and Borussia Mönchengladbach look like squads who have a legit shot at the title, SC Freiburg keep defying the odds with their scrappy approach, and Schalke 04 has stabilized impressively under the guidance of David Wagner. VfL Wolfsburg, TSG Hoffenheim and Eintracht Frankfurt have come down to earth, and seem set for a season of mid-table football.
But hold on, here come Bayer Leverkusen. After a rough skid in October, Peter Bosz’s squad has picked up ten points from their last four league outings, and due to a late push still has an outside shot of qualifying for the knockout stage of the Champions League – that is, if they beat already-qualified Juventus, and Atlético Madrid does not win its home game against Lokomotiv Moscow. Die Werkself (The Workman’s Eleven) have rejoined the race for the top four spots, which will guarantee Champions League football in 2020/21, and even a late, surprising title run isn’t in the realm of the unthinkable. But by now, we’ve become familiar with the up-and-down tendencies of Bosz-coached teams. When they get hot, they’re hot. But the downswings of the Dutchman’s press-relient playing style are also more pronounced than is the case for most other good-to-very-good teams. So let us take a closer look at Leverkusen’s season.
Defense: rough patch over?
The strengths and weaknesses of Leverkusen’s defensive approach result in a pretty weird team radar when it comes to defensive output this season.
Bayer Leverkusen are still an elite squad when it comes to pressing. Few teams can hound the opposition’s build-up play like Bosz’ squad can on days when things click. Also noticeable are their decent set piece defense, and the low amount of shots they concede on average.
But there is a glaring weakness visible in the radar above: the shots that Leverkusen do give up to opposing teams are usually big chances. An average of 0,13 xG per shot conceded is very high.
As you can see from their rolling xG averages, the defense cratered at the start of this season, after Bosz patch things big time in this regard when he came in at the halfway mark of last season.
The Dutch manager has regained a semblance of defensive stability with his decision to no longer switch between two different playing formations, but choosing a 4-2-3-1 setup definitively over the 3-4-2-1 alternative. In recent weeks, the full-backs have been fairly moderate in their forward runs. With that, plus the shielding of central midfielders Charles Aránguiz and Julian Baumgartlinger, the ‘back six’ provides decent support for the high-octane pressing of the front four.
Leverkusen could use some help with their backline. The three big-money summer signings – attacking mids Kerem Demirbay and Nadiem Amiri (both from Hoffenheim) and winger Moussa Diaby (PSG) – were all made to boost the offensive firepower of the squad. But the defense only gained Daley Sinkgraven (Ajax), a former attacking midfielder who converted to the position of fullback during Bosz’ time in Amsterdam, and whose recent seasons have been marred by bad injury luck. With Jonathan Tah, Leverkusen’s squad counts one truly good defender, with the Bender brothers showing some signs of regression in their age 30-seasons, and left-back Wendell’s proclivity to peaks and dips in form.
Offense: guns still blazin’
The xG trendline used earlier in this article already gave a little sneak peek, but the team radar below illustrates it in more detail: from an offensive point of view, Leverkusen are elite.
The roster of Die Werkself just contains a lot of good attacking depth. Kevin Volland (five goals, five assists this Bundesliga campaign) is making a strong case to be included by Joachim Löw in the national team for the Euros, possibly in a joker-type role as a substitute.
Jamaican winger Leon Bailey seems to have dropped from a couple of radars of Europe’s most elite teams, but has returned in full form from a hamstring injury. The 22 year-old possesses the type of speed and dribbling prowess that’s still pretty rare. Being more consistent in his performances is still the biggest objective for the young lefty.
With Volland, Bailey, Diaby, Demirbay, Amiri, Lucas Alario, Karim Bellarabi and, of course, the prodigious Kai Havertz, manager Bosz has a plethora of valid options to his disposal for the four attacking spots in his starting eleven. And, equally important, he has instilled an offensive playing style that is sound from an analytical point of view. Leverkusen’s shot selection under Bosz is quite solid, and you won’t see many high crosses lofted into the box from very wide positions from this team.
With 22 goals, Leverkusen are currently still underperforming their xG total. So it does not seem likely that the potent attack will grind to a halt anytime soon.
If Bayer Leverkusen want to follow through on their big plans, the defense cannot perform like it did in the first ten games of this season. Lukas Hradecky has been really good this year – with his heroic one-man-show performance in a stolen 1-2 win at Bayern München as the big highlight – but it’s not likely that the Finnish goalie can keep bailing out his squad like he’s done so far.
On the offensive side of the ball, the biggest room for improvement lies in the hands of the team’s absolute star. Kai Havertz hasn’t been bad by any stretch of the imagination, but also hasn’t found the superb form in which he led his team on a Champions League qualification-winning run in the final months of the season.
But the same goes for Havertz as for this Leverkusen squad. Chances are that they will be fine. A somewhat bumpy start (15 points from their first 10 league outings) has been dealt with, and their offensive firepower will, in all likelihood, give them a serious shot in the season-long battle with the likes of Bayern, Dortmund, Leipzig and Gladbach.