This is Leverkusen’s chance for something special. A stunning 3 goal comeback to draw against Augsburg kick-started an incredible run to end the year saw them grab 24 points in their final 9 games to finish in 3rd place, 18 points behind Dortmund and 28 behind Bayern. There are reasons to believe that gap can shrink by a lot this season. Last year saw a serious funk from October through February, where the team often looked a bit ragged and happened to overlap a big chunk of time when Kevin Kampl was out along with other big midfield signing Charles Aranguiz (who missed almost the entire season). Both of those return healthy, adding much-needed power and dynamism to the midfield which could help Leverkusen crank up the press once more (it slipped a bit last season from it’s insane levels the year before) and provide a lot more support for their talented frontmen. They’ve returned all their key players (Christoph Kramer never really fit), added depth at several positions and big-money man Kevin Volland slides in up front. For anyone who has caught Leverkusen at their best, they can absolutely line up with Bayern or Barcelona and play with them. Last year they stepped forward a bit at generating a more productive, calmer attack. A bigger step in that direction and a bit of Bayern slippage without Pep and Dortmund slippage without Mkhitaryan, Hummels, and Gündogan and it’s very conceivable to see Leverkusen in this race well into 2017. Offense Passing Map Defense Passing Map Key Passing Connections: Wendell-Calhanoglu Calhanoglu-Kießling Bellarabi-Calhanoglu In: Kevin Volland 20m (Hoffenheim), Julian Baumgartlinger 4m (Mainz), Danny da Costa 0.5m (Ingolstadt) Out: Christoph Kramer Last year Leverkusen rebalanced a bit. By that I mean for a while their defense had raced out way ahead of their attack where the defense was elite but attack just above average. Last year the attack rose and the defense slacked a bit (hopefully because of the midfield injuries). The most important thing for this year is to keep the attack rising, I don’t think this will be a Leicester type season where both Dortmund and Bayern drop huge amounts of points so Leverkusen need a huge haul of goals to really challenge for top two. The #1 man who will be involved with that is Karim Bellarabi. He’s one of the most aggressive players with the ball in the league. Most players in his position move the ball forward 1-2 yards at a time but Bellarabi averages 6 at a time, only Volland and Kostic were higher. He’s eased off his insane dribbling pace from the year before (9.2 per 90 dropped to 5.6) but remained one of the best at making his key passes count (6th shortest KP on average in the league and racked up 11 assists on 44 KP’s). In his final 7 games he had 3 goals and 8 assists and Leverkusen won all of them. His partner in crime is Hakan Calhanoglu. Calhanoglu led the entire Bundesliga in shots + key passes/90 but certainly subscribed to quantity over quality. 71% of his 3.5 shots p90 came from outside the box (4th longest shot distance in the league) and 38% of his 3.2 KP/90 came on long crosses or corners. Passing wise he’s nearly as aggressive as Bellarabi, just a lot more involved (50 passes per game to Bellarabi’s 28) and coming from further back on the pitch. Both are relatively successful considering how high-risk they play, but should lose the ball less if Leverkusen are going to make the jump. Stefan Kießling-Age has caught up with the long time Leverkusen striker. He’s 32 now and has been here since 2006. A new contract means he has 2 more years left but it’s hard to picture him being more than a sparingly used substitute and fan favorite if Leverkusen are to take steps forward. His shot volume is slipping, his passing fell off a cliff last season which leaves him as a hard worker but with little end product (though he still led the league by taking shots from just 9.6 yards away on average). This probably is known to the staff at Leverkusen as when he renewed their managing director mentioned he will stay with the club after his playing days and that “Stefan is a personality with whom we and our fans identify. He simply belongs with Bayer 04.” One thing he still has is shot quality, no one in the league took shots from closer on average than Kießling. He seems like a goal-chasing striker or possibly an option in rare games where they want to go over the top with Leno using long balls, which he did often when Kießling was on the pitch last year. Chicharito and his yearly consistent production across Europe will basically play as much as he can. Kevin Kampl (MC): Found a home in the Schmidt midfield. Hyperactive playmaker whose skills were a much better fit here instead of on the wing in Dortmund. His hair is still looking for a place and time to fit in, 2004 Los Angeles remains his best bet. Leverkusen struggled badly without him as they never really found another player to be the slightly more advanced midfielder. Charles Aranguiz (MC): He showed tentative signs of being comfortable at roaming forward a bit than either Kramer or Lars Bender in his cameos at the end of the year. A 3-man midfield with Bender deeper than Kampl and Aranguiz could be a tactical option if needed this season. Aranguiz has a small sample size but bear with me here. Last year Christoph Kramer never really got comfortable in central midfield and didn’t get the ball to Bellarabi or Calhanoglu as far forward or as commonly as Aranguiz and Kampl should be able to this year. Bellarabi received the ball 7 yards closer to goal on average when Kampl passed it to him compared to Kramer. Aranguiz played very little after coming back from injury, but in his minor time was clearly a more advanced player than Kramer, Calhanoglu received the ball 6 yards closer on his handful of receptions from Aranguiz than he did from Kramer. Easier access to goal for the attacking players and more support from players behind is a recipe for more shots and goals. Both Aranguiz and Kampl can definitely do the defensive work needed making this 2-man midfield an all-around better fit. With Calhanoglu, Chicharito, Bellarabi and Brandt (who GoalImpact thinks is better than Neymar was at 20) in front of these two, Leverkusen have all the tools for their first truly elite attack in the Schmidt era. If Aranguiz looks a little off the pace as he has at times in friendlies, or you need a little more defensive beef, Leverkusen have the two players who had the most tackles/90 last season in Lars Bender and Julian Baumgartlinger, in from Mainz. Omer Toprak/Papadopoulous (CB)-The 2 narrowest center backs in the league. They were the only CBs on the list of top 10 players who had highest proportion of their passes from center of pitch alongside mainly immobile strikers like Bas Dost and Sven Schipplock. Papadopoulos rated as one of the worst passing centerbacks in the league. Average Pass Origin Location For Various CB’s As for why this true, my only guess is that Schmidt does not want his team open to through balls right up the gut so keeps his men central. Fullback Talk Wendell is a great fit at left back but right back was a weak link last year and could be another this year. Let’s evaluate the candidates. Roberto Hillbert and Tin Jedvaj are the returnees. Hillbert is getting old and was successful on just about half of his tackles and was rated as one of the poorest passers from his position in the league. In fact, Leverkusen fullbacks in total rate poorly outside of Wendell though this can be partially explained to the aggressive nature of their passing. Fullbacks on most of the other top-level teams advance the ball 4-6 yards on average while Leverkusen FB’s ranged from 8 (Wendell) to 12 yards (Boenisch) on average. Tin Jedvaj, a young prospect with a lot of hype, played at right back as well last year and was probably less convincing than Hillbert. Neither did well with the ball and the right side was Leverkusen’s significantly weaker side on defense. So unless Jedvaj makes a leap that I don’t smell coming, looking elsewhere might be the best plan. Danny da Costa is a new signing from Ingolstadt that seems to be a nice fit at right back. His tackling stats were incredible: 8th most tackles per 90 and the highest success rate of any player in the top 75. He only came for 500k but should slide in defensively moving from a similar system. He seems more like a backup, which leaves just one more name: Benjamin Henrichs. The 19-year old showed very little ability with the ball but led the team in INT and tackles per 90 playing limited minutes as a defender. If you are ok with not using the right back as a key part of your buildup, which Leverkusen probably will be, Henrichs should get the first chance because he shows signs of being a defensive monster. Leverkusen might be ok without involving right backs in buildup because of their sideline trap they look to to create quick chances. No team is near as tough to buildup along the sides against than Leverkusen, Schmidt might be looking first for someone who can keep these areas no-go for opponents. If he is, Jedvaj falls to the back of the line while Henrichs should get first chance. Good Season: The midfield clicks back into place, press revs up to top speed and attack has some support from non-front 4 players. A title challenge follows. Bad Season: The offense still can’t generate quite enough to move close to the big 2, a Champions League scramble ensues.