Even before his side’s crazy, manic, amazing, awful 5-4 defeat to Wolfsburg last weekend Roger Schmidt has been a frequent topic of conversation in European football this year. Michael Caley has written the best piece on Bayer Leverkusen’s distinctive style, but there have been others as well. There are two basic parts to understanding what Bayer Leverkusen wish to do under Schmidt, both of which we’ll explain below.
Bayer Leverkusen’s Use of Gegenpressing
Gegenpressing should be a familiar concept to most fans at this point. For those unfamiliar, the concept is relatively simple. When you lose the ball, you attempt to win it back as quickly as possible. There are multiple reasons for doing this:
- Attacking the opponent as soon as they win the ball disrupts their attack before they can build up any possession or start to probe for an opening in the defense.
- Pressuring the ball so quickly can force mistakes more easily than sitting off the ball and organizing the defense from a deeper position.
- When you win the ball back from your opponent at that point in their attack it is easier to catch them out of position because their players likely began moving forward when they won the ball so by winning it back quickly you’re now attacking a defense rushing back to try and set up to stop your attack.
Gegenpressing basically consists of two distinct parts:
- Most of the team moves slightly to cut off passing lanes so that the player on the ball cannot make a pass.
- 2-3 of the players closest to the ball converge on it simultaneously in order to force the turnover.
This gif below shows how Borussia Dortmund, the kings of the gegenpress, used the system against Real Madrid two seasons ago in the Champions League on the way to their surprise appearance in the final: Note how the three Dortmund players move when they close down on the Real Madrid wide man. The three still frames below show what’s happening. The two players closest to the sideline close directly on the ball. The third player, the one more infield, follows his man to cut off the passing lane until he basically runs into the Madrid man and forces the turnover. So the two players closest to the sideline squeeze and the third man, more infield, is the one who makes the tackle.
And now with Dortmund in possession you can see that Madrid is out of position and it’s easier for Dortmund to attack them. The key idea with gegenpressing is summed up in a quote from Jurgen Klopp: The press is a more effective playmaker than any player. Put another way, you don’t need a player to create chances with his passing or running when you can win the ball in positions where you instantly have opportunity to score. Learn more: Try our daily newsletter free for one week! In terms of their pressing, Leverkusen is very like Dortmund. When you lose the ball, you try to win it back immediately and hit your opponent quickly. If they win the ball, you just go back to the beginning: try to win it as soon as possible, attack, and keep going. What sets them apart is what they do after they have the ball, which we’ll talk about in three parts.
Bayer Leverkusen Throws Men Forward
Borussia Dortmund are fast, but they can slow the game down and recycle the ball when necessary. They aren’t nearly as methodical as Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich, but they are willing to slow things down as needed. Roger Schmidt’s Leverkusen is another story entirely. To begin, their default formation is less 4-2-3-1 or even 4-4-2 and more of a 4-2-4. Here’s a still from their recent match with Wolfsburg: What’s most interesting about this is that Leverkusen are actually lining up a bit like Diego Simeone’s Atletico: four at the back, two center midfielders sitting a bit deeper, two wide men tucked inside, and two central attackers. But whereas Atletico tends to sit deep, invite their opponent to have possession, and then waits for the time to hit them, Schmidt’s Leverkusen are far more aggressive, surging forward in numbers and trying to force the opponent into errors in their own defensive half. We’ll come back to this in a moment.
So when Leverkusen win the ball, their players bomb forward, attacking the spaces between defensive players and offering the man on the ball multiple passing options. Pushing this many players forward is important for two reasons:
- Having so many players in advanced positions makes it easy to move the ball quickly and with accuracy.
- The advanced positioning of the players also allows them to press with numbers whenever they lose the ball.
The result of this aggression is that Leverkusen end up with an extreme attacking formation. The two center backs stay deep, one or two of the center midfielders stay back, and then the rest of the team surges forward. At times it’s almost something like a 2-4-3-1 or 3-3-3-1: The interesting thing is that in looking at this you can still discern the roots in 4-4-2 or 4-2-4. The ML, DM, DM, and MR players are a back four, MC and MC are midfielders, AL and AC are wings, and the two FCs are the strikers. But they are pushed so far forward that it almost starts to look like some experimental three man defense in a Bielsa-type system.
Leverkusen’s Fast Shooting
The second point here is that Leverkusen want to shoot the ball quickly. So they’re surging forward and always looking for a chance to have a pop at goal. One suspects that the offseason signings of Hakan Calhanoglu and Karim Bellarabi were made because both players are skilled shooters from distance. The other typical member of their front three, winger Son Heung-Min, is a holdover from the previous regime but is equally comfortable sprinting at the defense and shooting from range. The screen captures below show how this works in practice. It’s incredibly fast, but it is not at all dependent on long passing. For Leverkusen the players do most the movement and the ball simply covers the short distances between them. The images below from one of Leverkusen’s breaks against Wolfsburg shows how this works. Once Leverkusen win the ball there are only two (short) passes in the entire attack, but the ball covers about 60 yards in that time and it ends with Karim Bellarabi taking a shot that Wolfsburg keeper Diego Benaglio just manages to push round the post. But the whole attack, from the time they win the ball nearly inside their own box to win they shoot from the edge of the Wolfsburg box only takes about 20 seconds.
To get a better appreciation of how unique Leverkusen is on this point, go read Caley’s piece on them.
Leverkusen’s Coverage of the Field
This is the point I particularly want to emphasize. I mentioned above that you can actually discern some surprising similarities between Atletico Madrid and Bayer Leverkusen. I’ve not seen anyone else make this point because it seems radically counter-intuitive. Atletico sit back in two incredibly deep banks of four, absorb pressure, and then launch counter attacks. Leverkusen push their men forward, hassle the ball, and attack at every opportunity.
But here’s the similarity: Both teams try to reduce the amount of space in which the game is played. Put another way, both teams keep all of their players very close together so as to maximize the effectiveness of the system. This is seen most noticeably when the ball is on one wing or the other because the entire squad will shift toward the ball, leaving the opposite wing completely vacant. Essentially the teams are betting that they can defend the play better by pressing the ball and eliminating the possibility of a long pass than by actually trying to defend a long pass.
For fans of American football, it’s similar to the logic of a team sending six or seven players on a blitz. They’re betting that they can defend the play more effectively by hitting the quarterback before he can throw the ball than by simply trying to defend the wide receiver. You see something similar in basketball with teams that run a full court press. They think their best defense is to disrupt a team as they bring the ball up the floor rather than to sit back and try to defend once they have advanced the ball. The screen capture below illustrates this point nicely. This is moments after a throw in about halfway into the Wolfsburg defensive half on Leverkusen’s right wing. You can see all 10 outfield players in the frame: The four red shirts in the defensive half are the four defenders, the two players closest to the midfield line are the central midfielders, and the four most advanced players are the attacking four. So what Leverkusen is doing is basically the same thing Simeone tries to do: Pack tons of players into one small part of the pitch and make sure the game is played primarily in that area.
However, Leverkusen’s approach is far more risky than Simeone’s. If the game isn’t played in the part of the pitch where Atletico sets up (basically their own defensive third), it doesn’t hurt them because it means their opponent is having a ton of pointless possession in non-dangerous areas of the field. But when you push the game into advanced midfield areas and try to make everything happen there, as Leverkusen is doing in the above clip, you run a significant risk: If you can win the ball, you’re golden. You now have six, seven, or even eight players ready to pour forward and attack the opposition goal.
But if you fail to win the ball and the opponent is able to play the ball into an open bit of space your entire defense is left badly out of position and, thus, completely exposed. (Caley has also written well on this point.) That’s what happens here as Wolfsburg is able to get the ball out of the area that Leverkusen was attacking.
This causes the entire Leverkusen system to break down and the sequence ultimately ends with Wolfsburg scoring the match’s opener. (I’ll do a post working through this specific goal later this week.) So if you’re comparing the system Simeone uses with that of Roger Schmidt at Leverkusen, here are the three key points:
- The systems are similar in that both want their teams to be compact, to play the game in a small part of the pitch, and to aggressively attack the ball whenever it gets into that area.
- They differ in that Simeone is incredibly risk averse whereas Schmidt is a completely insane maniac. So Simeone sets up shop in the safest, least risky part of the field–his own defensive third. Schmidt sets his team up in midfield or even in the attacking third.
- Thus Atletico games tend to be matches of, to borrow a concept from science, punctuated equilibrium–most of the match passes with relatively little action as the opponent bangs their head against the red and white striped bus that is the Atletico defense. But then there are brief moments of frantic action as Atletico win the ball and storm forward. So you might have 80 minutes of tedium and 10 minutes of thrilling action. Leverkusen reverses that arrangement by forcing the game to be played at such a frantic high pace in midfield. Interestingly, however, both approaches tend to create a similar number of goals. There is an average of 2.9 goals per game in Leverkusen matches. Atletico matches actually average 3 goals per match. So the difference isn’t in goals scored, but in the pace of the game.
Roger Schmidt may not be the game’s best manager, but he is amongst its most interesting. His aggressive style forces teams to play at an unheard of level and creates thrilling football. The Bundesliga is already known for being exceptionally fast, but the addition of Schmidt has pushed it to a new level. If you’re wanting to see fast-paced soccer and entertaining attacking football, watching Leverkusen is a great place to start.