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Tactics Corner - Bayer Leverkusen 2.0: Squad planning, 2024 tactics and unsung heroes

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Bayer Leverkusen’s 34-game unbeaten streak across all competitions is as much a result of tremendous squad planning as its tactics and execution by the players. In cooperation with Xabi Alonso, Simon Rolfes and Kim Falkenberg have done a fabulous job addressing the squad’s issues from last season.

bundesliga.com delves into how Leverkusen's development is absolutely no coincidence...

Die Werkself knew that they already had a strong defensive core with veterans Lukáš Hrádecký and Jonathan Tah alongside young but already experienced and highly coveted defenders like Edmond Tapsoba, Odilon Kossounou and Piero Hincapié. After Alonso was hired in October of 2022, Bayer conceded the fourth-fewest goals and the third-fewest expected goals in the league.

At the same time, they had a plethora of attacking talent. An all-action, dynamic and intelligent midfielder in Exequiel Palacios and two of the Bundesliga's most devastating attacking weapons in speedster Jeremie Frimpong and whiz-kid Florian Wirtz alongside the injury-prone Patrik Schick (24 goals in 27 games in 2021/22) and potential breakout player Amine Adli. Yet, there was a problem, their goals scored and xG created (48 / 46) were tied for seventh-best in Alonso's tenure with middling Mainz. They needed to improve the attacking output and ensure their offensive stars could thrive on that defensive foundation.

Watch: Every Wirtz goal and assist in the Bundesliga prior to 2023/24

Outstanding squad planning

Sporting managing director Rolfes & Co. identified five "intelligent and strategic players" who fixed squad holes and elevated Bayer to the top of the Bundesliga:

1) The lack of a deep-lying playmaker and defensive midfielder who could escape pressure. With both Palacios and Robert Andrich finishing the 2022/23 season with a pressure escape rate only slightly over 60 percent (Palacios: 63 percent; Andrich: 62 percent), neither of them really fit that mould. They got all of that and much more with Granit Xhaka (Pressure Handling in 2023/24: 79 percent), who combines leadership, experience, technical and tactical skills with a workmanlike attitude and elegance reminiscent of Alonso.

2) Alejandro Grimaldo: an ultra-technical attacking left-back who could create and finish in the final third. In addition to his brilliance in front of goal, we've witnessed the Spaniard start the attacks - he sits proudly on both the Finisher and Initiator lists this season. The club's best player in 2022/23, Moussa Diaby, only finished 17th place among Initiators. Grimaldo has developed a telepathic understanding with superstar Wirtz. In addition, starting with the Matchday 4 free-kick against Bayern, Grimaldo's key goals carried the team through difficult games, like Hoffenheim and Wolfsburg, as his form exploded for seven league goals (plus two more vs. Qarabağ) between Matchdays 4 and 12. 

Watch: A closer look at Grimaldo's technique

Two more key players arrived to bolster the attack

3) Jonas Hofmann: an intelligent and hard-working actor against the ball, as well as a willing receiver between and outside the lines. The clever signing from Borussia Mönchengladbach brings versatility, unselfishness (opening the wide 1v1s for Frimpong with his half-space runs) and chemistry - a different profile to the departing Diaby.

4) Victor Boniface: a combinative, dribbling striker who can hold the ball up, run behind on counters, move out wide, but also dominate the box. His prolific start was grabbing the headlines, but combined with Grimaldo and Hofmann they had 18 of Leverkusen’s 33 league goals. Grabbing 31 of a potential 33 points fuelled Die Werkself into November and sent them top of the Bundesliga. Bayern on 29 points were hot on their heels and the upcoming months would bring challenges on three fronts.

5) But they foresaw this in the summer with additional signings:

Bayer Leverkusen's usual formation in the first half of the 2023/24 season. - DFL

Leverkusen’s Plan B is better than most team’s Plan A

During the first half of 2023/24, Alonso was able to flawlessly execute Plan A in the Bundesliga. In the opening 15 games, they had the same starting XI 10 times. Moreover, prior to the winter break, 11 players started 14 of 16 games, with only Schick's continued struggles and summer signing Arthur missing significant time due to injuries.

While everyone knew the names of the 3-4-2-1 formation inside out, Alonso was using the Europa League to develop a plan B:

1) Starting Matěj Kovář, a signing from Manchester United as competition for Hrádecký as the cup goalie, was rewarded with a 95.9% save percentage. Alonso even made sure that third choice Niklas Lomb - at the club since 2008 - was given a start against Häcken.

2) There were guaranteed spots for Stanišić and Hincapié both as CBs or full-backs. They played the most minutes for the team in the group stage.

3) The staff rewarded the sacrifices of Andrich for giving up his starting job, playing as makeshift centre-back, never complaining, despite potentially losing his Germany spot for the Euros, by deploying him in central midfield. At the same time, Alonso's emotional intelligence and leadership skills were on evidence by giving youngsters like Gustavo Puerta or Noah Mbamba chances to start in the last two games when the group was won.

Xabi Alonso tried out his Plan B with a 4-2-3-1 formation in the Europa League against Häcken. - DFL

4) In addition, the Spanish coach made sure that the Wirtz-Hofmann-Boniface trio got some rest. They played only 40 percent of available minutes in the group stage, with the Nigerian still scoring four goals, while Wirtz managed four assists in parts of four matches.

5) This also allowed others a chance. Tella as winger on either side or attacking right-back, deputising for Grimaldo and Frimpong, and Adli as a winger, No.10 or a striker devastated opponents on the break. They were both in the top five for minutes played by outfield players and top three in shot-creating actions. Adam Hložek played in all six group games, ending in the top three in shots and shots on target for the team.

Alonso also demonstrated that he is flexible and adaptable based on opponent quality, while retaining many of the key principles - positional play, quick but methodical ball progression, associative play in the final third and immediate counter-pressing - that made his Leverkusen side a revelation in the Bundesliga.

The formation was predominantly a back four against the ball (4-2-3-1/4-4-2), while in possession they retained their fluid, tempo-changing, constructive, yet direct approach. Leverkusen finished the group stages ranking in the top three in goal-ending high turnovers, 10+ pass sequences, build-ups, build-up goals and direct attacks. The underlying numbers also supported the tangible results with a 19-3 goal difference and six wins out of six against Molde, Qarabağ and Häcken.

Watch: Leverkusen - New Boys in a New Light

Spanish/Swiss ironmen

The DFB Cup was seemingly more of a priority - Wirtz, Frimpong, Tapsoba, Tah, Grimaldo and Xhaka all played at least portions of all four games. There has been no rest for the Swiss playmaker and the Spanish left-sided wizard.

The duo have featured in 32 and 33 of the 34 games respectively and already logged over 2,700 minutes each. Grimaldo (2,155) narrowly beats Harry Kane for most Bundesliga minutes by outfield players, with Xhaka only three minutes further behind. Xhaka and Grimaldo played every minute of the first seven Bundesliga games following the winter break, as well as the once again spectacular cup battle with Stuttgart. They wouldn't be getting any rest as we entered a busy 2024…

Watch: The best of Xhaka for Leverkusen

Leverkusen winning despite many challenges

Losing three foundational pieces in Kossounou, Tapsoba and Boniface (whose injury should see him back in April), and the first man off the bench Adli, to AFCON was always something the bosses had planned for. Here’s where Alonso’s squad management has paid dividends. Alongside the nowadays stellar Tah, the Europa League-experienced Stanišić and Hincapié as the side centre-backs have featured in a defence that allowed just four goals in their last eight Bundesliga games.

There’s evidence that Leverkusen defensively have even improved in 2024, as they are allowing just 7.2 shots per match compared to 9.1 in the first 16 matchdays. Opponents now need 13 as opposed to 12 shots for a goal, with big chances allowed down to 0.4 as opposed to 1.1 per match in that same time period.

Two more details make Stanišić, Hincapié and Tah’s performances even more remarkable...

Bayern Munich-owned Josip Stanišić has formed a solid partnership alongside Jonathan Tah in the Bayer Leverkusen defence. - IMAGO/Michael Bermel

1) Adapting tactically to their opponents

Opponents like RB Leipzig planned to exploit Leverkusen by deploying a 4-2-2-2 with two No.10s and two ball-sided strikers creating an issue for Bayer's high press. Leipzig’s plan initially held Leverkusen’s juggernaut to just 0.2 xG, but Alonso adjusted near the end of the first half. They regained control with three moves:

  1. pushing Stanišić/Hincapié higher man to man 
  2. switching Palacios and Xhaka 
  3. the far side wing-back picking up the free No.10. 

As a result, Leipzig produced just two shots the rest of the game, albeit their only notable attack was their brilliant counter - from a mishit corner by Hofmann.

Watch: Highlights of Leverkusen's win in Leipzig

2) The centre-backs turned into goal scorers

All three of those centre-backs have scored game-winning goals, with Hincapié’s dramatic winner against Leipzig and Stanišić opening the scoring against his parent club Bayern. Meanwhile, Tah who equalized in Leipzig, would get the third goal in the 90th minute to win it against Stuttgart in the cup.

To the trio we can add Andrich, who just like last season, has also deputised as an emergency central centre-back. Even though lately he’s more often partnered with Xhaka in the middle, due to Palacios’s injury. Andrich promptly picked up the slack in the goalscoring department, by netting the winner against Mainz.

Watch: Leverkusens's centre-backs scoring important goals

Adli solving striker problems

While there’s tremendous value in defenders scoring winners, Leverkusen’s largely flawless results have somewhat masked their attacking problems. While Boniface (fourth) and Grimaldo (10th) both made the top 10 goalscorers list in the first half of the season, no Bayer players are in the top 10 since the winter break. As a team they are scoring just 1.9 goals per game, quite a ways down from the 2.9 in the opening 16 games, although the per match xG is only down to 2.1 from 2.4, suggesting some bad luck as well.

In terms of personnel, Schick is without a goal in 2024 from 18 attempts for just 1.4 xG, despite looking promising with a hat-trick over Bochum in the last game of 2023. Meanwhile, emergency replacement Borja Iglesias hit the target twice in his only start against Darmstadt, but having had two big chances saved by Marcel Schuhen looks to have lost his chance. Similarly, Hložek has only scored three goals since the 8-0 DFB Cup opener against Teutonia Ottensen (one vs. Sandhausen, two vs. Molde) in 28 appearances. He has 641 minutes altogether, as his chances as a starter against Augsburg and Darmstadt were not taken.

In light of those issues, Alonso turned to Adli, who began getting more minutes as the No.9, having:

  • Freshly returned from what was a disappointing AFCON for Morocco, scored to make it 2-2 vs. Stuttgart.
  • He then was a surprise starter in Alonso's disciplined tactical masterclass vs. Bayern and performed brilliantly in a defensively screening, offensively counter-attacking role.
  • He would start and score as the striker against Heidenheim, but was moved to the left 10 role after 56 minutes once Schick came on against Mainz.

Watch: How Leverkusen beat Bayern - analysis

Tella bringing valuable squad depth

Last but not least, there's Tella. His emergence was already a theme in the Europa League, but it’s the stylish goals against Darmstadt and Leipzig that have shone the spotlight on the former Arsenal youth player. Seventeen goals as a winger on loan for Vincent Kompany’s electric Burnley side in the Championship made Leverkusen buy the player from Southampton.

A return of 0.77 goals and assists per 90 is exactly the numbers he was putting up at Burnley, and the fact that he’s repeated that in a much more difficult squad player role is promising. Tella is well on his way to repaying the faith with five goals in nine starts (23 appearances).

Vote: Have your say on the title race below!

Unsung heroes and mastermind Alonso

To Alonso's and the team’s credit, Leverkusen managed to extract maximum value out of perhaps slightly lower than the astronomical performances of the Hinrunde. They’ve smartly navigated the injury and AFCON issue with flawless recruitment and excellent rotation in the Europa League. In addition, Alonso’s been able to deal with missing personnel and adjust the tactics - two strikers against Heidenheim, Augsburg playing a diamond, Leipzig’s 4-2-2-2 causing problems - culminating in a masterclass against Bayern.

It speaks volumes about Alonso's managerial style and the team’s chemistry that the Rückrunde has been less about the known brilliance of Xhaka/Grimaldo/Wirtz and more about the massive defensive performances and key goals by unlikely and unsung heroes (Stanišić, Hincapié, Tah, Andrich). Those timely goals have mitigated their scoring issues and with the emergence of Tella, Frimpong and Adli’s speed, as well as the eventual goals from Wirtz/Grimaldo plus strikers, they should be able to finish games quicker.

Given Bayern’s issues, Leverkusen might already be through the toughest portion of the season, having built a seemingly insurmountable lead all while unbeaten. Maybe their real quest is to remain invincible all the way through the season…

Abel Meszaros