Bayer Leverkusen claimed a huge win in the context of the 2023/24 Bundesliga title race as they beat Bayern Munich 3-0 on Matchday 21. It saw coach Xabi Alonso deploy a different approach than usual to neutralise and ultimately beat the defending champions with the help of the untouchable Florian Wirtz.
There was no Jonas Hofmann, no Patrik Schick and even no Jeremie Frimpong as the surprises kept coming in Leverkusen’s starting XI for this potentially decisive clash at the top of the table. Instead, Alonso opted for Bayern-owned Josip Stanišić, a more defensive-minded right-sider, in place of the flying Dutchman. Further forward, Nathan Tella, who’d operated mostly as back-up to Frimpong at wing-back, was chosen to stretch the play. The Werkself boss also opted for the speed of Amine Adli at centre-forward instead of the physical presence of Schick.
However, Tuchel had also sprung some tactical surprises of his own with Bayern's line-up, perhaps trying to counter Leverkusen’s expected style of play and formation, which had hardly changed all season. It meant Bayern started with a back three to try and match up to Bayer’s 3-4-2-1. But that’s not what Alonso had in mind that day…
Watch: The BayArena celebrates Alonso and Leverkusen after victory
More restrained in 5-2-3
Alonso told the media ahead of kick-off that Frimpong’s omission was down to “tactical reasons”. He later explained in more detail: “We can dominate the game, but sometimes we also have to wait and defend in a compact way.” That’s what the Werkself did. Usually the team who wants the ball, they registered just 38 percent possession against Bayern, which is their lowest value all season. They’d even had 47 percent of the ball in their 2-2 draw in Munich at the start of the campaign.
But this time Alonso decided he wanted his team to form a solid defensive block and challenge Bayern to find a way through. They were even less eager to regain possession throughout, managing a ball recovery time of 22.6 seconds. That figure had stood at 18.7 seconds in the reverse fixture. And it’s all down to how they defended.
Stanišić’s inclusion allowed Leverkusen to create a back five out of players whose strengths lie in defending. Frimpong is an excellent player, but better with the ball at his feet and getting forward. This approach meant the Werkself were able to defend one-to-one against Bayern’s front three and their high wing-backs (Noussair Mazraoui on the right, Sacha Boey on the left).
In front of them, Alonso set his team up with a narrow attacking block to close up the middle and defend better against Jamal Musiala and Leroy Sané trying to play in the half spaces. Musiala in particular often tried to drop deep into midfield to make himself an option, but Granit Xhaka (and Robert Andrich on Sané) maintained their positional discipline and ensured Bayern’s defence could not play the ball to the pair who can be so dangerous when allowed to turn and run with the ball. Whenever Xhaka went to cover Musiala and left Leon Goretzka free, Tella would often drop in to mark the central midfielder. Leverkusen kept things tight throughout.
Drawing in defenders by pressing
Since Wirtz acted almost as a centre-forward in possession and basically defended against Eric Dier, it meant Leverkusen opened up the wings for Bayern’s wide centre-backs in a controlled manner. Although Minjae Kim was more reluctant to go forward, Dayot Upamecano was often involved down the right. Some 55 percent of Bayern’s attacking moves started on the right side of the pitch, with 35 percent in the widest quarter. When they did go forward up the left, then it was again using width (31 percent).
However, Leverkusen’s left defended well together as a unit. The home team’s quick forwards had no problem waiting and keeping things compact in the centre before spreading wide when the pass was played down the wings or one of the centre-backs had moved out of position. Whenever Upamecano broke through, battling central midfielder Andrich would step across to oppose the Frenchman. And with a success rate of 59 percent in duels, the Germany international proved tough to beat.
Since Xhaka and the three forwards moved well in unison, there were rarely options for Upamecano to find a teammate in the final third. Bayern’s usually brilliant attack was completely shut off.
Still dangerous in attack
When playing with a deep-lying back five, it can often be difficult to transition properly. Other teams have also managed to keep Bayern’s attack at bay, although none to this extent. The Munich club’s xG of 0.3 was their lowest in any game since the introduction of Bundesliga Match Facts in 2019/20. Opposing teams have then rarely managed to create dangerous chances themselves, or only done so through luck. But Alonso also had a perfectly thought-out plan for attacking here.
Unlike normally, it wasn’t the right-sided defender (Frimpong, or in this case Stanišić) who broke out from the back line to create a flat four, but Alejandro Grimaldo on the left. By going forward, he then formed a 4-2-3-1 formation in possession, with the Spaniard in fact playing more centrally than Tella on the right. Wirtz went from front man when pressing to his customary No.10 role, with Adli acting as the lone striker.
Grimaldo and Wirtz overpower man-to-man defending
Grimaldo’s more central position then created space wide on the left. That was an opportunity for nominal left-back Piero Hincapie to get forward and initiate attacks down that side. The Ecuadorian is a centre-back by trade but has played wide in the past at the BayArena, sometimes even as a wing-back. It means he’s more than adept at taking on a defender, which is required in this role. And it was a challenge for which Bayern seemingly had no answer.
Wirtz was also a constant issue, as he normally is. While Leverkusen would mirror Bayern’s back three when not on the ball, the young playmaker would then move away from his direct opponent Dier when the Werkself were in possession. The defending champions tried a number of approaches to respond to this, but all seemed to create new issues.
Watch: Highlights of Leverkusen's win
1) Wirtz pulling the strings in space
At first, Bayern were happy just to let Wirtz drop deeper. The result was that the Germany international would see more of the ball and could therefore launch Leverkusen’s attacks, as was seen with the opening goal. A long ball from Edmond Tapsoba came back off Adli for Wirtz, who was in space between Bayern’s holding midfielders. He was then able to drive forward, evading an attempted tackle from Aleksandar Pavlović.
Wirtz then played Adli in behind. It was only a poor touch from the Morocco international that allowed Bayern to momentarily quash the danger. A quick throw, however, brought about the goal from Stanišić. Leverkusen were going direct and Bayern were now aware of that for the remaining 70 minutes.
2) Goretzka and Pavlović mark Wirtz
Even before the opening goal, Goretzka had at times been drawn towards Wirtz, but wasn’t always able to keep that up as he also had to operate up against Xhaka. Afterwards, the visitors decided they would leave one of the Leverkusen central midfielders open instead of losing Wirtz behind them. It meant Goretzka in particular would focus on Wirtz, who mostly dropped into his area of the pitch, instead of Xhaka.
Again, it was an idea that only worked to an extent, since it allowed a player with the distribution ability of Xhaka extra freedom. The midfielder would create space to attack by carrying the ball himself and then moving it from side to side. And if that space didn’t open up, then he could always play the ball in behind for one of the quick forwards in Tella and Adli.
3) Dier shadows Wirtz into midfield
A similar issue arose from Bayern’s third attempt at finding a solution to their Wirtz issue. At times the central man of the back three, Dier, would follow the Leverkusen playmaker into midfield and man-mark him. The England international defender would sometimes even be drawn all the way to the Werkself back line as a result, while at the other end it opened even more space for passes in behind to Adli and Tella.
One of the best moves came in the 42nd minute. Xhaka was unmarked after a turnover, but this time not because of Wirtz’s movement. The 20-year-old had come very deep and drawn Dier out of defence. And since Tella was very wide, it meant Kim was also out of position and left Upamecano up against the rapid pace of Adli. Xhaka spotted it immediately played the pass in behind.
The Morocco international shrugged off his man and drove the ball to the edge of the box. It was ultimately his own control that slowed him down and allowed the also pacy Upamecano to recover and touch the ball away at the last second. It was a move that could have ended in much worse fashion for Bayern. Better control from Adli and it could have easily been 2-0 before half-time.
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Tactically impeccable, technically brilliant
The tactical genius of Alonso meant his former club were faced with simply unresolvable challenges. Yet despite all the praise for the coach, you can’t forget that the best plans can only work when the players carry it out and don’t make any mistakes.
The fact that Stanišić – actually brought in for greater defensive stability – scored the opening goal was down to a mistake by Bayern’s Boey, who had been picked to deal with the pace of Frimpong. Perhaps the Frenchman also wasn’t quite in tune with his new defensive teammates following his January arrival. Either way, Tuchel was clear in his analysis afterwards: “You simply shouldn’t be conceding that opening goal with a back five.”
It all came together for Leverkusen that Saturday night. They got their tactics spot on, their surprises came off, and they had the quality throughout the pitch to carry it all out to perfection. The undefeated Bundesliga leaders took apart the 11-time defending champions by taking their game to a new dimension. It’s not about individuals but about how they all function as one in Alonso’s idea of a team – a team that now appears destined for the title.
Matchday 24 probable teams
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