When Bayer Leverkusen's defensive, tactical masterpiece nullified Bayern Munich's attack


Bayer Leverkusen delivered a defensive masterpiece in their crucial top-of-the-table victory over Bayern Munich, reducing Der Rekordmeister’s offensive threat while maintaining their own danger in the final third. The performance was another example of Xabi Alonso’s Werkself revolution.

Alonso sprung a surprise on pundits and supporters before kick-off, as usual starters Jeremie Frimpong, Jonas Hofmann and Patrik Schick were all named on the substitutes bench. The head coach instead opted for a more cautious approach, as Josip Stanišić lined up at right-back with Nathan Tella in front of him and the speedy Amine Adli came in for Schick up front. “We looked to confuse Bayern even before the match”, explained midfielder Robert Andrich in regards to the unexpected changes. 

“Against Bayern, you have to be strong defensively”, said Alonso after the game. “We did a great job; we were disciplined and compact. We didn’t give them anything”. It is impossible to disagree with that analysis – the way Leverkusen neutralised the record champions is almost unprecedented. Explaining his side’s approach, Alonso added, “Even though we wanted to dominate, on occasion we needed to wait and defend compactly.”

Watch: How Leverkusen beat Bayern - analysis

Leverkusen take Bayern’s attack out of the game

Since data collection began, no team has kept Bayern's expected goals (xG) tally so low. Mainz had set the previous record, as they faced just 0.5 xG on Matchday 32 of the 2021/22 campaign. However, against Leverkusen on Saturday, the visitors mustered just 0.27 xG, and worked Lukáš Hrádecký with only one of their eight shots throughout the 90 minutes. “When we didn’t have the ball, we were energetic and always closed down quickly – we were never passive”, said defensive leader Jonathan Tah, who put in a strong display.

To further underline Leverkusen’s imperious showing at the back, Harry Kane was in possession of the ball on only eight occasions before the break. Although Bayern tried to involve the all-round striker in their build-up at the start of the second half, Leverkusen stuck to their gameplan and limited the Englishman to 12 more phases of possession – fewer than he had ever previously racked up since his summer move from Tottenham Hotspur.

Andrich and Granit Xhaka, meanwhile, dominated the midfield from their double-pivot position. "Granit has a big fighting heart and showed his leadership personality," Alonso said in praise of his on-fied general after the game. "He is always there in the important moments," the Spanish tactician continued. 

Werkself all powerful up top, despite defensive formation 

When Bayern tried to overload the centre, Alonso's defensive play paid off. The five-man line against the ball ensured that there was always a central defender - usually Piero Hincapié on the left or Edmond Tapsoba on the right - who came out of the back line and could support the double six without leaving too many spaces open defensively. 

"It was our best performance of the season in terms of working in front of our own goal,” Hrádecký enthused. "We didn't have the ball that much today, but we were also dominant against the ball," Alonso added. 

Granit Xhaka (l.) and Robert Andrich (r.) were imperious as Bayer Leverkusen defeated Bayern Munich. - IMAGO/Jerry Andre

But Alonso didn't just have a clever plan in terms of his defence. The Werkself also played differently compared to their usual style when they had possession of the ball. Instead of pushing both full-backs up and only bringing left-back Alejandro Grimaldo into a line of four depending on the situation, Leverkusen operated in possession in a clear four-man line: Stanišić staying on the right while Grimaldo advanced into midfield on the left. This was a decision that surprised Bayern.

Thomas Tuchel also made an adjustment before the game and sent his team onto the pitch in an outside of the norm three-man backline - supposedly to mirror Leverkusen's offensive system. However, this formation proved largely ineffective due to Bayer's altered structure. The full-backs Stanišić and Hincapié were repeatedly able to dribble far infield and open up space.

Alonso: “A different game than normal” 

On average, Leverkusen had 57.8 per cent ball possession per game this season - the second highest figure in the Bundesliga. But against Bayern (in first place with 60 per cent), Saturday's hosts dominated the game in their work against the ball while not losing their own offensive threat. Once they reached the opponent's penalty area, the high technical level that Leverkusen have demonstrated so often this season came into play again.

"Today it was a slightly different game than normal," Alonso explained. But the Werkself coach and his players showed that they are an outstanding team not only in their style of play but especially in their football in general.

With a five point-lead at the top of the standings that includes a better goal difference compared to second-placed Bayern, B04 now possess a solid buffer at the summit. Yet Alonso remains cautious, albeit determined: "It's still only February," the coach explained. "It's my job to make sure that the players can maintain this level. We have to keep it up!"

- Niklas Staiger