Leverkusen - It was 7 December 2013. Bayer 04 Leverkusen had just won away at Borussia Dortmund in the standout fixture of Matchday 14, establishing themselves as the primary challengers to runaway Bundesliga leaders FC Bayern München.
Bayern’s closest challengers?
Perhaps more importantly, however, the victory added further weight to the claim that a shift in power is in progress in German football: that after comfortably becoming the country’s third best team in the past year, Leverkusen are on the brink of permanently usurping Dortmund as Bayern’s biggest rival, at least on the domestic scene.
The remarkable upward trend at the club has been clearly evident since Sami Hyypiä took over as head coach way back in March 2012 following the exit of Robin Dutt, who had struggled to extract the maximum from what was then a talented group of players. Hyypiä’s first game in charge was a 1-1 draw in away at Hamburger SV and while it more steadied a rocking ship rather than sped it out into immediately calmer waters, it was a sign of what was to come.
Built on a solid defensive display, it was a goal from Germany international Andre Schürrle that got the Hyypiä era off and running at Bayer, and since then, they have gone from strength to strength. In 2011/12 they finished in fifth, ten points behind FC Schalke 04 in third, but in 2012/13 the roles were reversed, with Hyypiä leading them to a third-place finish - and automatic qualification for the UEFA Champions League - this time ten points ahead of the Royal Blues.
Numbers spin a promising tale
This season, the story has been much the same. Schalke, with arguably just as talented a squad, have toiled all season in the league and lie in sixth - you guessed it - ten points behind Leverkusen, a deficit that could grow depending on Matchday 17’s results, when Bayer travel to SV Werder Bremen and Schalke to 1. FC Nürnberg.
Since his premiere in the Leverkusen dugout, Hyypiä has overseen 35 wins, 11 draws and only ten defeats from 56 matches, taking 116 points at 2.07 points per game, and in this calendar year has steered the team to 70 points at 2.12 points per game - more than Dortmund (68).
Duo to solo
It should be mentioned that in 34 of those games (the entire 2012/13 season), Hyypiä was assisted by Sascha Lewandowski, but even that does little to undermine the Finn’s more recent achievements. Since the beginning of this season, Hyypiä has been in sole charge of first-team affairs, with Lewandowski resuming his previous role as youth coach.
Die Werkself currently lie second in the table with a tally of 37 points, courtesy of 12 wins from his opening 16 matches and a win against Werder in the final game before the winter break could make it their best-ever opening half to a season. What says most about the mental toughness that Hyypiä instilled, however, is their results against the big two: they held Bayern to a draw on Matchday 8, before silencing the Signal Iduna Park crowd a fortnight ago.
Throughout his playing days, which ended with retirement in 2009 after two seasons with Bayer, Hyypiä was renowned for being a solid, reliable and immensely calm defender. One look at Leverkusen’s present tactics, shape and defensive record immediately betrays the mild-mannered Scandinavian’s hallmark.
Barring FC Bayern, Bayern boast the tightest defence in the division, both last season and in the current campaign, shipping just 15 in their 16 matches this season. In their 4-3-3 formation, a midfield trio of captain Simon Rolfes, midfield dynamo Lars Bender and one of either Gonzalo Castro or Stefan Reinartz gives the back four and talented young goalkeeper Bernd Leno fantastic protection, and acts as the perfect base from which to launch their attacks, more often than not on the break and usually always at devastating speed.
Last season it was Schürrle that carried the threat, but ever since the Germany international’s switch to Premier League side Chelsea FC, it has been his replacement, Heung Min Son, signed in the summer from Hamburger SV, who has been the side’s most explosive attacking weapon. Still only 21, the South Korean netted the winner against BVB with the type of clinical finish that the great Ulf Kirsten, Leverkusen’s all-time leading scorer, would have been proud of.
At Hamburg, Son was a scorer of great goals but not immediately prolific - his record in three seasons with the Red Shorts was 20 goals in 78 appearances. Yet in his short career at the BayArena he already has seven in 13, including three stunning Matchday 12 strikes against his former employers. Schürrle was always going to be difficult to replace, yet Son has slotted in seamlessly, not only replenishing the team’s attack with quality to exceed if not match that of the departed Schürrle, but crucially relieving the goalscoring burden on last season’s leading scorer and focal point of the attack, Stefan Kießling.
The perfect match
Replacing lost talent has been a feature of Leverkusen’s management during Hyypiä’s time at the helm. Daniel Carvajal returned to Real Madrid CF after a hugely successful loan spell in 2012/13, with the void he left being filled by the ever-reliable Italian Giulio Donati, while Australian international Robbie Kruse has added to the depth of talent in attack, as has the return to fitness of another German international in Sidney Sam. However, it is Son who best epitomises Leverkusen’s forward play this season, thriving as he does in Hyypiä’s effective system.
And if supplanting Dortmund as the main challengers to Bayern is the aim, Son is bound to be key to Hyypiä’s bid to repeat the feat of legendary Bundesliga coach Jupp Heynckes, who led Bayer to a runners up spot in 2011. Distinguished company indeed and, were it to transpire, quite an achievement for the now 40-year-old, one of the game’s most astute, diligent and above all most promising coaches.