After years of trailing closely behind Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund, this seems to finally be the year that Bayer Leverkusen have broken into the tier of true Bundesliga title contenders. They first proved it by holding Bayern to a hard-fought draw at the Allianz Arena in September, and then proceeded to rattle off a very impressive 11-1-0 string of results in the Bundesliga. No matter what, this was going to be a tough match for Edin Terzic and Borussia Dortmund.
The match began better than almost anyone could have imagined, with Julian Ryerson finishing off a beautiful team goal with intricate passing from Niclas Füllkrug, Marcel Sabitzer, and Marco Reus. Unfortunately, that was about it in terms of offense, as BVB would spend the next 85 minutes on the back foot under Leverkusen’s suffocating combination of possession and relentless pressure. Leverkusen would eventually convert in the 78th minute with Victor Boniface tapping in a cross from Patrick Schick.
The tally of chances isn’t pretty: Leverkusen outshot Dortmund 23-6 and dominated possession 69%-31%. As I will break down below, those numbers take a little bit away from Dortmund’s defensive performance, but it still was a dominant performance by Bayer Leverkusen. Here are the highlights:
And here are my thoughts:
#1: Dortmund‘s defense bent until it broke
The narrative since the match ended seems to be that Borussia Dortmund scored early and then hung on for dear life for the next 85 minutes. I’ve seen Edin Terzic receive a lot of criticism for saying that the draw was deserved. While I do think that Leverkusen were overall the better side and that BVB were lucky with a point, I would like to play Devil’s Advocate for a moment.
While it’s partially true in the sense that BVB didn’t create much offense, and ended the match with only 0.6 expected goals (xG) compared to Bayer Leverkusen’s 2.1, the timing and distribution of the xG tells an interesting story. Julian Ryerson’s breakthrough in the opening minutes meant that Leverkusen were chasing a result the entire game, so of course it makes sense that they would have had the lion’s share of the possession and the chances. Despite holding the initiative for so long, Leverkusen really didn’t create much of substance until they finally broke through in the 78th minute. To that point, Leverkusen had only accumulated about 0.8 xG, mostly from various speculative long shots by Granit Xhaka. When Patrik Schick’s pass to Victor Boniface finally dissected BVB’s defense, his shot registered almost a full expected goal, and suddenly the match looked like a blowout.
So yes, Leverkusen did control the vast majority of the possession and the shots, but until Boniface’s breakthrough Dortmund’s defense had done a pretty good job stifling them. While BVB’s lack of ability to break Leverkusen’s press and create much of any offense after their first goal will be concerning, credit does need to go to the defense for mostly stifling Leverkusen’s world-class attack.
For what it’s worth, Understat has the xG even closer at 1.96-1.26 for Leverkusen, although I think they’re grossly overinflating Füllkrug’s header in the final minute.
#2: On to the bad stuff
While BVB’s defense did hold firm for much of the game, that’s about it as far as positives go. Terzic’s side generated a paltry five shot attempts in the 85+ minutes following Julian Ryerson’s goal. This was the result of a complete inability of BVB’s back line to progress the ball outside of their own third with any regularity. Leverkusen this season have maintained the highest press of any Bundesliga club, including Bayern Munich, and Dortmund had a tremendously difficult job breaking it, a fact compounded by BVB’s playstyle.
The problem was that BVB were so compact that if they did win possession, the midfielders had essentially no option other than to play the ball backwards or attempt to launch a long ball to a full back or winger attempting a vertical towards goal, and with Jonathan Tah and Odilon Kossounou on the back line, it was incredibly difficult for any BVB player to chase them down.
As a result, from minute six onwards, BVB’s approach seemed to be to stay compact between the ball and the goal and take whatever odd chances on the counter they could get. While not the ideal approach, this isn’t the end of the world as long as you maintain the lead. The downside is that you essentially have to bank on your defense being flawless, and while Dortmund’s defense held for the majority of the match, as I explained above, it did eventually break.
#3: Leverkusen are a cut above
Yesterday’s match featured one club that’s a title challenger and one club that’s a top four challenger. Unfortunately, Edin Terzic’s Black-and-Yellows were the latter. While the quality of Mats Hummels, Nico Schlotterbeck, Gregor Kobel, and a few others kept the result close, in every other facet Leverkusen far surpassed Dortmund. It reflects not only the coaching that Xabi Alonso has done, but also the investments that Simon Rolfes has made in his squad, including the additions of Victor Boniface, Alejandro Grimaldo, and Granit Xhaka.
Unlike Bayern Munich, Leverkusen do not enjoy a financial advantage of Borussia Dortmund. They have not made a single transfer that Dortmund themselves could not have made. Dortmund spent more on Felix Nmecha than Leverkusen spent on any of the three above transfers. It just goes to show how much one good, and one bad, transfer window can make such a massive difference in shaping the quality of a squad.
- Last season, a lack of center back depth and a grueling schedule forced Edin Terzic to try to bring in a young, unproven center back in Soumaïla Coulibaly to close out a match against VfB Stuttgart, and it ended in disaster when a pair of errors by Coulibaly cost Dortmund what ended up being two very vital points. It seemed like a possibility that this disaster would repeat itself when Terzic needed to sub on Antonios Papadopoulos for Nico Schlotterbeck. Fortunately, Papadopoulos looked very composed and defended quite well, even making a few vital tackles in the final 20 minutes of the game.
- Mats Hummels was arguably BVB’s best defender with last-ditch tackles left and right throughout the match, but he unfortunately is mostly to blame for Leverkusen’s goal. For some inexplicable reason he drifted wide to double-team Jeremie Frimpong, who was already marked by Julian Ryerson, and in doing so left Patrik Schick unmarked in the box. Schick just had to collect the ball and whip a low cross to Victor Boniface to walk it six inches across the goal line.
What did you think of yesterday’s match? Let me know your thoughts!