3rd against 5th in the BundesLiga was this round’s Top-Spiel. Borussia Moenchengladbach hosted Bayer Leverkusen at Borussia Park in-front of a half-filled stadium, card-boards of course…
Peter Bosz and Marco Rose guided Leverkusen and Gladbach respectively in a chess game that was full of entertainment. A Kevin Nolan directed Chess game if you would like.
Bosz shifted away from the 4–2–3–1 he played last week against Werder Bremen and played in a 3–4–3 system. The thing that didn’t change was Kai Havertz’s role. A twenty year old freak of nature whose movements and creativity mistakes him for just a pure creator, but the trickery and coolness in-front of goal makes him the complete package. No wonder he’s Germany’s next wonderkid.
Against Bremen, Havertz would drop from a striker position to offer a passing option and combine with Leverkusen’s midfielders. In the game at Gladbach he did the same again. Starting from the highest point in the formation he would fill the channels, demanding the ball and making ball progression easier for Leverkusen’s midfield and defenders.
His presence was untracked because in Gladbach’s 4–2–3–1 system the two central defenders Matthias Ginter and Nico Elvedi were worried of runs in behind from Leverkusen’s speedy wide players, Moussa Diaby and Karim Bellarabi. This meant that Havertz was free when he dropped to do what he wishes.
Other than dropping, Havertz would take smart positions in behind Gladbach’s full backs. Stefan Lainer and Diaby’s positioning here after a Gladbach attack frees the wing area totally.
Bellarabi finds Havertz who is smartly positioned there, dragging Ginter with him and creating a gap in the defensive line. Diaby’s pace should have put him in a good position to score, but the pass from Havertz was delayed and Leverkusen reset their attack.
A similar situation happened again behind Lainer. Havertz dragged Ginter with him and Bellarabi was starting his run towards the center.
Havertz combined with Daley Sinkgraven and was in a footrace to catch the ball as Bellarabi is making the run centrally. Havertz’s smart positioning behind Lainer damaged Gladbach’s defensive line and freed space for Bellarabi to attack.
Havertz then beat Elvedi and should have squared it to Bellarabi, but he slowed down instead. Regardless that the two chances didn’t create goal scoring opportunities, Havertz’s role in occupying the space behind Lainer damaged Gladbach’s defensive line and created spaces for Bellarabi and Diaby to attack with their pace.
Furthermore, this “False 9” role presented Havertz as a support option for the Leverkusen players when they were pressed. Here, Mitchell Weiser’s options are taken out and Havertz provides not only a passing option but a progressive one.
Weiser goes down the line and despite him not passing to Havertz, the latter still maintains himself as a support option for Bellarabi. Had Havertz been too central and upfront in addition to Gladbach’s press, Bellarabi would have had only one option and that is to go down the line. Havertz gives him a second option and the ability for Leverkusen to switch play to the other side if needed.
Gladbach were outplayed by Havertz’s role as he linked play and created freely when he dropped from the forward position. Strobl and Elvedi’s feared run in behind from Diaby or Bellarabi which made the central defenders pinned, thus not following Havertz.
In the 2nd half Rose altered his shape to match that of Leverkusen’s by dropping Tobias Strobl in a back three next to Ginter and Elvedi. Strobl would follow Havertz if he dropped and in case he didn’t, Strobl would still be close.
Unfortunately for Gladbach, the onetime Strobl didn’t keep his marker, Havertz’s creative machine struck. Charles Aranguiz found Havertz who was dropping with an incisive pass as Bellarabi was prepared to make a run from wide.
Strobl was in no man’s land and Havertz’s pass put Bellarabi on goal against Yann Sommer. This attack eventually resulted in a dubious penalty which Havertz’s scored to make the score 2–1.
Havertz and Kerem Demirbay stole the show in the first half — and deservedly so — but what made Leverkusen so successful on the ball was their smothering press to regain it. Leverkusen whose shape was 3–4–3 as a starting point — shapes are mostly dynamic in any game depending on the situation — pressed Gladbach’s 2–2 build up, making them either go long or to the full backs where Leverkusen can pounce. Bellarabi and Diaby pressed Elvedi and Ginter while Havertz and Demirbay pressed Strobl and Florian Neuhaus.
In this build up Diaby was maintaining a position between Ginter and Lainer in case Sommer chose one of them. Once Sommer chose Ginter, Diaby pressed while the rest of the Leverkusen players maintained their man-marking.
As the ball nears Ginter he has three options. A long ball, a ball down the line to Lainer or a horizontal ball to Sommer or Elvedi. The long ball puts Gladbach in aerial duel and a higher probability to lose possession. The horizontal ball to Sommer or Elvedi is prepared for by Leverkusen as Bellarabi — at the top of the snippet — is sprinting vertically towards them. The last option is the one which Ginter takes and it triggers the press from Leverkusen whose purpose was to trap Gladbach near the touchline.
Sinkgraven and Aranguiz went out in a rush to press as Diaby and Demirbay were also ready to pounce. In a moment where he can feel the opponents hurrying towards him, Lainer played the ball forward for no one and Gladbach lost possession.
Gladbach’s 2–2 build up was always met with the Leverkusen front three aided by Demirbay. If Gladbach didn’t go wide as Leverkusen wanted them, the long balls would be met by Leverkusen’s defenders who had the freedom to go further up the field in the pressing situation.
A situation in the 31st minute has Diaby closer to Ginter and not maintaining an equivalent space between Ginter and Lainer.
Sommer couldn’t pass to Lainer however as Sinkgraven pushed up to cover in case a pass was played.
When the build up was reset, Lars Stindl dropped and instead of any of the Leverkusen players leaving their markers and damaging their pressing scheme, Aranguiz pushed to press.
The build up was reset for another time and Gladbach went wide left. Now when Gladbach are on the wings, this is a pressing trigger for Leverkusen to collapse. Marcus Thuram was surrounded by three Leverkusen who are all ready to pounce on him. He loses the ball and Edmond Tapsoba collects.
Towards the end of the first half Leverkusen still maintained their pressing scheme, pushing Gladbach to play in the wide areas where they can pounce.
Rami Bensebaini’s options here are limited with Weiser in his face and Tapsoba pushing up. Even going back would put him in a position where he can be pressed by Bellarabi.
Bensebaini went down the line towards Jonas Hoffman and the winger played a heavy pass back towards the left back. This was a trigger for Havertz and Bellarabi to press. This retrieval of possession using the pressing scheme Leverkusen were implementing was the origin of their chance where Havertz hit the bar. The pressing scheme killed Gladbach in the first half and presented Leverkusen with a chance to double their lead.
Gladbach’s switch to 3–4–3 with a narrower front three of Alassane Plea, Thuram and Stindl neutralized Havertz a bit in the 2nd half. Moreover, it created goal scoring opportunities for Rose’s team.
In the first half Leverkusen were frequently using an offside trap against Gladbach’s sole striker. A solution Gladbach found was to instruct one of the three players upfront to position himself wide so he can have a view of Leverkusen’s defensive line and where they were to beat the offside trap. This was complemented by chips over the defence from midfield.
In the beginning of the half Plea found Thuram who had a view of the Leverkusen offside line by being wide of them. Thuram scored to equalize and bring Gladbach back into the game.
Another chance after Leverkusen gained the lead sees Plea behind half (3/5) of Leverkusen’s line. He can see half the line and adjust his positioning to beat the offside as Bensebaini chips the ball over the defence. Unfortunately for Plea, the co-ordination between him and the Algerian didn’t click and he fell to the offside trap.
This type of attack continued throughout the 2nd half, a chip behind the Leverkusen defence as a Gladbach player attack from wide where he can see the offside line. Lainer here has two options ready to attack the space behind the Leverkusen line, Thuram and Plea.
He chips the ball for Thuram and Tapsoba follows leaving Weiser in a 2 v 1 scenario as Neuhaus made a late run. Thuram back-heeled it to Neuhaus but the midfielder’s first touch made it easy for Lucas Hradecky to go out and deny.
A snippet that doesn’t show the offensive line but in this second Plea was seeing the left half (3/5) of the Leverkusen defensive line and adjusting accordingly.
Neuhaus played the chip and Plea was in prime position. However, the attack slowed down and Leverkusen retreated. The narrow front three gave Gladbach an option to attack the offside trap Leverkusen were setting.
Gladbach could have drawn in the 2nd half but a late header from Sven Bender made it 3–1 for Leverkusen. In a game of two halves both teams showed tactical flexibility that wasn’t only beneficial but also easy on the eye. Havertz’s movement in combination with his skills made him enjoyable to watch, just like the press Leverkusen implemented to force Gladbach wide. After 45 minutes it was Gladbach’s turn as they neutralized Havertz by moving into a 3–4–3 where their narrow strikers managed to beat the offside trap more than once.
After Leipzig’s win on Sunday the table puts the three teams back to back to back separated by one point each. A battle for the last Champions League place is on, maybe even a battle for the title as Borussia Dortmund face Bayern Munich on Tuesday where a draw can see both teams dropping two points.
An important aspect that is often overlooked in football is that entertaining and tactical matches aren’t mutually exclusive. The Gladbach-Leverkusen game illustrated this perfectly.