Pep might have signed a host of skillful dribblers this summer, Arteta and Klopp might be experimenting with tactical flexibility, and Ancelotti is using Jude Bellingham as a box crashing striker; but the most interesting team in world football right now… is Bayer Leverkusen.
Xabi Alonso took charge in October of last season, taking over from head coach Gerardo Seoane, with Die Schwarzroten in a relegation battle, dragging them to a 6th placed finish. And the transformation has shown no signs of slowing down this season, with the North Rhine-Westphalia side currently 2nd in the Bundesliga, behind Bayern only on goal difference.
One of the biggest reasons behind their transformation is the tactical flexibility that Alonso has implemented, which is also one of the things that makes them so exciting and interesting as a side. Last season, the Spaniard adopted two different tactical approaches – one a slower and more ponderous possession-based game that helped them control games better. The second was far more transitional, allowing them to attack more directly, but they would concede more and control games less.
This season Alonso has started to blend the two tactical approaches, turning Leverkusen into a formidable opponent. According to Opta, this season the team has kept the direct speed of their attacks upfield, but have significantly increased their passes per sequence, giving them more control in attacks.
A look at data comparisons also paints a picture of the club’s evolution as well. They are putting forward an average of 640 passes per game (1st in the division) this season, compared with 496 passes per game last season (5th in the division). Their number of direct attacks has dropped only very slightly, from 2.3 to 2.0, whilst the high turnovers they win per game has increased from 6.4 to 10.7.
The reason they have been able to adapt tactically so well is due to another of the facets that makes them such an interesting team… recruitment. Unlike the scattergun approach to transfers that many sides adopt, Leverkusen have brought in players who perfectly fit the system Alonso is trying to play.
Among these signings include left back Alex Grimaldo from Benfica, right winger Jonas Hofmann from Borussia Mönchengladbach, Granit Xhaka from Arsenal who has been deployed as a deep lying playmaker, and Nigerian striker Victor Boniface who already has 6 goals in 5 games. There were concerns that the loss of Moussa Diaby to Aston Villa could have hampered the side’s tactical evolution, but shrewd recruitment has made a major difference.
Setting up with a 3-4-3 structure, the team evolves in-game with wing-back Grimaldo dropping into a back 4 to allow right wing back Frimpong to bomb forward and make the front 3 into a front 4, giving Leverkusen an attacking overload, allowing them to outnumber oppositions in attacking phases.
Overloads with quick passes and third-man combinations have been a mainstay of Alonso’s tactical approach this season, allowing the team to move the ball through lines of pressure. This presents opportunities for the striker to get the ball in front of goal with just the keeper to beat. The free role of attacking playmaker Florian Wirz has also played a key role in this.
With quick intricate passing, positional ideas, and a focus on team structure on the pitch, Leverkusen have become one of the best teams in Europe to watch. This could wind up being a hugely successful season for the five-time Bundesliga runners-up, and no matter what happens, they continue to remain the world’s most fascinating team right now.