Second face third in the Bundesliga tomorrow, as Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich side travel to Leverkusen.
Fresh from their emphatic Champions league win in Manchester, Bayern Munich face another key game—against a side sitting one place behind them in the Bundesliga standings. Bayer Leverkusen have started the season in imperious form and remain the last side to beat Bayern in the Bundesliga—a mere 32 matches ago.
Leverkusen’s start to the season can best be described as extremely solid. A side very much built in the image of their manager, former Liverpool defender Sami Hyypia, Bayer are in some ways almost the polar opposite in style to their Bavarian opponents.
Efficient in possession and strong in defence, Leverkusen are keeping up with the Champions League finalist pair of Bayern and Dortmund in the table, sitting a point behind both after seven games.
Six wins from seven fixtures have come despite the side seeing relatively little of the ball. Leverkusen are yet to secure more than 50 percent possession in any game, averaging 49 percent over their seven Bundesliga matches.
Leverkusen’s possession share has been below 50 percent in all of their matches bar two, including a 4-2 victory over Moenchengladbach that came with only 46 percent of the ball. Proving that more possession doesn’t necessarily more equal goals, Leverkusen have scored 17 goals this season—three more than Bayern.
Hyppia’s side have managed to continue winning through impressive backs to the wall defensive displays. Despite their lofty league position, Leverkusen sit seventh in the number of defensive actions made in the Bundesliga this season (301) and have made the most defensive actions in their home games of any team (169).
For comparison, their opponents tomorrow sit bottom of both rankings with 170 defensive actions (93 at home). While Bayern have conceded fewer goals—mainly by not letting their opponents have the ball—Leverkusen’s organisation and shape have helped them in to third place.
Contrasting styles make tomorrow’s match an intriguing matchup. Leverkusen beat Bayern 2-1 in Munich last season in a fixture that saw them win with only 41 percent of the ball. A similar possession share is likely tomorrow, and Leverkusen’s defensive shape will be key to their hopes of success.
Hyypia is unlikely to be concerned if Bayern have the lion's share of possession, and his side's setup is well placed to frustrate Bayern and use any possession they do get efficiently—helped by Sidney Sam’s ability to hit teams on the break.
However, Bayern remain the favourites. Franck Ribery didn’t feature in last season’s defeat, and Arjen Robben only appeared from the bench. The absence through injury of Leverkusen’s regular right-back Giulio Donati means that Roberto Hilbert will be tasked with keeping Ribery quiet.
A summer signing from Benfica, Hilbert could be the weak link for Bayern, and Ribery, to exploit. Naturally a right midfielder, Hilbert is more at home attacking than defending, as his heat map from the Champions league win over Real Sociedad shows.
He has only made four tackles in the league this season, in addition to three fouls, and will surely need to make more if he is to stop Ribery—a player who has averaged a take-on every 15 minutes this season.
Bayer Leverkusen are well set up to frustrate Bayern and are used to making efficient use of the ball to hit teams on the break. Bayern will surely have the majority of possession but may need a moment of magic to break down a stubborn Leverkusen side. Either way something has to give—Bayern are undefeated since last October, and Leverkusen have won seven on the bounce at home.