Leverkusen showed quality in front of goal and put in an accomplished second half defensive performance to keep Wolfsburg’s very plausible relegation nightmare going.
In spite of a much-needed win against Borussia Mönchengladbach last time out, Wolfsburg simply had to take something from this game. A tea-time kick-off, relegation rivals Gladbach and Stuttgart had won the early afternoon games which preceded the tie, and Kaiserslautern drew. Thus, Wolfsburg were merely a point above the relegation zone (with second-bottom Bremen, also a point behind the Wolves, due to play the following day).
The game was also crucial for Leverkusen, who’d seen Hannover leapfrog them into second spot in the hours before this home tie. Last weekend, they threw away a two-goal lead late-on to draw 2-2 against Werder Bremen. The most interesting news personnel-wise was that Patrick Helmes started for Wolfsburg – the 26-year-old netted 28 goals in 57 Bundesliga appearances for Bayer between summer 2008 and the recent winter transfer window, which saw him join the Wolves for £8million. Absence-wise, there was no Thomas Kahlenberg, Josué, Alexander Madlung, or Tolga Ciğerci for the visitors. Grafite, meanwhile, was only fit enough for the bench. For Leverkusen coach Jupp Heynckes, there was no Tranquilo Barnetta, Michael Ballack, Sami Hyypiä, Arturo Vidal, or Hanno Balitsch.
It was a positive start from the hosts, who spread the ball, immediately drew their opponents out and onto them (prising their banks from chalk-to-chalk), before releasing Sidney Sam: alas, the pass had a bit too much zip on it. The sides were lined up similarly off-ball: compact 4-4-2s looking to stand nearer the halfway line than to their own goalkeepers. Possession was being shared, with Wolfsburg looking just as slick and confident on the ball in the opening stages. When Renato Augusto tried to mix things up by dropping near Manuel Friedrich, before sprinting out diagonally to the left channel, Jan Polák followed his every move. Although both sides were content to leave space behind their defences, they weren’t as willing to give the creative midfielders any such engineering room.
With Wolfsburg easing into a position of minor control (drawing the home side on, before launching long diagonal balls behind the home side’s full-backs), Leverkusen began to calm things down by way of some aimless passing amongst their defenders just outside their own box. They got nowhere with this tactic, and neither did Wolfsburg when they tried the same moments later (albeit with the Leverkusen attackers doing more pressing than their Wolfsburg counterparts did to the home side’s defenders).
As we entered the teen minutes, Wolfsburg looked most likely to break the deadlock. Pinging balls over Daniel Schwaab for Cicero to gallop after and cross for the high-standing Helmes were proving particularly effective, and even when the visitors were pinned back in and around their own box, they looked sharp when taking control of possession, kicking long and early to the lonely Helmes, and waiting as the striker held the ball up commandingly before laying on a sprinting colleague. The hosts, lacking urgency and generally stuck in their own half on and off-ball, were forced into a change on 13 minutes – the injured Friedrich hobbling off, replaced by Croatian youngster Domagoj Vida (he went to left-back, Schwaab moved to centre-back).
But the change failed to spark an upturn in Bayer’s fortunes, as Pierre Littbarski’s side teased their hosts tactically – spreading the ball between the centre-backs, and laying it off to the sprinting-back Makoto Hasebe – the full-backs and widemen, all the while, were drawing their markers back by launching dummy sprints down the line. Although this kind of football wasn’t unlocking the – shaky – Leverkusen defence, it kept the home side running and out of possession.
Not that Leverkusen were much good in it, save for the tricky figure of Sam. But being useless for 20 minutes is irrelevant if you can pull a five-second moment of magic out of the bag. And in the 21st minute, the home side did just that. Some great positional interchanging saw Augusto play a foresight-laden diagonal pass to the infield-sprinting Sam, who spun to play a first-time back-heel through-ball which released Lars Bender. The box-to-box midfielder received the ball on the right corner of the D, and curled it superbly into the bottom right-hand corner first time for 1-0.
Pressed high and furiously in the immediate aftermath of the goal, Wolfsburg looked like going from having control of the game to 2-0 down in the space of three minutes. Kieβling was everywhere across the front line now, suddenly playing with real menace. And even when Wolfsburg did break forward using the same brand of snappy and canny passing moves that were getting them acres of space in the final-third earlier, Leverkusen were now protecting and swamping their own defensive zones with more gusto.
Things conspired to get worse for the relegation battlers in the 29th minute. Arne Friedrich zoomed out through the halfway line with the ball, tried to play a one-two with the dropping Helmes, only for the bulky centre-forward to flop miserably and lose possession. With a huge hole to exploit due to Friedrich’s rush of blood to the head and the visiting full-backs being high and wide, Augusto (not exactly the quickest player on the pitch) took the ball all the way to Diego Benaglio’s box, and from the same sort of area where Bender opened the scoring, released a scuffed shot with his right foot – yet how it crept under Bengalio for 2-0, only the Swiss ‘keeper will know. The home side’s task was now far easier, and they could defend off-ball with less pressure on them to attack. Thus, they sat off in a compact 4-4-2, the defence about a third of the way up the pitch, the strikers just over the halfway line, and letting the Wolfsburg defenders knock it among one another a few yards in front of them, frantically pondering what to do, and where to pass.
The lively and still occasionally penetrative Cicero aside, Wolfsburg were now pretty lifeless. Diego was anonymous and stodgy on the ball, and the movement in the final-third was non-existent.Wolfsburg’s players were now seeing their touch desert them, not to mention the fact that their spark had gone, and creativity was conspicuous only by its absence. Littbarski must take most of the blame for this, and bolder/sensible managers would have turned to their bench and instigated a tactical and formational change.
Instead, the temporary tactician persisted with his two defensive midfielders, a defensive-minded right-midfielder, and relied on Cicero and Diego to jog back, get the ball, and do something with it (despite the fact this deprived his side of their cleverest movers nearer to the untroubled René Adler’s goal). They did flirt with threatening in the run-up to half time mind – Marcel Schäfer, now permanently on the overlap, making up for a previously poor delivery of a well-placed set-piece by squaring a great ball across the six-yard-box, only for Adler to leap on it before anyone else and smother.
Alas, such fleeting moments of away side quality were to reap no first-half reward, and the Wolves went 3-0 down in stoppage time after yet more disastrous defending. Despite having ten men behind the ball, the away side cleared clumsily from just outside their own box, and with their players so deep, couldn’t mop up the loose ball. It was looped back towards the box, just as Simon Kjær stepped out and stood there. Friedrich, however, didn’t, and Kießling – hiding behind the Dane but with eyes on Friedrich’s position – took the ball and dinked it over the oncoming Benaglio.
Helmes, useless and lifeless in the final-third throughout the first period, was replaced at half-time by the more mobile Dieumerci Mbokani. His side were immediately on the back foot in the second half, however, as Leverkusen played some energy-draining keep-ball in and around the final-third. When Wolfsburg were forced to build from the back, the hosts pressed high, sometimes in pairs. Memories of last weekend’s embarrassing collapse fresh in their minds, Leverkusen looked sharper than they had done at any point of the first half. There was still some hope for Wolves mind, with Schwaab in an unconventional left-sided centre-back role, and rookie left-back Vida looking shaky in both attack and defence. But when another free-kick was conceded in dangerous territory by the hosts, Diego wasted the guests’ best hope of pulling a goal back by failing to beat the first man for the third successive set-piece (he’d done the same twice in the first half).
In the 52nd minute, he at last sent over a much better ball, but Polák headed wide after leaping well. The ball had become all Wolfsburg’s, but Leverkusen were set up to break on their guests – Kieβling lurking and chasing deep, and when succeeding in the steal, laying on the static Augusto to pick out a pass for either the sprinting striker or the infield-darting widemen.
With Wolfsburg now having to come out and commit bodies forward, and Leverkusen more than happy to absorb the pressure and attack instantly when winning the ball back, the game was wonderfully open: between the 56th and 57th minutes, both sides exchanged great chances. First, Hasebe unexpectedly found himself jogging towards the right side of the D with the ball, but as if to emphasise why the Wolfsburg centre of midfield was too negative, the Japanese international dragged a right-footed strike tamely across goal.
His effort was swiftly followed by Augusto going one on one with Benaglio, courtesy of yet more dodgy Wolfsburg defending. However, the angle wasn’t in the Brazilian’s favour, and the eventual effort went straight at the Swiss shotstopper. His counterpart, Diego, was now bobbing everywhere, ball-hungry. But Leverkusen were stopping the away side’s more dangerous forays by fouling exclusively a few metres before the final-third, rather than within it, and continuing to press high and furiously up the pitch (which generally was a few metres over the halfway line, given the positions now being held by the Wolfsburg centre-backs).
But as we went past the hour mark, Wolfsburg were getting better. They had a centre-forward linking up well with the players behind him, and plenty of willing movers in the opposition’s half. Even better, Littbarski had at last made a change in the midfield – off went Polák, and on came Koo Ja-Cheol. Finally, there was more of a two-pronged pivot behind the central striker, and a silky visionary in the midfield alongside Diego.
Yet Leverkusen kept pressing and pressing, and for all of Wolfsburg’s possession, they found it difficult to make passes into key attacking areas, and use the ball in these areas when they reached them. After Mbokani missed a great chance from a speculative left wing cross in the 69th minute, Littbarski responded by giving him a partner. Off went right-back Peter Pekarik (Sascha Riether took his place at the back), and on came Grafite. The formation now became a 4-1-3-2, with Koo permanently stationed higher up the pitch, albeit nearer to the right flank. With the full-backs hereafter permanently up the field, there wasn’t a width issue for the Wolves. They continued to build from the back rather than going long from goal-kicks, despite the obvious temptation with two strikers on the pitch. And in spite of them both standing high, keeping the Leverkusen defence pushed back, the home side’s attackers continued to press these short restarts, unafraid of leaving space in the midfield. This worked so well, they were never caught in a situation where the defence was outnumbered and being charged at.
In terms of Bayer’s own attacks at this stage of the game, they were reliant on robbing possession in the opponent’s half and then carrying the ball goalwards. They did try one clever tactical move in the 76th minute, using a long goal-kick to positive effect. With Wolfsburg defending this set-piece in a narrow 4-3-1-2, Adler kicked out to the left wing, where the ball was eventually flicked on for a rare Michal Kadlec dart down the channel (alas, the move came to nothing). But it marked the start of a trend where the full-back came into his own attacking-wise in the last ten minutes, with Leverkusen seeing more of the ball. They couldn’t add to their tally, however, but nor did Wolfsburg ruin Adler’s clean sheet.