Bayer Leverkusen gave themselves a four-point cushion in the Champions League spots after capitalising on a Mainz mistake to win a game that looked certain to end goalless.
Both sides were in decent runs of form coming into this game, and won emphatically in the last round of fixtures: Mainz 4-2 at Hamburg, Bayer Leverkusen 3-0 at home to lowly Wolfsburg. The table made happy reading for fans of either side, with the hosts sat in fifth spot, knowing a win would see them leapfrog Bayern into fourth, and the visitors sat two points clear in second, knowing a win would take them to within nine points of league leaders Dortmund. Thomas Tuchel, linked this week with a move to Leverkusen should Jupp Heynckes depart for Bayern Munich, made three changes to his side, bringing in goalkeeper Christian Wetklo, and new full-backs. He retained the diamond midfield and wide forwards system that worked superbly in the second half against Hamburg last weekend. As for Bayer, who lost 3-2 at home to Villareal in the Europa League midweek, there was finally room for Michael Ballack in the starting XI. Arturo Vidal also returned, and with Ballack and Lars Bender behind him, started in a more advanced midfield role behind Stefan Kieβling. Against Hannover (2-0) & Nuremberg (1-0) on matchdays 20 & 21, Ballack & Rolfes were used behind Vidal to superb effect, but this was the first time this particular trio had started a game together. The talismanic Rolfes (and his Mainz counterpart Lewis Holtby) was on the bench. At the back, Sami Hyypiä was restored to the starting line-up, and tasked with stopping the threat of André Schürrle, who joins Bayer in the summer. Bizarrely, Schürrle’s sparring partner, Marcel Risse, is on loan to Mainz from Leverkusen, giving us a situation where the two guys in attack for Mainz had to score against their parent club.
Mainz, pressing as high, hard and fast as they always do, instantly forced Leverkusen into an early upfield pass, which resulted in a free-kick. Just 40 seconds in, Bender’s header from the set-piece sailed over – an early warning sign from the visitors. Moments later, after drawing Leverkusen onto them in a pressing system of 4-4-2, Mainz released Schürrle down the left. The flying forward held onto the ball well, drawing scores of bodies across, but his cross was attacked poorly by his colleagues despite the space his run had created. Mainz soon began to take control of the ball, and found more space down the left in the fourth minute when Elkin Soto’s squared pass drew a corner. Leverkusen were giving Mainz a helping hand with their insistence on pressing in a 4-4-2, as Renato Augusto was the man most often tucking in up-top.
Therefore, Gonzalo Castro was forced to fill the Brazilian’s gap, meaning that for the defence to retain a flat unit, the rest of the back four had to come up with him. With Mainz’s pacy attackers bobbing all over the opponent’s half, this left them open to through-balls that favoured the home side. They nearly used this space behind the defence most effectively in the ninth minute, but René Adler got to the bouncing ball just ahead of Schürrle. Paradoxically, as Leverkusen began to put together some slick first-time passing moves that gained them territory, the 20-year-old Mainz attacker got even more effective for the hosts – using the space, and running at the defenders left as the last line of protection.
In a bid to stop their lop-sided two-forward pressing system being exploited, Heynckes altered things by settling on a permanent 4-4-2 when the Mainz defenders passed it amongst themselves and came up towards the halfway line. There was now no more confusion between Vidal, Castro and Augusto as to which one of them was required to plug the left flank gap.
Throughout the half, the difference in tempo shown by the sides when they pressed was huge, with Mainz doing it all over the pitch in sprints, and Leverkusen enacting it with more reserve and caution. With Vidal now more the left-sided midfielder and Augusto staying alongside Kieβling, the forwards were jogging about with Ballack when necessary to narrow the angles as Mainz enjoyed a period of going-nowhere possession. Growing impatient, Heynckes soon allowed one attacker at a time to sprint after the ball in the opposition’s half when it was being held in their zone, forcing the Mainz centre-backs and goalkeeper into persistent triangles amongst themselves, and a total stalemate.
When the visitors finally got hold of the ball, they made an interesting use of Daniel Schwaab to win a free-kick just outside the box. Rather than the full-back running down the chalk, he jogged infield, forcing the wide-hanging Schürrle back and inside to track him, and the intrigued Christian Fuchs across (temporarily nullifying the counter-attacking threat held by the hosts). Schwaab laid on Sidney Sam, who stayed on the chalk, before his quick shoulder-drop inside won a free-kick (which he then wasted). There was very little for the goalkeepers between either set of sticks to do, but if Mainz were going to score, it looked as though it would be down to their high-pressing and error-forcing.
Such a tactic won a well-placed free-kick in the 24th minute, which Andreas Ivanschitz curled into the side netting. With Kieβling not involved in any offensive play whatsoever, Leverkusen’s best hope of scoring seemed to be when bringing or sharply passing the ball through the halfway line, drawing constant, early, bitty fouls from the hosts – offences whistle-happy referee Peter Gagelmann was only too happy to blow for. If Mainz had been able to show as assured a touch on the ball when counter-attacking from these free-kicks as the away side did in winning them, they might have more opportunities from the space available and the darts they started.
Pace-wise, they were lightening years ahead of Leverkusen, who too often came across as casual, sloppy, and ill-equipped to deal with the modern trend of furious pressing. But then composure-wise, Mainz paled in comparison to Leverkusen. Superficially, it was like a battle between a stereotypical English and stereotypical Italian side. Yet Mainz’s love and reliance on the counter-attack made them very Serie A, while Leverkusen’s lack of someone pulling the strings and threading cute passes at the heart of the midfield – a regista – marked them out as distinctly un-Italian.
Perhaps we shouldn’t have been too surprised by proceedings amounting to a total stalemate, what with the three deep centre-midfielders picked by both sides effectively being used as such (Vidal regularly floated back inside to help stifle Ivanschitz, who was rendered relatively anonymous). Thank God then for Schürrle, who twice resuscitated the crowd with two exceptional runs which ended with Adler at full-stretch. Perhaps inspired, Schwaab shot from range at the opposite end of the pitch moments after the second Schürrle chance, hitting a post.
Immediately exposing the space the away side’s right-back had left, Risse again had the Germany international ‘keeper down low to his right. The gate’s bolt was soon half-replaced by Die Nullfünfer, however, but a greater degree of urgency permeated the play from both sides now when they had the ball. Mainz looked to make forward passes more quickly; Leverkusen responded to the dangerous pressing threat posed by the hosts by shaping their bodies in preparation when receiving the ball, giving them more passing options before the space was closed. Thus, Augusto was at last fed to collect in space and launch a trequartista run towards the D. He laid on Vidal, but the Chilean could only curl a left-footed effort over the bar. Symmetrically, just as the half had begun with Bender going close via a headed chance, so it finished with the same man going close again.
It was no surprise to see at least one of the managers turn to their bench at the interval, and Heynckes was that man: off went the service-starved Sam, on came Erin Derdiyok, and out came the Christmas tree. The width was now to be provided by the full-backs, none more so than Schwaab, who sent over an inviting cross in the 47th minute after launching a disguised burst down the empty flank when Augusto made a dummy play for the ball in the centre. With Augusto and Derdyiok now also dropping back to form a 4-5-1 when Mainz passed the ball aimlessly at the back, the hosts were never going to get Ivanschitz into the game. Therefore, Tuchel’s decision to replace Eugen Polanski with Jan Kirchhoff in the 51st minute seemed the right one, providing he moved Fuchs into the left-sided centre-midfield berth, and Malik Fathi to left-back. The Austrian would have offered the home side the creative spark they so desperately needed deeper in the midfield. But instead, Fathi went to left-sided centre-midfield, and Kirchhoff to defensive midfield.
While the gigantic Kirchhoff would perhaps continue to isolate Kieβling by virtue of towering him in the air, the change suggested Tuchel wouldn’t be too unhappy if the game finished 0-0. Nevertheless, Risse and Schürrle were still full of running and seemingly immune from losing the ball unless at least four opposition players kettled them. Tuchel did eventually make an attacking change ten minutes after Kirchhoff’s introduction, bringing on Sami Allagui for Ivanschitz. Now, it was Schürrle’s task to carry the threat through the centre of the pitch. His team’s task should have been a lot harder from the 64th minute, however, when Kieβling was fed to run freely on goal, the Mainz team caught high. But the Germany international fluffed his lines – much the same as Schürrle who scuffed a clever Fuchs pull-back which found him in space through the D five minutes later.
With Soto and Fathi hanging back, and Reinartz and Hyypiä stood further apart (Bender protecting the deep centre), the full-backs from both sides were off their leashes as the game travelled towards a close. Determined to keep a bridge between the midfield and Kieβling, Heynckes pushed Augusto further inside, perhaps hoping the Brazilian could utilise the room being left between the guarded Kirchhoff and the attack-minded Schürrle. The result was Kirchhoff coming out of his shell and moving higher up the pitch, therefore generating space for Kieβling to play little one-twos with the full-backs, Derdiyok, and whichever centre midfielder was on a charge forward.
But the deadlock was broken in the most ironic of ways with 82 minutes on the clock. Starting short from a goal kick, Bo Svensson was pressed high and hard by Augusto. The centre-back couldn’t adjust in time to respond to the threat, and after nicking the ball, the Brazilian sent a right-footed thunderbolt crashing into the net for 0-1!
Post-goal, Bayer went back to the Christmas tree, but with the midfield three flat and effectively on top of an equally flat defence. Keeping Derdiyok and Augusto wide and Kieβling high, they had lots of opportunities to waste time on the break, with Mainz now throwing everything at the visitors. Mainz’s lack of composure was resplendent as they chased the game, and they failed to create a chance of note. They now have the difficult task of stopping any potential rot by visiting champions-elect Dortmund next weekend.