Leverkusen strolled to a win against a disinterested and focus-lacking Schalke side to put pressure on Dortmund at the top of the table.
Both sides came into this fixture on the back of significant happenings in continental competitions. Schalke, having overcome Valencia in the last 16 of the Champions League, found out that they’d be facing Inter for a place in the semi-finals. Even more newsworthy for them was the fact that coach Felix Magath had been shown the door, and Ralf Rangnick was back at the club for a second spell. With a vastly contrasting personality to Magath, not to mention a different approach to the game, it’ll be interesting to see how Schalke take to their new manager. However, this game came too early to make such assessments, as Seppo Eichkorn took charge as caretaker for the first and final time. Leverkusen, meanwhile, were dumped out of the Europa League in the week by Villareal. With both Hannover and Bayern Munich winning yesterday, the pressure was on them to grab all three points here in order to keep their grip on a Champions League place. Intriguingly, a win would also take them closer to Dortmund – seven points closer, anyway.
As for Schalke, mid-table mediocrity beckons, but they showed good character to beat a resilient Frankfurt side last weekend at the death. They had to make do without a host of players including Jefferson Farfán, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar, Christian Pander, Tim Hoogland, and Christoph Moritz. Leverkusen, on the other hand, were nigh-on at full strength, their only first-team absentees being Manuel Friedrich and Gonzalo Castro. Lars Bender, Stefan Kießling and Sami Hyypiä, however, were all on the bench. Leverkusen were looking to build on last weekend’s 1-0 win at Mainz, despite the club having had to endure a week of disruptive speculation since then about the future of Jupp Heynckes, who, according to reputed sources in the media, has sealed a deal to coach Bayern Munich next season. If that proves to be the case, Heynckes might well take ‘keeper René Adler with him – one half of the most interesting part of this game for many, as he and Manuel Neuer, two of the world’s best custodians, shared the same pitch.
Leverkusen made most of the early running in this game, because compact Schalke, as we’ve become accustomed to in recent seasons, sat back in their own half and waited (save for the occasional zonal sprint press). When the away side did attempt an attack in the opening quarter-hour, they looked to play little first-time triangles infield, before launching the disguised burst of a full-back. With Schalke deploying two defensive-minded players in the centre of midfield, Leverkusen also looked to go down the wings, particularly the right, where they had more natural width. But there was sometimes a sluggishness and a lethargy to the way the hosts began moves, and this, coupled with their makeshift defence, nearly contrived to see them fall behind in the 16th minute.
Slow to cut out a Raúl and José Manuel Jurado Raúl series of one-twos, the ball was switched along the ground with Mario Gavranović in acres of space inside the D, neither centre-back anywhere near the other. As the defence rushed towards the Swiss striker, he teed up Edu, who drew a parry and a panicked clearance over the bar by Daniel Schwaab. The away side were showing a great level of intent and urgency on the occasions when they were on the ball, and looked comfortable with their all-round game plan.
Yet all season, this Leverkusen side has showed that even when – temporarily – up against it, they have the tools to change the face of a game in an instant. Michael Ballack, scooping a through-ball over a very high and not fully switched-on Schalke rearguard, found Erin Derdiyok. The Swiss striker ran to the right-sided entry point of the box, and sent a stunning volley inside the near post off the underside of the bar with Neuer motionless. 1-0 to the hosts, and 70 minutes left to play.
Post-goal, Leverkusen’s aimless passing among the defence was now a way of teasing the opposition, rather than a desperate ploy to draw them out. Schalke though now had to press the ball, and naturally, this played into the home side’s hands. Heynckes had his attackers operating with a great deal of fluidity, especially at the foremost tip of the midfield, and on the left flank. The trouble this caused the Schalke rearguard was epitomised in the 27th minute when Renato Augusto, stepping infield from the chalk onto his right foot, curled in a slow-ish cross, which was turned into the net beyond Neuer by Christoph Metzelder for 2-0!
Despite Schalke’s briefly encouraging passage of play at 0-0, it was obvious that Heynckes had tactically outwitted Eichkorn: the former’s three central midfielders having a lot of the space in front of and beyond the halfway line to themselves, with little defensive responsibilities owing to Raúl’s minimal contribution, and the deep-lying defensive-midfielders. Although Schalke initially tried to counter this by staying as compact and therefore as high as possible, their confidence and structure had been knocked after being caught out for the first goal. Equally key for the home side was Hanno Balitsch – constantly on the overlap, and taking advantage of the close attention being paid to Sidney Sam in order to stretch Schalke and keep them pinned back. Lest we forget Michael Ballack too, who, playing behind the alternating Derdiyok and Renato Augusto, was inspirational with his threaded passes and well-timed runs.
So, 2-0 down, Schalke had lost fight, a foothold in the game, and their 4-4-1-1 system when out of possession. Paying lip service to making an effort, they stood in a 4-1-4-1, the latter ‘4-1’ being positioned over the halfway line when the Leverkusen defenders had the ball. But the superficiality of this positioning was epitomised when the ball was passed through it, and the five players involved made little effort to fold back into the other half and help mop up. Leverkusen, to their credit, did a superb job tactically to take the 2-0 lead into half time. They carried on the aimless passing, drawing Schalke onto them, before launching the occasional punt upfield from Adler.
If they won these long balls, they then had Schalke high up the pitch and panicking. If they lost them, they had enough cover to ensure that they wouldn’t be outnumbered on an attack from the away side. Not that they gave Schalke the chance, however – pressing in packs when Eichkorn’s side got the ball down, with the experienced likes of Ballack looking to plug gaps left by Sam or Balitsch when they chased the ball-holder.
Metzelder was replaced at the interval by Kyriakos Papadopoulos, but the energy and intent was all the home side’s at the start of the second half. They pushed their banks high, pressed hard, and moved eagerly into space when a colleague held the ball. Schalke, now going (very) long from restarts, set out in an exaggerated 4-2-2-2. With Eichkorn intending to get his full-backs providing the width, Leverkusen began to sit back and form more of a midfield wall. Thus, when Schalke lost possession, Leverkusen could get at their opponents in the space left by the encroaching full-backs – Atsuto Uchida picked up a booking when Renato Augusto homed in on goal through the space he’d left.
Schalke, lacking the weaponry to truly trouble Leverkusen, turned to wonderkid Julian Draxler. But although they improved considerably after the switch, Leverkusen were never under too much strain defensively, and easily saw the win out. They might even have added to their tally had it not been for a string of Neuer saves. After Leonardo watches this game, he’ll have a hard time keeping a straight face when telling his Inter players last year’s Bundesliga runners-up will give them a game in their upcoming Champions League quarter-final.