Robin Dutt finally won his first game as Bayer Leverkusen manager as the home side scored a late winner in what had been an even and entertaining game. These two attack-minded sides dominated one another in separate spells throughout the 90 minutes, with both goalkeepers on top form to keep the game scoreless. But a moment of brilliant athleticism by Simon Rolfes in the 86th minute saw the Bremen defence caught off-guard and a deserved point cruelly snatched from their grasp.
Bremen, lining up with near enough the same 4-4-2 midfield diamond and players that contested the victory over Kaiserslautern last week, got us under way at the BayArena, where the hosts had made changes in goal, defence, midfield and up front. The opening stages were keenly and evenly contested, Stefan Kießling in particular embodying the home side’s fight; a quality lacking in recent weeks.
Chances at both ends were dictated by Bremen’s tactics in the opening ten minutes, as two examples from the eighth and ninth minutes respectively illustrated. During the former, Bremen started short, and Sebastian Prödl looked about as he brought the ball forward, eyeing up the six or so Bremen attackers bobbing centrally. This helped to narrow and occupy the vision of Leverkusen, who missed the dart to the byline of the subsequently fed Lukas Schmitz. Unfortunately, the chance was wasted when the former Schalke left-back’s square was cleared.
Meanwhile, one minute after that, Bremen looked to stand high and narrow, inviting the long ball over the top; Leverkusen duly dinked it over, but Sidney Sam, making the disguised dart on to it, was beaten to the ball by Tim Wiese. The ‘keeper’s outfield colleagues just about had the best of the opening 15 minutes; their play fluent and fast, the movement good, and the ability to interchange with one another in the midfield crucial. However, a lack of cutting-edge final-third invention stopped them from creating chances. Out of possession, Bremen didn’t really press outside of their own half, more concerned with keeping their formation tight. As a result, Sam and André Schürrle started to mix things up run-wise, going infield and across the centre-backs to dribble or drag defenders out of position, and dropping into their own half to collect the ball. In the 21st minute, Sam was tripped on a run outside and across the box, but Michal Kadlec’s curled free-kick was well saved and held by Wiese.
In the Leverkusen engine room, it was Lars Bender doing the running, assessing and piano carrying, as Michael Ballack looked to bob into more offensive space or prepare a ghost towards the box. The other reason for Ballack’s bobbing was that it it attracted attention from the away side’s midfielders, generating a few inches here and there for Renato Augusto to do his playmaking job. Whereas he and Ballack had fixed positions, the roles in Schaaf’s diamond seemed to change by the minute: Wesley on the left, Aaron Hunt on the left; Hunt behind the strikers, Mehmet Ekici behind the strikers; or, Wesley at the base, Clemens Fritz at the base.
Just as it looked as though Leverkusen were beginning to take control of the game (thanks to Kießling and Schürrle making runs in and around the final-third which ruffled the Bremen defenders’ feathers, Gonzalo Castro giving Dutt’s side more width and adventure at full-back than Daniel Schwaab ever does, and Bremen struggling to break down the hosts’ narrow and high-pressing 4-2-3-1 when they had the ball), some close-quarter attacking passes saw Sokratis Papastathopoulos fed on the right byline in the 38th minute, pulling the ball across the box for Lennart Thy: two or three yards out, the youngster was fed so quickly, he skied it over an open goal!
One minute before half time, Leverkusen so nearly opened the scoring. Schürrle zoomed in from the chalk, element of surprise and superb technique working in tandem. He tore straight through the Bremen midfield, slipped in a disguised through-ball to Kießling, but unfortunately for the striker, Wiese was off his line in a flash and narrowed the angle. The ‘keeper might have flapped at the corner, but Bremen marked well, and ensured that the teams went in at the break locked at 0-0. Leverkusen saw most of the ball and looked more dangerous as the half went on, but the aforementioned Wiese saves (and another from Renato Augusto), coupled with the home side not making as many chances as their possession means they should have done, ensured that Dutt will have been the coach frustrated by what he’d seen during the opening 45 minutes.
The opening five minutes of the half, with both sides’ midfielders getting on the ball and spreading it about with urgency, saw Sokratis and Kadlec struggle to get to grips with one another. In the 46th minute, the latter surged forward, dropped a shoulder to come inside, and forced his opposite number into hauling him down. Three minutes later, the tables were turned, though in both cases, the well-placed free-kicks were squandered. There had been no changes at the break, Schaaf continuing to use two strikers despite his XI looking like it needed an extra body in the midfield.
It seemed as though Schaaf was compensating for this by encouraging Sokratis to burst forward with the ball more often, giving the visitors more midfield width and increasing the likelihood of getting crosses into the box (something the Greek international struggled to do, however).
As we reached the 55-minute mark, Bremen were more often than not now sat off in a flatter 4-4-2, as Leverkusen had gone about reasserting their dominance. The likes of Renato Augusto and Ballack peeled into space and cleverly won free-kicks, and Schürrle, precisely the kind of explosive player Bremen were missing, was running at the visitors in that carefree and classy manner of his.
Other aspects of Leverkusen’s play were equally intelligent, such as Kadlec running sideways when in the opposition half, giving Leverkusen even more of a central numerical advantage, and forcing Bremen’s back-four into prising. But as had been the case in the first half, the passes in the final-third either weren’t good enough or too slow in coming, rendering the openings wasted.
It was little surprise to see Schaaf make two changes on the hour, the ineffectual Ekici and Thy going off for Marko Marin and Claudio Pizarro in like-for-like substitutions. With the Peruvian on the pitch, Schaaf now had two forwards capable of cleverly holding the ball up either centrally or down the channels, and this soon helped to complement and feed the directness of Marin. The away side had two chances in the immediate aftermath of those changes, but first Aaron Hunt greedily blazed over after a tunnel-vision dribble, and then Schmitz wasted a counter by giving away a foul (the move had began after Ballack sloppily lost possession in the final-third).
It was end to end stuff as we approached the final 25 minutes: Bremen benefiting from having full-back width, a fresh attacking midfield magician, and a new bridging forward; Leverkusen benefiting from now actually looking more deadly on the break due to them keeping their wingers and the striker closer to one another, making their counter-attacks swift, three-pronged and fluent (Schürrle was particularly talismanic during these moves, such is his genius and pace). Kießling was removed in the 66th minute, however, making way for Erin Derdiyok – the man Kießling had replaced in the starting line-up. Yet, a Marin-inspired Bremen – the midfielder was always the man carrying the break from his own half into the final-third, down both wings and centrally – were now the better side, the midfielder clearly on the same wavelength as the strikers, who had had no link with Ekici at all.
And when Dutt removed Renato Augusto for Hanno Balitsch – not Rolfes – in the 70th minute, placing him in defensive-midfield and moving Ballack behind/alongside Derdiyok and the wingers, Bremen took that as their invitation to fly forward, no more worries about the wise old head of Ballack slotting through a defence-splicing something from deep after a turnover. With the clever runs of Rosenberg and Pizarro ensuring that the hosts’ full-backs were increasingly staying stapled to the hips of their respective centre-back, and Sokratis and Schmitz offering width and crossing options, Hunt and Marin weaved, passed and shot at will from or approaching the shadow of the D. Leno held well after a deflected shot from the latter in the 80th minute, just about hauling in the rebound too.
Marko Arnautović replaced Rosenberg for the closing stages, with Rolfes finally getting the nod for Leverkusen with seven minutes left to play. Presumably in a bid to give the side more central protection, Rolfes played just ahead of Balitsch and Bender rather than immediately behind Derdiyok. Dutt’s side sought to get at Sokratis in the last few minutes, first Kadlec burning him for pace and seeing a cross call the Bremen defence into action, before Balitsch harried the former Milan man into conceding a corner.
After that set-piece had looked like it was going out for a goal-kick, Rolfes’ athletic overhead kick kept the ball in play, taking everyone bar Kadlec by surprise. The left-back, in a fox-in-the-box position just ahead of Wiese, volleyed it in to hand his side a 1-0 lead with four minutes remaining! Derdiyok should have wrapped up the points in injury time, but it didn’t matter – a bit smash and grab by the hosts, as a draw would have been a fair result; but try telling anyone in Leverkusen that tonight!