SIDNEY Sam came off the bench to score twice and lead Bayer Leverkusen to victory over 2011/12 2. Bundesliga champions Greuther Fürth at the BayArena. The newly-promoted side’s defensive set-up and tactics nullified the hosts in the first-half, and right-back Bernd Nehrig even had two great chances right on half-time to hand the visitors a shock lead. However, Leverkusen’s joint coaching duo Sascha Lewandowski and Sami Hyypiä made a wise choice in replacing Karim Bellarabi with Sam for the second-half, as the former Hamburg attacker’s coolness in front of goal ensured that the home side eventually cruised to victory.
Fürth’s fourth loss of the season wasn’t for want of trying, but coach Mike Büskens’ side lack experience and creativity in midfield, and quality in attack. This latest loss means the Franconian minnows will end matchday six second-bottom of 1. Bundesliga unless Wolfsburg beat Mainz by four or more goals tomorrow afternoon. Leverkusen, meanwhile, are now up to sixth spot in the table, although Dortmund will leapfrog them if they Borussia Mönchengladbach this evening.
Bayer Leverkusen (4-3-2-1, from right to left): Bernd Leno; Daniel Carvajal, Philipp Wollscheid, Ömer Toprak, Michal Kadlec; Lars Bender, Simon Rolfes, Gonzalo Castro; Bellarabi, André Schürrle; Stefan Kießling
Greuther Fürth (4-1-2-1-2, from right to left): Max Grün; Nehrig, Thomas Kleine, Mergim Mavraj, Heinrich Schmidtgal; Milorad Peković; Edgar Prib, Stephan Fürstner; Thanos Petsos; Sercan Sararer, Edú
The home side started the match brightly, showing their superiority in terms of class and confidence by spreading the ball accurately, adventurously and at pace, and forcing one or two nervy moments in the away side’s defence. With Fürth coach Büskens switching his usual 4-4-2 to a narrow, hard-pressing 4-1-3-2 for this afternoon’s game, it appeared that the debutant 1. Bundesliga coach was looking to stop the home side’s quarterback – Rolfes – and chief-carrier-from deep – Castro – pulling the strings, as well as diminishing the space the roving and dropping Schürrle and Kießling like to work in. However, to counteract this in the opening five minutes, Leverkusen just attacked their guests down the flanks, and very nearly opened the scoring in the third minute after creating a chance down the left, only for Schürrle to not get enough power on his placed curler from the D.
As we neared the quarter-hour mark, the visitors’ pressing and time-wasting tactics on the ball – aimless passing at the back, by and large – had slowed the pace of the game down. With Leverkusen set out in a narrow Christmas Tree system, albeit with Rolfes far deeper than the up-and-down duo of Castro and Bender, this paucity of speed when they were on the ball was rendering Lewandowski and Hyypiä’s side unable to penetrate the away team’s midfield bank, let alone their defence. Thus, one might conclude that Büskens’ tactical game-plan was having its desired effect, with his high-standing defence, half-ring-shaped midfield and pressing forwards nullifying Leverkusen.
But, because of this, as a spectacle, the opening 15 minutes were pretty forgettable. Schürrle’s saved effort was still the only bit of action either goalkeeper had been involved in as we reached the 20-minute mark too, with Castro curling in a free-kick that was comfortably cleared in the 17th minute, and Edú blazing wildly over the bar from just outside of the box two minutes later. Büskens was forced into an early substitution after 21 minutes, with right-sided ex-Leverkusen midfielder Petsos – injured after a Carvajal tackle – being replaced by striker Ilir Azemi. The Fürth formation and tactics remained the same in the aftermath of the Albanian striker’s arrival, though, even if Büskens’ players did seem to begin to flag energy wise as we approached the half-hour mark. Resultantly, between the 26th and 28th minutes, Leverkusen had four decent chances to break the deadlock – a Kießling free header, which he directed right into the goalkeeper’s arms, a Castro cut-in and strike, which went out for a corner, a Schürrle square across the six-yard box, which was cleared, and a Rolfes header across goal, which ended up not too far wide.
The away side had managed to reapply the bolt by the 30-minute mark, however, mainly just through showing even less commitment to pushing forward when in possession. This meant that whenever the inevitable turnover occurred, Fürth already had their walls assembled in preparation for the next red-shirted attack. It is easy to see why the 2. Bundesliga champions are struggling in the top-flight, as most of their players are just not quick, confident or clever enough with the ball at their feet. Despite having a formation that meant there were always several passing options nearby, the Franconian side’s players persistently came down with stage fright when pressed during the first-half: even when a few passes were stringed together in the latter reaches of the second-third or final-third itself, the next player to receive the ball would then look to go long at the first sign of pressure, meaning an easy collection for Leno, whose centre-backs were comfortably marshalling the busy but not-quite-good-enough Edú and Azemi (Sararer, meanwhile, in the free role, was too often working to win back the ball, limiting what he could do when he did get on it). In fact, at times it felt like the possession-concession was something the away side desired – the fear of leaving gaps and ending up eating Bellarabi et al’s dust making taking the game to their hosts too great a price to pay.
In the 36th minute, Schürrle had another chance to open the scoring, again ghosting to the D with exquisite stealth and timing to get onto the end of a quick and sharp break. But, Grün was on hand to save the Germany international’s effort for a second time in the first-half. The visitors won their first corner of the match in the 41st minute, with Schmidtgal’s subsequent left-footed outswinger allowing two players in green and white the chance to attempt shots on goal, only for both efforts to be blocked. Spending time in the Bayer box was seemingly infectious, as two minutes later, Nehrig’s charge down the pitch – with some one-two moves along the way – resulted in the right-back having a shot on goal from inside the box.
In the excitement of being in such a position, Nehrig forgot the importance of accuracy, firing the ball straight at Leno. Unsurprisingly, the full-back was exhausted after his burst, and didn’t hurry back into position. Leverkusen had the loose ball on Nehrig’s deserted flank, yet for some strange reason, neither Castro nor Schürrle showed any desire to bomb forward, instead seemingly using the time to catch their breath. Unsurprisingly, the home supporters at the BayArena were incandescent with rage, booing their Goliath’s inability to pounce on a momentarily vulnerable David. The last kick of the half was also another Nehrig chance, unbelievably. Again, the full-back’s surprise overlap and curved-infield run allowing him to home in goal, although this time, the right-back dragged his effort wide.
Formations that started the second-half
Bayer Leverkusen (4-3-2-1, from right to left): Leno; Carvajal, Wollscheid, Toprak, Kadlec; Bender, Rolfes, Castro; Sam, Schürrle; Kießling
Greuther Fürth (4-1-2-1-2, from right to left): Grün; Nehrig, Kleine, Mavraj, Schmidtgal; Peković; Prib, Fürstner; Sararer; Edú, Azemi
It wasn’t too much of a surprise to see Bellarabi replaced by Sam for the second-half, as the former Eintracht Braunschweig midfielder had been quiet and ineffective during the first-half. Sam got at the visitors from the first whistle, helping Leverkusen instantly keep Fürth on the back-foot. Thus, it was no surprise to see the man himself score the opener in the 50th minute. A through-pass by Rolfes looked to splice the high-standing Fürth defence: however, Mavraj looked to have the situation covered, only for the centre-back to mess up his tackle on Kießling. Thus, the ball was pushed forward to Sam, who had been kept onside by Kleine having dropped too far back. The former Hamburg attacker still had a bit of work to do, though, but his shoulder-drop and feint left Kleine on his backside, before Sam curled a left-footed effort into the bottom left-hand corner of the goal to make it 1-0!
Three minutes later, it was déjà vu, with Kieβling this time the ball’s recipient. However, with Kleine – again deep with his defensive colleagues having pushed up – this time prepared for the dummy, Kieβling attempted the rounding-the-goalkeeper option, only for Grün to follow him every step of the way, thereby allowing Fürth the chance to clear the danger. Not long after that, the away side were again caught high, although Kieβling squandered the chance to put the game to bed for the second time in quick succession. To be fair to Fürth, they weren’t cowering – they were leaving the space at the back by trying to have a go at their hosts, even if Büskens’ side were just repeatedly showing that they lack the necessary quality to make things happen in the final-third.
With their full-backs now playing nearer to the final-third than the first-third (or even inside the former), and their centre-backs creeping over the halfway line, Fürth knew they were playing a high-risk game. Thus, when an interception on a quick Leverkusen counter-attack pass failed, nobody associated with the away side would have been too surprised when Sam punished Fürth for the second time in 12 minutes, again carrying the ball towards the goal and showing fantastic composure to make it 2-0!
Büskens was now faced with one of those horrible tactical decisions all coaches of struggling teams must face several times a season – play defensive football and take the relatively goal-difference-friendly and not overly moral-sapping 2-0 loss, or keep attacking, grab a goal as soon as possible and force Leverkusen into frantically holding onto a one-goal lead? Well, the 44-year-old – who was now deploying a more bank-flat 4-3-1-2 system – went for something resembling the latter, albeit being hindered by his players tiring, and Leverkusen playing more keep-ball at the back. Despite Fürth seeing more of the ball during the final half-hour of the match, it was Leverkusen creating all the chances, taking full advantage of the space available on the break, only for their finishing to let them down.
Nevertheless, Fürth never gave up, and really grew in belief as the game progressed. When Baba Rahman – normally a left-back – came on to replace Peković, Büskens put the 18-year-old Ghanaian on the right side of a ball-hungry, ambitious-pass-making central-midfield three. Between the 70th and 80th minutes, the away side were doing a good job of making their hosts run, as with the full-backs constantly on and up and down the chalk, Fürth had made the pitch very big indeed. Despite their guests not creating a chance of note, Lewandowski and Hyypiä were obviously concerned at the hold the away side had on the ball, and, increasingly, on the game. Resultantly, the rookie duo replaced Schürrle with Hajime Hosogai (a left-sided, guarded and careful defensive midfielder who took up Castro’s position, allowing the 25-year-old German, who has been at Leverkusen for 13 years, to play alongside Sam). Shortly after that, Leverkusen’s coaches made another change, bringing on Junior Fernándes for Kieβling in a like for like switch. The Chilean newbie almost scored a screamer nigh-on straight away too, sending a right-footed effort curled from just outside the left-hand side of the box narrowly over the bar.
And, that was that – referee Guido Winkmann played no injury-time, sealing the home side’s victory. They’ve now won three of their six games in 1. Bundesliga so far this season, while Fürth lost for the fourth time in the league, albeit experiencing their first loss on the road. Leverkusen travel to Norway to face Rosenborg in the Europa League this Thursday, before travelling to struggling Stuttgart next weekend. As for Fürth, they have the chance to win their first home match of the season against Rafael van der Vaart and René Adler-reliant Hamburg on Saturday afternoon.
Formations that finished the match
Bayer Leverkusen (4-3-2-1, from right to left): Leno; Carvajal, Wollscheid, Toprak, Kadlec; Bender, Rolfes, Hosogai; Sam, Castro; Fernándes
Greuther Fürth (4-3-1-2, from right to left): Grün; Nehrig, Kleine, Mavraj, Schmidtgal; Rahman, Prib, Fürstner; Sararer; Edú, Azemi