BAYER Leverkusen cruised to a victory over Hamburg this afternoon in the final round of 1. Bundesliga fixtures before the winter break. Goals from Stefan Kießling and André Schürrle gave the second-placed home side a deserved 2-0 half-time lead against their visitors, who struggled to get into the game. The away side’s players weren’t helped by the system being deployed by their coach, Thorsten Fink, with Leverkusen’s coaching duo Sascha Lewandowski and Sami Hyypiä playing an extra man in midfield, and getting their players to pressurise the right areas of the pitch.
Hamburg improved slightly at the start of the second half, but still failed to test the home side’s goalkeeper, Bernd Leno. They clearly missed the talismanic, creative presence of club poster-boy Rafael van der Vaart, but also looked tired both mentally and physically – last weekend’s trip to Brazil for a friendly game against Grêmio surely didn’t help Fink and the players’ preparation. With just under 25 minutes to play, Kieβling – the division’s top-scorer – wrapped up the points, and thereafter, the game petered to a close. Although Bayern Munich have run away with the title already, this afternoon’s three points secured Leverkusen’s grip on a Champions League qualification spot, and it’ll take some doing for two teams to knock them out of the top three after the break. Hamburg, meanwhile, end the first half of the season in the top half of the table, and although today’s loss will have left a sour taste in the mouths of everyone associated with the club, they still have a great chance of returning to the Europa League next season.
The formations that started the match
Bayer Leverkusen (4-3-3, from right to left): Leno; Hajime Hosogai, Philipp Wollscheid, Ömer Toprak, Sebastian Boenisch; Lars Bender, Simon Rolfes, Jens Hegeler; Gonzalo Castro, Kießling, Schürrle
Hamburg (4-4-2 diamond, from right to left): René Adler; Dennis Diekmeier, Michael Mancienne, Heiko Westermann, Lam Zhi Gan; Milan Badelj; Per Ciljan Skjelbred, Dennis Aogo; Tolgay Arslan; Artjoms Rudņevs, Heung-Min Son
The game started at a slow pace, with both sides holding their respective shapes and using possession carefully. However, in the third minute, some lackadaisical play from Lam allowed Castro to get the ball through to Schürrle for a one-on-one-with-Adler chance. However, the former Mainz attacker curled his effort off the former Leverkusen goalkeeper’s right-hand post. The hosts retained possession in the final-third from the subsequent loose ball, with Hamburg struggling to clear their lines or man the barricades, but were spared punishment 20 seconds later when Hegeler fired a shot into the side-netting.
In a several-minute spell that followed these chances (a passage of play being contested in eerie silence, with the fans at the BayArena observing the 12:12 protest), Leverkusen began to turn the proverbial screw: getting the ball up the pitch quicker, and committing more players in Hamburg’s half in and out of possession (Bender and Hegeler, in particular, were working during this period to isolate the visiting side’s sitting-midfielder, Badelj). However, HSV stayed strong and cool, breaking up play and sucking the life out of proceedings once again. Given the lack of atmosphere in the stadium during the opening 12 minutes, Fink’s negative tactics felt somewhat appropriate.
It was something of a relief, therefore, when the protest was complete, and normal service from the stands was resumed. No, the match didn’t instantly become as rip-roaring as the action in the four corners of the ground, but the palpable “is-it-fair-to-play-in-these-conditions?” attitude that had suffused the away side during the first 12 minutes had vanished, even if the game still primarily consisted of Leverkusen doing most of the attacking, before firing harmless or wasteful shots towards Adler from distance. Both sides, at this stage, were in dire need of a playmaker: Leverkusen to exploit the momentary chinks in the away side’s defence, and Hamburg to alleviate the pressure and get a foot in the game.
The van der Vaart-less visitors effectively sat in a 5-4 formation in the opening 20 minutes, with Badelj and the full-backs chained to the centre-backs, and a gaping hole conspicuous by its paucity of white-shirted players in the centre of the pitch. But, with game-changing players such as Son on the pitch, sometimes only a second to think and a few yards to work in is all that is needed. So, when the South Korean received the ball just outside the box in the 22nd minute and lined up a shot, Hamburg’s negative gameplan looked like it was about to be vindicated. However, the 20-year-old’s effort flew over the bar, not troubling Leno.
Poor old Lam was not having a game to remember – in the opening 25 minutes, he assisted that aforementioned chance for Schürrle, picked up a knock, and then rounded things off just after we got a quarter of the way through the game by collecting a yellow card for hacking down Hosogai. The subsequent free-kick was cleared, but the incident only served to confirm everyone’s suspicions that the away side’s defence was fallible. And, when Schürrle was allowed to cross in the 26th minute, and Castro allowed to miscontrol the ball which resulted in a lay-on for Kieβling, it was no surprise to see the 28-year-old pass home his 11th goal of the season, and probably one of the softest he’ll score all campaign!
Within a minute of falling behind, Hamburg finally did something in Leno’s box – a Diekmeier cross being met by Rudņevs, who saw his header crash back off the post. Aogo wasted the loose ball by leaning back and blazing over the bar. However, Fink’s side couldn’t sustain the pressure, and as we approached the final ten minutes of the first-half, Lewandowski and Hyypiä’s hosts were back in the driving-seat, intent on getting the game-killing goal as soon as possible rather than sitting on what they had. It didn’t take them long. In the 37th minute, Hegeler brought the ball infield from the chalk, laying it across to Kieβling. The striker, collecting in the trequartista position, showed good feet to bring possession forward, before slipping in a through-ball to back-to-goal-but-starting-a-sideways-dart Schürrle. Despite Mancienne standing nearby, the 22-year-old caught the Englishman on his heels, breezing by the Hamburg centre-back with nimbleness and a deft touch, before coolly slotting the ball past Adler for 2-0!
As we neared the interval, still, Leverkusen piled forward. The home side’s 4-3-3 was the perfect formation to play against the visitors’ diamond midfield, with Hamburg and their restrained full-backs lacking width, and not having enough defensive-midfielders to cover the number of red-shirted attackers floating and working in the shadow of Adler’s box. It’s a shame that Fink’s tactics faltered during the first-half, as it’s rare to see a coach play two strikers at home nowadays, let alone during an away game. But, his side had been outnumbered in midfield, and outclassed as a result during the first 45 minutes. I think if van der Vaart wasn’t injured, the idea would have worked. Leverkusen would have been wary of leaving the Dutchman too much room in which to work, and it’s likely the club’s coaching duo would have instructed Bender and Hegeler to stay closer to Rolfes. But, the former Real Madrid attacker wasn’t playing, young, hot-and-cold Arslan was, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The formations that started the second half
Bayer Leverkusen (4-3-3, from right to left): Leno; Hosogai, Wollscheid, Toprak, Boenisch; Bender, Rolfes, Hegeler; Castro, Kießling, Schürrle
Hamburg (4-4-2 diamond, from right to left): Adler; Diekmeier, Mancienne, Westermann, Lam; Badelj; Skjelbred, Aogo; Arslan; Rudņevs, Son
Neither coach made a personnel change at half-time, although Hamburg’s attitude had been altered. The visitors instantly sought to monopolise possession, but the home side sat off in their own half, effectively watching on as Hamburg looked to make the pitch big, and finally getting their full-backs into the other half of the pitch. This new-found hunger to get on the ball and hold it from the away side was also facilitated by players such as Skjelbred dropping into the quarterback position to come and claim possession from the centre-backs, and attempting to pull the strings from deep, and others such as Arslan offering a more mobile, channel-running presence in the final-third.
Despite this increased contribution to proceedings, Hamburg were still finding it hard to create chances and test Leno. In the 52nd minute, Son embarked on a dribble, but the move broke down as the South Korean was isolated. A lot of the away side’s play was coming from the right wing, with Diekmeier running at the hosts’ left-sided players on a number of occasions. On the hour mark, Hegeler was caught flat-footed, and had to trip the Hamburg right-back to stop him. The midfielder, who spent last season on loan at Nuremberg, picked up a yellow card for his troubles, but would have been relieved to see the set-piece that followed his foul sail into Leno’s arms a few seconds later.
With Leverkusen having gone very close to scoring a third goal three times in five minutes of play, Skjelbred not capable of producing the killer pass, and Arslan running down blind alleys, Fink turned to his bench in the 63rd minute, making a double substitution. On came Ivo Iličević and Maximilian Beister, and off went Skjelbred and Son (essentially, like-for-like changes). A minute later, however, Hamburg were 3-0 down. A quick punt upfield from Leno was directed towards Kieβling, who was grappling with Westermann. The former Schalke centre-back indolently stuck out a leg to get to the ball, but he was never in control of the situation. The hotshot Bayer striker, though, was. He ran onto the now loose and bouncing ball with only Adler – stranded – to beat. Kieβling made no mistake, chipping his former teammate with a lob for his 12th goal of the 2012/13 top-flight campaign, and sealing the three points in the process.
The game plodded along thereafter, with little of note happening. With Wolfsburg in the cup coming up next weekend, Lewandowski and Hyypiä opted to take off all of the attackers who started the game: so, Schürrle was replaced by Germany U19 attacker Dominik Kohr, Kieβling was denied the chance to secure his hat-trick after being replaced with nine minutes to go by Junior Fernándes, and Renato Augusto – in possibly his last appearance for Leverkusen, with a transfer possible in the January window – switched places with Castro. Fink, meanwhile, decided to see the game out with Tomás Rincón in the sitting-midfielder position instead of Badelj. His side should have grabbed a consolation with two minutes left on the clock, but as if to sum up their afternoon, Rudņevs blazed over the bar from inside the box under no pressure. And that, was that.
The formations that finished the match
Bayer Leverkusen (4-3-3, from right to left): Leno; Hosogai, Wollscheid, Toprak, Boenisch; Bender, Rolfes, Hegeler; Augusto, Fernándes, Kohr
Hamburg (4-4-2 diamond, from right to left): Adler; Diekmeier, Mancienne, Westermann, Lam; Rincón; Iličević, Aogo; Arslan; Rudņevs, Beister