Tuesday night’s impressive 2-0 Champions League win over Atletico Madrid has put a smile on the faces of Bayer Leverkusen fans. This season however has seen a noticeable absence of smiles with looks of concern more on show. The top they showed at the end of the season has evaporated and they seem to take two step forwards and then one step back this season.
What’s gone wrong at Leverkusen? This has been a much-asked question at both the Bay Arena and in wider Bundesliga circles, but one issue that has caused an impact is the role of the number ten. Florian Wirtz’s cruciate knee ligament injury suffered last March against Köln robbed the Werkself of their number one choice in that position and the decline this season can be directly linked to his continued absence and the options that trainer Gerardo Seoane has in his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation.
Sardar Azmoun played the ten role in the DFB Pokal defeat to Elversberg before Exequiel Palacios took over for the Bundesliga opener against Borussia Dortmund. Azmoun returned for the Augsburg and Hoffenheim losses before a 3-5-2 formation won away at Mainz without an out-and-out number ten as such. Defeat to Freiburg followed, but last weekend’s 2-2 at Hertha Berlin saw Czech summer signing Adam Hložek tried in the role behind Patrick Schick. In the Champions League versus Brugge, Moussa Diaby took over the responsibility.
Seoane you can see has his wide areas covered with the loan signing of Callum Hudson-Odoi complimenting Moussa Diaby on the opposite flank. Replacing a generational talent such as Wirtz was never going to be an easy like-for-like task, but the Bayer coach has largely been forced to play square pegs in round holes regarding the number ten. Wirtz offers creativity, a goal threat and puts in a defensive shift as well.
Adam Hložek was predominantly used out wide on the left or as a striker at Sparta Prague, while Serdar Azmoun is more of a number nine. Nadiem Amiri has been touted as an option but again he more suited to playing as a number eight. Rather than the popular ‘false 9’, Seoane is having to play with a ‘false 10’ in the absence of Wirtz.
The good news is that the 19-year-old is progressing well with his recovery, but the club are keen to stress that he won’t be rushed. The normal recovery time from a cruciate ligament rupture to a comeback is eight and a half months. Wirtz started light, individual training in July.
“Things are going well so far,” Leverkusen trainer Seoane told the DPA news agency recently. “It could be that things go quickly [while] it also depends on how disciplined and hard-working [Florian] is. He could return in October or probably November. If he’s fit and can train, he might get a call-up to the squad [this year], but I don’t expect Florian back until 2023,” he added.
Any talk of making the World Cup squad seems totally fanciful, but a gradual return to the Bundesliga after the tournament in Qatar would seem realistic. Having scored seven goals and provided ten assists in his 24 appearances before his injury, Leverkusen will be itching to have him back and Gerardo Seoane will be delighted to finally have his ‘proper’ number ten back.