It was billed as the biggest game of the Bundesliga season so far and Saturday’s Topspiel at the Bay Arena between Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern Munich certainly didn’t disappoint. A comprehensive 3-0 win for the Werkself maintained their unbeaten run this season and sent out a clear message that they are going to be serious contenders for the Meisterschale this season with champions Bayern clearly second best. Here we take a look at how Xabi Alonso won the tactical battle over counterpart Thomas Tuchel to send the Rekordmeister home with their tails between their legs.
When news of the line-ups filtered through in the hour before the match he became apparent that both coaches had sprung surprises. Thomas Tuchel opted to go with a back-three with Sacha Boey deputising for the injured Alphonso Davies as a left wing back and Noussair Mazraoui on the right. For whatever reason, Tuchel decided that the experienced left back Raphael Guerriero wasn’t the best man for the job, which begs the question as to why he was signed (but that is another article altogether). Joshua Kimmich started on the bench with Aleksandar Pavlovic and Leon Goretzka as the midfield two.
With hindsight these choices didn’t pay off with Boey at fault for the first Leverkusen goal and looking like he didn’t know how to defend an unaccustomed position and the absence of Kimmich as the midfield quarterback stymied Bayern’s supply to the suppliers. The Leroy Sané/ Harry Kane relationship was non-existent and Bayern were unable to get that part of their game going. Kane had just 18 touches in the entire match and no chances. His impact inside the B04 penalty area was zero.
Alonso also opted for a change in tact, with Amine Adli chosen ahead of both Patrik Schick and new signing Borja Iglesias to lead the line and Nathan Tella in ahead of Jeremie Frimpong. Adli had had an excellent impact in the Pokal win over Stuttgart and the fact that his pace would trouble the Bayern defence more than either Schick or Iglesias was an inspired decision.
The Leverkusen coach took the extremely brave decision to not pick two of his most influential players this season (Frimpong and Jonas Hofmann) to fit a particular tactical plan he had in mind and he was proved justified. The pace of Tella in place of Hofmann was a key pillar of the success and Bayern loan player Stanisic had an excellent game against his parent club.
Bayern’s line-up looked like round pegs in square holes in some respects, whereas Leverkusen’s starting XI matched a tactical plan perfectly and the players delivered. The Rekordmeister can complain about injury absentees (Coman, Davies, Gnabry), but Leverkusen themselves were without Victor Boniface and Exequiel Palacios and they adapted. Tuchel looked to import a tactical plan that he had successfully deployed at Chelsea- here it proved to be the wrong choice as Alonso outwitted him.
As already mentioned, using Amine Adli and Nathan Tella was an inspired choice as they were far pacier than Jonas Hofmann/ Patrik Schick would have been. With Florian Wirtz pulling the creative strings, Leverkusen could send their speedy duo free to cause damage and that’s just what happened with Boey and Mazraoui having to defend more than attack. If the idea of a back three with two wing backs had been intended to push Alejandro Grimaldo and Josip Stanisic backwards, it failed.
Bayer Leverkusen’s strength this season has been their domination of the ball and their intensive passing game that makes teams work so very hard. They wear teams down by passing them to death and their relentless attacking play has brought results.
On Saturday, they seemingly abandoned this principle and allowed Bayern to have the possession (particularly in the opening stages). Rather than dominate possession, Leverkusen were intent on dominating the space and using the intelligence of Alejandro Grimaldo to combat the five-man back line deployed by Bayern.
Grimaldo often moved more centrally allowing Piero Hincapie the space to move forward, while Florian Wirtz also came deeper centrally to give Leverkusen an overload in the middle against Pavlovic and Goretzka. Hincapie and Stanisic occupied the Bayern wing backs which allowed Adli and Tella to threaten the Bayern back three.
The fact that Bayern only achieved an xG of 0.7 despite having an overall possession figure of 61% shows how Leverkusen cut the supply to Kane and strangled the Bayern attacking threat using intelligent use of space and timely pressing.
“Without the ball we have been able to dominate the spaces, not to receive many chances, to wait for our chance,” Alonso explained after the match. “For sure the first goal was really important, but the determination and conviction of the players is what comes to my mind first.
“I had in the back of my head that they could play with a back three, Thomas has played brilliantly with that system so we were ready. We have controlled well the right moment when to press, when to wait, who could have the ball, who could not have the ball.”
Alonso has won many admirers since taking over Leverkusen last season and is seen as one of the brightest coaches coming through. This big statement win over Bayern has just highlighted his tactical acumen and raised that reputation even more.