Roger Schmidt, Bayer Leverkusen’s charismatic manager, would’ve seen his side’s enormous Champions League clash with Barcelona as a magnificent opportunity to test his dynamic brand of football against one of the world’s best units.
The match would’ve surely also held extra significance for Schmidt, who confesses so much of his philosophy has been derived from the Spanish game. “Most of my training exercises are influenced by those in Spain,” he says.
Luis Enrique was clearly wary of the threat Bayer posed, stating: “Leverkusen is a very intense team, they press excellently, defend very well. It will be very complicated for us tomorrow.”
While playing against last season’s Champions League winners was ultimately a test Leverkusen couldn’t quite overcome, losing 2-1 courtesy of two goals from Sergi Roberto and Luis Suarez in the last 10 minutes, the German side deserved to be applauded for their application and delivery of their manager’s game plan.
Schmidt would’ve been thinking that if only those final few minutes hadn’t been played he would’ve been hailed as a hero. But against the enormous individual talent of Barca, no result is ever safe until the final whistle blows.
“Obviously we are sad, I think we played an excellent match. We deserved a point against the best team in the world in their stadium.
“We defended with passion. But we were exhausted – then Suárez scored a world-class goal,” explained the dejected manager.
Schmidt, formerly of Red Bull Salzburg, used the word “brave” when describing his team’s efforts, which was especially apt when you consider the potential pitfalls attached to Schmidt’s high pressure approach. Leaving oceans of space in behind due to the combination of playing a high line and pressing so aggressively was always going to be a worry against a talented Barcelona.
In the first half, particularly, though, Leverkusen’s implementation of their pressing game was breathtaking. They pressed beautifully as a collective, never allowing their opposition a moment’s rest, and, as a consequence, managed to limit Barcelona’s clear cut chances by virtue of being able to win the ball back so high up the pitch.
Such coordination and cohesion in their pressing served as a testament to Schmidt’s masterful work on the training pitch.
“You need to have conviction to play the way we do, you have to give it your all, all the time, and there are few moments of relaxation,” Schmidt explains.
Figures from Graham Hunter’s fine match report on UEFA.com indicated the away side “out-ran Barcelona by almost 5km in the first half.” A staggering number really, but unfortunately all that exertion took its toll, as by game’s end, Leverkusen had only run 2.5kms more than Barca.
One man who deserved plenty of veneration for his relentless effort was Leverkusen’s high-octane attacker, Karim Bellarabi.
Deployed upfront alongside Javier Hernandez, the Germany international had a profound impact on the contest.
To start with, his incessant pressing proved hugely frustrating for Barcelona in their quest to pass out from the back. He and Hernandez worked brilliantly in tandem, ensuring they always marked two of Gerard Pique, Javier Mascherano and Sergio Busquets. By always having two of the above men marked, in combination with Bayer’s central midfielders, Kevin Kampl and Christoph Kramer, tightly marking Andres Iniesta and Ivan Rakitic, Leverkusen made it hugely difficult for Barca to get their possession phases going. This forced Barca to either pass wide or play back to the keeper, thus successfully guaranteeing Barcelona’s gifted central players struggled to stamp their mark on the contest.
Luis Enrique’s side just couldn’t get going amidst this persistent and aggressive pressure. It seemed wherever they went, a Leverkusen player was there to intervene. The players’ adherence to Schmidt’s plans made certain Barca couldn’t relax one bit. In terms of execution and effectiveness, Leverkusen’s first half pressing game bordered on perfection.
Bellarabi, a key cog in this pressing machine, epitomised his team’s desire to win the ball back. It all started from the front, and his intensity and work-rate set the tone for his side in the best possible way. Moreover, the long limbs of Bellarabi also ably assisted him in winning back possession when nipping into challenges.
On the attacking end, the ex-Eintracht Braunschweig star inflicted plenty of pain on the Barca backline. Using his wicked blend of pace, trickery and his ability to read the game, the 25-year-old provided a multifaceted threat that formed the basis for so much of his side’s best attacking work.
In situations when Leverkusen won the ball back and hit Barcelona on the counter, Bellarabi’s speed and skill saw him flourish throughout. The man who made 156 successful dribbles in the Bundesliga last season (only Eden Hazard (181) and Lionel Messi (174) had more in the Europe’s top 5 leagues) gave Pique an especially torrid time. One moment in particular, on 36 minutes, encapsulated Pique’s troubles in dealing with Leverkusen’s number 38. Here, after making a scintillating run in behind Dani Alves, Bellarabi beautifully latched onto a well hit Wendell pass. Pique was forced to shift across and track the slippery Bellarabi. But while the Spaniard tried his best to stop him, Bellarabi emphatically scorched past him, before cunningly cutting inside to unleash a stinging shot on target. Sadly for him, though, his German international teammate, Marc-Andre ter Stegen, came up with a super save to deny him.
This moment definitely wasn’t a one off – Bellarabi wreaked havoc in this manner on numerous occasions. In fact, Bayer’s goal arrived following a similar run down the left, where he used his scintillating skillset to win the corner from which Kyriakos Papadopoulos scored.
If only Hernandez could’ve finished off the multiple chances Bellarabi laid on for him in general play, the match just might’ve ended in favour of the German club.
His languid, awkward dribbling style, which makes him a highly unpredictable adversary, saw him complete a damaging three successful dribbles. His underrated passing ability, meanwhile, both aerially and along the carpet, propelled him to complete two key passes.
A cerebral reader of the play, Bellarabi would take up good positions all across the frontline that allowed him to scan for openings and then embark on his lethal runs in behind. Plus, his anticipation of headed flick-ons from Hernandez, and later Stefan Kiessling, following Leno’s goal kicks meant he constantly found himself creating opportunities for his side.
Although Leverkusen eventually succumbed to the might of Barca, their application couldn’t be faulted, on a night in which their attacker of Moroccan heritage showcased just what a formidable component of Schmidt’s side he really is.
“He has made our game idea his game idea”, accurately stated Schmidt.
He couldn’t be more right. Bellarabi’s amalgamation of pace, mobility, agility and intensity combine to make him a perfect player for his manager’s system, on both sides of the ball.
Watching him develop at Leverkusen has been as fascinating as it has been exhilarating. His multi-dimensional display against the reigning Champions of Europe demonstrated just how far he’s come.
Under Schmidt’s masterful tutelage, expect his spectacular upward spiral of improvement to continue. Bellarabi’s unquestionably the ideal weapon for Schmidt’s chaotic, yet incredibly organised system.
Frighteningly, at only 25, his best may be still yet to come.
About the author – Edward Stratmann
Edward Stratmann writes regularly about the on-field aspects of the game, with a particular focus on tactics and analysis. In addition to featuring on These Football Times, Inside Spanish Football, Anfield Index, Just Football, The Eagles Beak, Think Football Ideas and JuveFC, you can also find Edward’s work at Licence to Roam, a football blog he started with his brother in 2013.
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