Given the risky, relentless, high intensity approach which Roger Schmidt’s Bayer Leverkusen side typically take into every game, some questions were raised as to whether they’d change their tactics for an away trip to Barcelona in the Champions League like most teams do. It was no surprise to see the ever-principled Schmidt stick with his philosophy however, and, even if they went on to (harshly) lose 2-1, it was their excellence as a defensive unit and its influence on Barça’s build-up play which proved to be the highlight of a very entertaining tactical battle.
Leverkusen’s shape out of possession was a 4-4-2 as always, but there were a couple of subtle adjustments to the positioning of the players for this game. Hakan Çalhanoğlu usually pushes up from the central number 10 position alongside whoever the striker is (Javier Hernández for 55 minutes on the night, then Stefan Kießling), but in this match he was more on the left – with Karim Bellarabi in the middle and Kevin Kampl on the right.
Some of the thinking behind this little change may have revolved around their opposition; given that Barça are, to risk stating the obvious, pretty good at developing play centrally from the back, the extra pace of Bellarabi could allow them to cover space more quickly.
Whatever the thought process was, though, it worked, and Bellarabi and Hernández were excellent at blocking the key passing lanes through the middle and forcing play to go wider. With the midfield behind them also pushing up this really restricted the amount of space that Sergio Busquets had, either forcing him to drop deeper much more regularly than he’d have liked to or just cutting him off from the game altogether. As a result, he was very commonly stationed between Barça’s two centre-backs, Javier Mascherano and Gerard Piqué.
Busquets moving so deep did mean Leverkusen’s most advanced pressers were at an almost constant numerical disadvantage (two-on-three, or two-on-four if you count Marc-André ter Stegen) compared to Barça’s deeper central players, and Mascherano and Piqué often had room to step up with the ball at their feet in wider areas, though it was nothing for the away side to be particularly concerned about because of the clever, compact positioning of the line behind them.
Lars Bender and Christoph Kramer being high up as mentioned helped to stop the rest of the Barça midfield from getting the ball easily, whilst Çalhanoğlu and Kampl either side of them took up positions in the half-space – simultaneously covering both the central parts of the pitch and the wider areas too.
This meant that, not only was Busquets’ incredible ability to play line-splitting passes and break presses rendered largely ineffective, but that Leverkusen could deploy pressing traps in the places which Mascherano and Piqué would predictably try to play into. These traps were used to great effect, and the way that they were performed somewhat varied depending on which side of the pitch it was on.
On Leverkusen’s left, Çalhanoğlu and Kramer often split slightly more to open the passing lane between them and try to lure a pass into the space: which they could then cut out easily. On their right, meanwhile, allowing passes outside of Kampl into the offensively-poor left-back Jérémy Mathieu – until Jordi Alba came on for him in the 60th minute – on the touchline also gave them a great chance to try and win the ball back.
In combination with their more ‘regular’ types of pressing when Barça did manage to break through and get higher up the pitch, this meant that the build-up play of the home team was severely slowed down (with passes too often either sideways or backwards), if not broken down completely.
This extremely cohesive and synchronised system made it very tough for Barça to create chances for the majority of the game, and gave Leverkusen a brilliant chance of coming away from the Camp Nou with a point at the very least. It wasn’t to be in the end, unfortunately for them, as the Lionel Messi-less Blaugrana grabbed two late goals to secure the win, but Leverkusen deserve a lot of credit for an excellent defensive performance nonetheless.