For multiple reasons, Bayer Leverkusen’s loss at home to Borussia Dortmund on the 21st February left a bitter taste in the mouth for Roger Schmidt. The result in isolation was a disappointment given that it was another blow to his side’s chase for a Champions League place, while the controversial nature of the game’s only goal and Schmidt’s subsequent stadium ban for vehemently contesting the decision to allow it added yet another cause of upset and anger. Just as significant a source of annoyance for him as that, though, was the injury which Kevin Kampl sustained during the game.
He was subbed off at half-time (as was Ömer Toprak too) and a week later the club confirmed the knock was worse than first feared; initially thought of only as a torn muscle, it turned out to be a fracture of his left fibula. The length of his spell out hasn’t really been officially mentioned, though a return before the end of the season is certainly not something that should be anticipated. And that’s awful news for the German team.
One of Schmidt’s most influential players during his time in charge of Red Bull Salzburg, Kampl was reunited with his former manager after a fairly poor six-month spell at Dortmund towards the back end of last campaign – and his importance to Leverkusen’s high intensity style has grown and grown over the course of his first year in his second stint at the club. Part of that has been down to his shift of position: an advanced wide player for the vast majority of his career, the Slovenian has instead been utilised in a deeper central midfield area of their 4-4-2 system for a large part of this season.
He’s certainly got an unorthodox style for a player of that role, but the switch has given his team so much in the middle of the pitch that it’s been well worth it. Kampl’s unique skillset has a number of attributes which could be transferred into a variety of different roles in this Leverkusen side, in fact. His front-footed nature fits very well into the direct way of playing that Schmidt demands, not only encouraging but almost forcing it from the areas that he operates in. The passes that he makes are predominantly vertical, rather than backwards or sideways, and he’s also a very able and quick dribbler under pressure, giving the rest of the side a good platform to push forward from.
Due to the speed they play at, as well as the heavy emphasis that a lot of other Bundesliga teams similarly have on transitions, the press resistance that he possesses is a facet of his game which is extremely useful in central zones. Leverkusen’s use of overloads and pressing traps in the middle of the pitch means it often gets extremely congested, and having someone who can operate confidently in these tight areas and avoid pressure easily (what some may call a ‘needle player’) is extremely important to help launch attacks and counter-attacks.
This close control, mobility and ability to quickly shift his body weight also makes it more difficult for other teams to disrupt Leverkusen’s build-up play in deeper parts of the pitch. He constantly moves around in that phase of the game, finding space and dragging opponents about, always on the lookout for opportunities to combine with his teammates and break opposition lines with his incisive passing.
It can be a risky way of playing with the ball when you’re starting closer to your own goal, but, much like how Mateo Kovačić did in a similar way when he was at Inter Milan, it undoubtedly reaps its rewards if you have a talented player trying it. Fortunately, in the 25-year-old Kampl, they do. So turnovers in their side’s own half aren’t something that Schmidt and Leverkusen’s fans have had to be too worried about.
As for the opposition though, it’s a different matter – because for all of Kampl’s usefulness on the ball, he’s equally brilliant off it. He’s not necessarily what you’d consider to be a great one-on-one defensive player, but he’s an incredibly good presser and that’s one of the things that have made him so endearing to managers like Schmidt and Jürgen Klopp, the one who brought him to Dortmund in January 2015.
His pace is certainly an important reason for that. Explosive from a standing start in particular, Kampl is extremely quick to cover ground and thus makes it very difficult for other players to find space against him. Even more vital though is his great understanding of both how and when to press, and it’s clear that he recognises all of the various triggers that Leverkusen have to start closing down; on top of helping to set and initiate the central traps which they organise. Pressing and counter-pressing with sheer intensity alone is one thing, but doing it with intelligence like Kampl does is another.
So there are definitely a lot of reasons for Schmidt to have played him in this deeper role, rather than wasting him as something of a pure winger like Klopp did (though in fairness 2014/15 was an incredibly odd and unpredictable year for BVB) last season. If not for the long-term injury suffered by another of their new signings, Charles Aránguiz, however, it’s possible that we wouldn’t have even seen Kampl in that midfield role at all this season.
Or certainly not as regularly, anyway. Because though Kampl is a bit less polished and a bit more dynamic, Aránguiz has a number of similar attributes to him when you look at his good technique, quick ball circulation and ability to press effectively. So whether Kampl plays in midfield again on a consistent basis next season when both are fit (like Kampl, Aránguiz’s return date isn’t public knowledge, though he is at least in light training right now) isn’t something which anyone, perhaps not even Schmidt, can really be sure of right now.
But Kampl has definitely done enough to widely impress in such a role, and him playing there can without a doubt be considered a significant success up until his unfortunate injury against his former team. If he does play there again, then Leverkusen have an unorthodox albeit excellent central midfielder on their hands. And if he ends up playing elsewhere, back in his more advanced role, well, they’ll still have a damn good player to rely on. It just sucks that he’s injured and we won’t see more of him for a while yet.