So far, much of the attention surrounding transfers in Germany before the official opening of the summer window has unsurprisingly revolved around the two heavyweights in the country; Bayern Munich quickly splashing big cash on Mats Hummels and Renato Sanches in the wake of Pep Guardiola’s departure, while Borussia Dortmund have picked up the young and highly-coveted Ousmane Dembélé. Beyond them, though, on a quieter but equally as impressive scale, the team that’s best positioned to try and challenge the superiority of that pair have been making some very smart moves.
Bayer Leverkusen finished third with 60 points in 2015/16, one position higher than in their first season under Roger Schmidt but with one less point. It could’ve been some way better if they hadn’t suffered severe injury problems in the middle of the season however, a fairly common thing to happen in intense, demanding systems like theirs, and based on their early business they seem intent on ensuring that a lack of squad depth doesn’t become a problem if the same thing happens again next season.
The first couple of signings that they made weren’t anything new or too exciting, Danny da Costa and Jonas Meffert both re-joining the club from Ingoldstadt and Karlsruher respectively. Their first notable purchase, meanwhile, was the 28-year-old midfielder Julian Baumgartlinger who arrives from Mainz for just €4 million. A dynamic, high action defensive midfielder who seems to have a good understanding of pressing mechanisms, the Austrian international is one of the most underrated players in the Bundesliga and should prove to be an excellent option for operating in front of the defensive line.
Shortly after news of that one broke, they announced a second big signing in Kevin Volland. Another acquisition from another German club, this time Hoffenheim, Volland’s a versatile attacking player who a number of clubs have been interested in for some time – Leverkusen being the ones to finally get him for a club record fee of around €18 million. And even if he’s obviously far more expensive than Baumgartlinger, he’s got the potential to prove just as useful when it comes to value for money.
Of all the seasons that Volland’s been linked with a move away for though, at first glance it’s perhaps a little strange that this is the one after which the move has finally happened. Now 23, and set to turn 24 by the time the new season starts, the German international hasn’t really pushed on as much as people had expected him to back when he first broke through in Hoffenheim’s first-team four seasons ago. It’s not as if he hasn’t developed in that time, far from it. But in terms of room for improvement at the club, in relation to their ambitions and the quality of the people he’s working with, his ceiling seemed to have been hit a little while ago.
That was particularly evident during the first half of the season. After 20 league games under Markus Gisdol and then Huub Stevens, Hoffenheim had recorded just two wins and were languishing down in 17th; seven points behind the lowest position of guaranteed safety. Five goals (two from penalties) and two assists in the 1514 minutes of football that Volland played in that time was pretty bad, even when considering it was for a team who were struggling so badly. Carried out over the course of a whole season, his shot numbers (1.9 per 90), key passes (1.2 per 90) and minutes per direct goal contribution would have all been very close to being the worst out of his four years at the club.
When the manager changed for a second time though, things began to look up for not only Volland but the team as well. Julian Nagelsmann had been set to take over at the end of the season, but after Stevens’ health problems forced him to resign the extremely well-regarded 28-year-old manager (the youngest in Bundesliga history) took charge early and oversaw a real change in fortunes – picking up 21 points in his 14 games in charge and leading the club to a truly unexpected survival.
Volland started all of those 14 games, getting three goals and five assists in 1217 minutes: one every 152.1 minutes, compared to every 216.3 minutes before Nagelsmann arrived. That’s better than he’s averaged in any full season, while his 2.4 shots and 1.7 key passes per 90 are similarly right up there with his best years. So even if it was only over a relatively small sample, there’s a strong suggestion that working under a talented coach who knows how best to use him can help him push up to yet another level. Nagelsmann was one example of those, and Schmidt at Leverkusen is undoubtedly another.
Before trying to pinpoint how he’ll fit in at the BayArena though, it makes sense to look into Volland’s style as a player a bit more. Under Nagelsmann he was mostly used on the wing in a variety of systems, playing high on the left side, but he’s also very regularly played down the middle as a striker and on the opposite flank where he can cut inside onto his stronger left foot. Volland doesn’t play like a natural winger when he is wider though, much more like a wide forward, intelligently drifting inside to search for gaps in the half-spaces (a movement pattern he also makes when playing as a central striker).
Physically he’s of quite an average height, but he does have a stocky build, a powerful running style and good albeit not spectacular pace which he uses to incredibly great effect for shielding the ball when carrying it in tight areas. That’s something he does pretty regularly, playing on the turn and driving with the ball infield, pushing to make things happen, asking questions of defenders. His 2.1 successful dribbles per 90 in those games under Nagelsmann is indicative of that, and it’s just one of the ways in which he demonstrates his aggressive, direct way of playing.
An extremely low pass success rate over the whole of this season (58.7%), which contrastingly to Hoffenheim’s decent 75.0% as a team is in fact the eighth-lowest of all Bundesliga outfield players, also shows that. He’s far from patient in both the middle and final thirds, playing at speed and forcing vertical passes where possible to encourage his teammates to get forward alongside him. Everything Volland does is done quickly. It does mean he gives the ball away quite a lot, and he rarely drops deeper to get too involved with build-up phases other than for quick, transitional one-twos, but whether that’s a significant problem in his game really depends on the team structure that he’s within.
That’s where his new manager comes in. Where others may consider such things to be flaws in Volland’s game, or at least to be a style that’s too risky to include in their own side, Schmidt clearly seems to have no such concern. And it’s not really a surprise either; his Red Bull Salzburg side was famed and admired for its sheer dynamism and electric speed of playing, and his Leverkusen team are enjoyed by many for very similar reasons. A player as direct as Volland should neatly fit into their set of attacking options as a result.
Because of his high energy levels and willingness to contribute defensively, he’ll also be a nice addition from an off the ball perspective. He’s much more disciplined when his team doesn’t have the ball than he is when they do, something which on the odd occasion has allowed his managers to play him deeper on the wings than in the higher position which he’s typically used in. In the same way, his ability to effectively close down and shape his body to show opponents into his own side’s pressing traps will suit Leverkusen down to a tee. Give him just a little period of time for refinement and adjusting to their specific system, and he’ll be all set to slot right in at the BayArena.
Exactly where he’ll end up playing most regularly for Leverkusen is a tough question to answer right now though. In Karim Bellarabi, Julian Brandt, Hakan Çalhanoğlu and the versatile Kevin Kampl they have four other stellar choices for their attacking positions behind the striker(s), while up front Javier Hernández had an excellent season in the campaign just gone and Stefan Kießling has been at the club for years now. That’s without even mentioning Admir Mehmedi, or the talented youngster Levin Öztunali whose loan at Werder Bremen has just ended.
Lots of them have been linked with moves away however so it’ll be extremely interesting to see what happens throughout the transfer window at the club: but as it stands it’s fair to say that Leverkusen’s aim for depth, at least in these areas of the pitch anyway, has certainly been achieved. Volland's versatility should fortunately mean that Schmidt will happily be able to fit him into any of those higher positions in the 4-2-3-1 / 4-4-2 shape that they regularly switch between anyway, regardless of transfers. The enhanced level of talent around him, compared to at Hoffenheim, should be hugely beneficial for his development as well.
Even Volland himself recognises that he'll fit into the system smoothly, as he said in his interview with the club upon joining. “I think the style of play is a great fit for me as well. In Hoffenheim, I also played in this way: high pressure, speed up top, winning balls in the air and helping out on the defensive end. As I said, their style fits me. I’m very comfortable playing in this way.” So it seems like everyone's happy with the deal. And it looks to be a very smart, shrewd and suitable move for both him and the club.