Bayer Leverkusen's identity crisis nearing an end as entertainers emerge
Andy Brassell on 25 September 2017
For a long time, we’ve known exactly what Bayer Leverkusen are about. They impress, they entertain, they qualify for Europe and achieve to a certain level without actually getting it over the line. The old ‘Neverkusen’ epithet from the Klaus Toppmöller days has endured well.
Last season, and the summer that followed, changed all that. The Roger Schmidt era, which had given Die Werkself a firm on-pitch identity, fell to pieces and the club dropped the ball badly in appointing Tayfun Korkut as his successor – at exactly the point where a strong personality was needed to galvanise the players. In between wan performances, poor results and players meeting angry fans to appease them, Leverkusen came worryingly close to the drop.
With no European competition for the first time in eight years, this season has looked like a rebuilding job ever since the end of the last one, an impression accentuated by the exits of Hakan Calhanoglu, Omer Toprak and Chicharito, with Kevin Kampl and the disappointing Aleksandar Dragovic following. Heiko Herrlich, known for his hustle and bravery as a player at the club in the 90s, returned as coach to oversee the new era.
Despite Herrlich’s good work with Jahn Regensburg, it looked like a crowd-pleasing punt. The 45-year-old had underwhelmed in his previous spell as a top-flight head coach with Bochum, a position from which he was relieved in spring 2010. The suspicion that he might be out of his depth was reinforced by an underwhelming start, and the shabby loss at Mainz that followed the international break didn’t bode well.
The last two performances at the Bay Arena, however, have been cut from a different cloth. Sunday’s 3-0 win over Hamburg was not quite as irresistible as the thumping of Freiburg last weekend, but Leverkusen’s ability to periodically pull away from mediocre opponents underlined the potency of their attacking weapons, and fired dreams of what more might follow.
It was a new beginning, with Leon Bailey and Lucas Alario given their first starts in a line-up which – along with the most of the others in the Bundesliga after a long week – was heavily rotated. With habitual firestarter Karim Bellarabi on the bench, Benny Heinrichs and Wendell got involved, but Bailey’s long-awaited first impression after arriving from Genk in the winter window will linger longest in the memory.
“It’s so good to be out there as a Leverkusen player,” Bailey said afterwards, and he wasn’t the only one feeling that. His talent is not in question, but his application has been in some quarters. He was ticked off by the club after a bizarre incident on a trip back to Genk in April, when he filmed a man working out in a gym, and posted the video on Snapchat, mocking him as a clown – only for the individual to turn out to be a professional boxer and hunt him down and confront a pretty terrified-looking Bailey at a local café.
Here, he was as smart as he’d been daft in that incident, attacking with purpose and intelligence from the left and laying on two goals – firstly with a deft header down for Kevin Volland to rattle in the opener, before pretty much laying Alario’s debut goal on a plate with a demonic delivery across the six-yard box. Herrlich also praised Bailey for his defensive work.
Volland, who has taken a while to settle after his move from Hoffenheim last year, is starting to look as influential as had initially been hoped and now has four goals in the last two home games. There was relief at the €19m Alario’s lively debut too, after his buyout clause was paid on deadline day but River Plate refused to hand over his registration, prompting Fifa’s intervention. “We are happy the matter can be filed away at last,” said Leverkusen’s sporting director Rudi Völler, with some understatement.
Credit is due to Herrlich, too, whose side recovered here from a midweek loss to Hertha in which they’d played with personality. The seeds of this current upswing go further back – despite losing on the opening day at Bayern, they played with real daring in the second half especially and made life tough for the champions. There have been more goals in Leverkusen games than in any other team’s so far this season (22 in all); maybe Leverkusen’s new personality will be that of entertainers.
They might be a work-in-progress but Hamburg, who lost a fourth straight game without scoring despite a promising start, can only dream of being this far along the line. Both coach Markus Gisdol and chairman Heribert Bruchhagen frankly pointed to a lack of quality. “With this squad,” lamented Gisdol, “we’re reaching our limits.” The absences of Nicolai Müller, Filip Kostic and Aaron Hunt have left them without much of a cutting edge either – with Leverkusen, as they calibrate their new attacking talents, perhaps looking on with a sigh of relief.
• Finally, Borussia Dortmund conceded their first Bundesliga goal of the season on Saturday, 416 minutes into the campaign. That was the only mild dampener on their evening, however – they were 5-0 up against Borussia Mönchengladbach at the time, and added a sixth before the end via the unlikely source of Julian Weigl, whose delightful volley was only his second goal for the club, on the occasion of his first start of the season after injury. The improving Toprak had given the pre-match talk in Dortmund’s huddle, underlining how Peter Bosz has already coaxed a number of players to stand up as leaders, and the table-toppers were rampant from the get-go. Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang hit a hat-trick and Maximilian Philipp scored twice, though Real Madrid scouts will note before Tuesday that Gladbach had chances, with Thorgan Hazard notably shooting straight at Roman Bürki twice when clean through.
• Bayern spent Saturday pressing the flesh at Oktoberfest, and they probably needed a drink after the barely-explicable way in which they let two points slip away against Wolfsburg on Friday night having led 2-0. “We handed them over,” lamented Thomas Müller and though it will be put down to Sven Ulreich, whose glaring error in letting Max Arnold’s long-range free-kick past him allowed Die Wölfe back into the game, he wasn’t alone in his culpability. The defensive pairing of Mats Hummels and Jérôme Boateng had looked solid, but it was on their watch that Daniel Didavi wandered in unattended to head the equaliser. The recalled Arjen Robben was quiet, despite his goal, and missed a sitter at 2-1 which surely would have definitively put the game to bed. After Carlo Ancelotti made five changes, he has a few decisions to make before Wednesday’s Champions League trip to Paris Saint-Germain.
• Former coaching badge classmates Julian Nagelsmann and Domenico Tedesco met at the Rhein-Neckar Arena, with Schalke’s visit to Hoffenheim also a return for former Die Kraichgauer youth coach Tedesco. Nagelsmann later admitted to Tedesco that his team’s 2-0 win was on the flattering side, and he was right. Yet while Tedesco must make do with admiration, Nagelsmann and Hoffenheim have tangible reward, with teenager Dennis Geiger’s first Bundesliga goal setting them on the road to a win that briefly took them top.
• Unsung heroes of the week have to be Augsburg, who finished the Englische Woche seven points better off and in fifth after Saturday’s goalless draw at Stuttgart. That could have been an even better haul had Rani Khedira not fired a very presentable chance straight at Ron-Robert Zieler. Coach Manuel Baum, always an endearingly energetic presence on the touchline, is still a mystery to many. When he came on Saturday night’s Aktuelle Sportstudio on ZDF, presenter Jochen Breyer gave him a pen and A4 sheet of paper, asking him to jot down the secrets of the team’s success. “It’s not witchcraft,” smiled Baum.
• More second-season syndrome for Leipzig, despite a fine first-half performance and an ultimately deserved victory over Eintracht Frankfurt. The irresistible new front-pair of Jean-Kévin Augustin and Timo Werner clicked again, with both on the scoresheet, but Ralph Hasenhüttl’s side ended up clinging on with only the woodwork preventing a Simon Falette equaliser.
• Werder Bremen were booed – heavily – for first time this season by a Weserstadion which is starting to get twitchy after three points, and no wins, from the opening six after Saturday’s 0-0 with fellow strugglers Freiburg. “We were thinking too much about not losing,” said Thomas Delaney, betraying a degree of tension though not, sporting director Frank Baumann claimed, a lack of confidence in the coach’s methods. “We are absolutely convinced by Alex Nouri,” Baumann said. The Nordderby at Hamburg next Saturday evening is huge for both teams.
• Mainz got a much-needed win, beating Hertha via a Pablo De Blasis penalty awarded by referee Tobias Stieler after VAR consultation. De Blasis’ goal was Mainz’s 500th in the Bundesliga – “a nice bit of colour,” according to the scorer, with the present far more important. Coach Sandro Schwarz has a challenge on his hands in trying to integrate a spate of new talent and one of those newbies, Alexandru Maxim, shone intermittently. Rather less content was Hertha’s Vedad Ibisevic, given a late red card by Stieler for swearing at him, with the Bosnian striker claiming the official misheard. “I hope they [the DfB] have lip-readers,” he said. It’s a tricky trip to Östersunds in the Europa League on Thursday for Hertha.
• A point, at last, for Cologne, and one that deserves credit in a goalless draw at Hannover on Sunday. OK, one goal in six and bottom of the table doesn’t look pretty, but at least Peter Stöger and company seemed to have stemmed the flow at the back – this was a good, solid, away performance away to a side that went into the game with a 100% home record. “It’s a positive feeling,” said Stöger. That is exactly what Effzeh want to take into Thursday’s match with Crvena Zvezda, their first at home in Europe in 25 years.
Results: Bayern Munich 2-2 Wolfsburg, Hoffenheim 2-0 Schalke, Mainz 1-0 Hertha Berlin, RB Leipzig 2-1 Eintracht Frankfurt, Stuttgart 0-0 Augsburg, Werder Bremen 0-0 Freiburg, Borussia Dortmund 6-1 Borussia Mönchengladbach, Hannover 0-0 Cologne, Bayer Leverkusen 3-0 Hamburg.