It was all going to plan at the BayArena. A familiar face in the form of Leon Bailey put them ahead win a close-range tap in – deflecting a possibly goal bound Kevin Volland strike into the back of the net. Bayer’s opponents, a Paderborn side looking less than assured defensively – were surely going to be brushed aside by the deadly attacking trio of Volland, Kai Havertz and Bailey. But Leverkusen will learn a key lesson from Saturday’s game – a stellar attack can only bail you out so many times. The warning signs were there from the moment Peter Bosz announced his side, with an experimental 3-4-3 system being deployed, a formation first introduced towards the tail end of last season. With Wendell and Sven Bender to be utilised as centre backs alongside the towering figure of Jonathan Tah, Bosz let it be known from the beginning that outscoring the opponent was to be Bayer’s chosen method of victory.
Bayer got off to a fine enough start, with good periods of possession eventually leading to Bailey’s goal, after lax Paderborn defending saw the newly promoted side overwhelmed at the back post. Within 10 minutes however, the inevitable happened. Paderborn had looked threatening from the very first kick, thanks to some energetic gegenpressing, forcing Bayer into mistakes early on. This, seemingly, got into the head of Julian Baumgartlinger, who, on the half-way line, played a blind pass intended for his centre half’s – but instead picked out a grateful Sven Michel. Michel surged forward, brushing Tah off with a worrying level of ease, before firing wonderfully inside Lukas Hradecky’s near post. While the goal may have come with a degree of luck, Paderborn were good value for the goal, with fine pressing clearly halting Bayer’s game plan. From the perspective of the Bundesliga’s newest underdogs, Saturday was a study in what their approach may turn out to be.
For all that the likes of Kerem Demibray and Moussa Diaby have stolen headlines throughout pre-season, Bayer’s campaign will no doubt hinge upon the continued progress of their talismanic number 29 –Havertz.
With Bayer under the cosh somewhat, following Michel and Manga’s relentless hassling for the visitors, the home faithful were in dire need of some inspiration. Baumgartlinger, after receiving the ball centrally, amended for his earlier mistake by playing the ball through to Havertz on the edge of the box. With one exquisite touch, the 20-year-old was through on goal, and before Huth could close the space, he’d already been chipped – as the ball found the far corner of the net. Havertz wheeled away with the kind of nonchalant low-key celebration that Cantona would have been proud of, conveying to the home supporters that this was indeed just another day at the office. The maturity of the finish for one so young was striking – and if the goal really was as easy as Kai portrayed it be, then the rest of the Bundesliga better sit up and take notice.
For all that Leroy Sane, Timo Werner and Joshua Kimmich are tasked with emulating the class of 2014, Bayer may just possess Die Mannschaft’s deadliest weapon of all by the time the next World Cup rolls around. 2019/20 is set to be a defining season for the boy from Aachen.
Once again however, all of the fine work conducted by Bayer’s forwards, was soon to be undone by more sub-par defending. Livewire Paderborn winger Antwi-Adjei was a perpetual threat down the left, and after an acceleration burst saw him breeze past Tah, he fired a shot on goal which was well saved by Hradecky. The ball bounced out to Sven Michel to who looked certain to score. His shot was saved too, not by the keeper, but instead by Wendell, whose place on the pitch was only saved by new Paderborn signing Streli Manga slotting the ball home straight afterwards. A yellow card was the punishment to the Brazilian, 2-2 was the score heading into the break.
For Bayer, their first 45 mins of Bundesliga football served as a cautionary tale for how their season may pan out. They have, on their day, the attacking firepower to overwhelm virtually any team, and yet excessive midfield errors, combined with some ropey defending from the sides three centre backs, has the potential the undermine Bayer’s free following attack down the other end of the pitch. The 3-4-3 system Bosz opted for may – long term, be the solution to a very predictable problem. But for the moment at least, the ease at which Paderborn isolated Bayer’s defenders will be a cause for concern.
The second period of play will have certainly reassured the home fans. The introduction of new signing Aleksandar Dragovic added a layer of defence aptitude not seen often enough in the first 45 minutes. On top of this, a midfield tweak saw the home side keep the ball far better, and overall, the performance did improve with time. Paderborn continued to have chances, but not as clear cut as the first half, and after Kevin Volland put the home side in front following a fine Wendell cross, the plucky Paderborn appeared to run out of both ideas and energy.
In many ways, Bayer’s first half performance was entirely foreseeable, and not a huge cause for concern. Against a fairly unknown quantity in Paderborn, riding a wave of momentum following their promotion, a tricky start was always a possibility. As Liverpool demonstrated in the Premier League curtain raiser against Norwich, coming up against a brave newly promoted side, at a time when fitness levels are still not up to scratch, can lead to defensive vulnerabilities being glaringly exposed. Liverpool got the win that day, just as Bayer eventually did, albeit in a closer affair. But the point remains salient for both, strange results can occur, especially on opening weekend – so take the three points, learn from your mistakes, and go again.
New signings at Bayer will also take a while to bed in, with Dragovic’s second half cameo the pick of the bunch. Demirbay was solid, if unspectacular, but one of Peter Bosz’s early season tasks is to find an effective role for the former Hoffenheim man. Its looking pretty crowded in the Bayer midfield, and trying to get as many central midfielders as possible onto pitch (as was the case in the first half) didn’t exactly go well. For Diaby and Amiri, opportunities will come, most likely in the DFB Pokal, where Amiri debuted last week. It is a season of unknowns for Bayer.
Questions will be asked of the side’s new formation, of the manager himself, and of the money spent this summer. A first Champions League campaign since 2014 will also stretch resources and the squad to the limit, with the likes of RB Leipzig acting as a case study in how destabilising European campaigns can be to league form.
Amongst the many unknowns and variables, one thing can be relied upon – the explosiveness of the sides front three, consisting of Havertz, Bailey and Volland. With Bayer looking vulnerable and nervy early on, up they stepped, with goals, assists, and moments of brilliance. They will bail Bayer out of trouble of many occasions this season.
For lasting success to be forthcoming however, attacking dynamism on its own, won’t be enough. Whichever way the next 9 months pans out, if Saturday’s match is anything to go by, drama, excitement and goals are almost a guarantee for fans of Bayer Leverkusen. The stage is set for a fun season at the BayArena.
By Tom Fenton.