Bayern Leverkusen didn’t simply do it, they did it in style.
Leverkusen’s 3-0 victory over Bayern Munich on Saturday might be, all things considered, the most momentous league victory in European football for many years — perhaps going back to Leicester City’s 3-1 victory at Manchester City back in February 2016 on their way to the Premier League title.
Leverkusen aren’t quite underdogs to the extent of Leicester, but this result puts them firmly in the driving seat at the top of the Bundesliga, and underlines their chances of bringing to an end Bayern’s record of winning 11 straight titles, the longest-ever run in any major European league.
The precise style, though, wasn’t quite Leverkusen’s usual method of play. Xabi Alonso’s approach was more cautious than usual, with Leverkusen recording their lowest possession and pass-completion rate of the campaign. However, considering they also restricted Bayern to their lowest xG of the campaign, it’s clear it was a defensive success. Alonso’s formation was roughly the usual thing — five at the back, two holding midfielders and three attackers. With the forward trio playing narrow, Leverkusen successfully prevented Bayern from playing through the middle.
And, at times, Leverkusen pressed excellently. Here, when Eric Dier played a forward pass into Leon Goretzka, Leverkusen launched into action.
Granit Xhaka and Nathan Tella pressed the Bayern midfielder, and Florian Wirtz sprinted after Dier, the only realistic passing option.
It ended with Dier having to make a last-ditch tackle on Wirtz — and this was from Bayern’s own spell of possession.
But lots of Bundesliga sides press well. What sets Leverkusen apart is their intricate passing combinations — and in possession, they tore Bayern apart. They were helped by Thomas Tuchel’s surprise decision to use a 3-4-3 system for the first time this season, essentially attempting to match Leverkusen’s formation. He also used Sacha Boey, a right-footed full-back, as a left-sided wing-back, presumably in an attempt to match the speed of Jeremie Frimpong.
But Alonso omitted Frimpong, using the more defensive-minded Josip Stanisic — on loan from Bayern — instead.
Bayern looked uncomfortable in their system, particularly down the flanks. When Edmond Tapsoba played this ball across to Stanisic, Boey was too far away to shut him down properly, having been marking Leverkusen’s No 10, Wirtz.
When he moved forward to press, Boey passed Wirtz onto Kim Min-jae.
But Kim was concerned by the movement of Tella on the outside, and ended up shutting neither down properly.
Wirtz’s pass didn’t quite have the right angle, and the move came to nothing. But Bayern were struggling out wide.
Bayern’s main problem was on the opposite flank, however. On Leverkusen’s left, the wing-back Alex Grimaldo is having an incredible campaign, now onto eight goals and nine assists from his 21 appearances. A key feature of his game is this movement inside, allowing Piero Hincapie to move forward from the left of a back three, into more of a conventional left-back position. In this situation, Bayern’s right-sided attacker Leroy Sane wasn’t sure which to shut down.
Leverkusen’s movement down that flank produced some lovely passing moves. Here, Xhaka swept a pass out to Hincapie, who had space because Grimaldo had drifted inside.
Hincapie played the ball back to Xhaka, who knocked another good pass to forward Amine Adli, while Grimaldo ran back across to the wing.
Adli then flicked the ball out to Grimaldo, who had gone from the wing, to the channel, and back out to the wing again. Dayot Upamecano had the recovery speed to intercept, but this was a sign of things to come.
In this situation, as Leverkusen break quickly through midfield, Grimaldo is not hugging the touchline and stretching the play, but instead making a run between defenders in behind — note Dier desperately telling his defensive colleagues to watch him.
But the actual threat was from the near side, where Adli ran onto a through ball from the outstanding Wirtz.
Adli let himself down with his first touch here, allowing Kim in to tackle.
Leverkusen’s threat in behind, particularly through Adli, was a major feature of their game. Xhaka’s outside-of-the-boot ball in behind created another major chance for him…
… although once again, he took a poor touch and allowed a defender, this time Upamecano, to recover and clear.
But the first of those two situations involving Adli handed Leverkusen a throw in a good position — and, following that throw, Robert Andrich blasted a low ball across the six-yard box for Stanisic to turn home at the far post.
There were a few ironies here — Stanisic scoring against the club who own him, Stanisic scoring despite being deployed for his defensive skill compared to the more attack-minded Frimpong, and Bayern’s wing-back, Boey, not being aware of his direct opponent considering he was used there precisely for that purpose.
Grimaldo continued to be the major threat, particularly with his runs into the channel. You expect a wing-back to be on the outside of all his team-mates, but here, with three players towards the left, Grimaldo made an excellent run inside to get onto a clever through ball from Wirtz.
And Leverkusen nearly doubled their lead with a move that showed the two major features of their attacking play — the movement down the left, and the speed in behind. Again Grimaldo came inside, again Hincapie went on the overlap, and again Xhaka swept a pass out to that flank.
And then, with Hincapie looking up for a passing option, Tella called for the ball on the far side.
Hincapie’s long ball in behind was excellent, and Tella met it on the volley, but directed the ball straight at Manuel Neuer.
Leverkusen doubled their advantage with a goal that perfectly showed their dominance down that left flank. When left-wing-back Grimaldo received possession here, ordinarily Bayern would be entirely happy with their defensive shape — right wing-back Noussair Mazraoui was in a perfect position to confront him. The key, though, was the overlapping run from Hincapie — on paper, the left-sided centre-back.
That movement dragged Mazraoui into a wider position, opening up the channel for one of Grimaldo’s typical runs inside. He played a quick one-two with Tella…
… and smashed the ball brilliantly past Neuer for the second goal.
Tuchel reverted to a four-man defence with half an hour remaining, while Alonso’s key substitution was removing Tella and introducing Frimpong, the man who had surprisingly been omitted. His speed was crucial once Bayern piled forward, as Leverkusen could counter-attack into space.
First, Frimpong made this run on the outside of fellow substitute Jonas Hofman, and his shot deflected against the post.
And then, after Frimpong was the most advanced Leverkusen player when they defended a corner — with Bayern keeper Neuer challenging for the ball inside the opposition six-yard box — he raced downfield to dribble into the opposition half, and then brilliantly curled the ball home into an empty net.
Leverkusen aren’t there yet. Alonso’s side are only five points clear, with 39 points left to play for. But the psychological impact of this victory will count for something too — perennial champions Bayern were absolutely blown away by a vastly superior side, who are on course for the biggest title upset for several years.
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