Leverkusen 2-0 Schalke: Schurrle stays in a position to counter-attack

November 20, 2012

The starting line-ups

Leverkusen comfortably won a very simple game of football.

Sami Hyypia selected a 4-1-4-1 / 4-3-3 shape with roughly his first-choice XI this season, although left-back Michal Kadlec is out injured, so versatile Japanese international Hajime Hosogai filled in.

Huub Stevens was without Ibrahim Afellay, so Julian Draxler started on the left of midfield. Otherwise, they were unchanged from the win over Werder Bremen.

Leverkusen were by far the better side throughout the game, with Stevens furious at the performance of his side.

Leverkusen sit back

The game started at a very low tempo, because the home side were entirely content to play on the counter-attack. Whereas they usually average around 50% of possession in home matches this season, in this match they managed just 37%, because there was no attempt to dominate the ball or push high up the pitch.

Schalke might have been surprised by Leverkusen’s passiveness, because they would have fancied counter-attacking too, with the pacey duo of Draxler and Jefferson Farfan able to carry the ball at speed. Instead, they saw the majority of the ball by default, although they used it very poorly.

There was some horrendous misplaced passes from Schalke across the pitch, and no real creativity or imagination in the centre. Lewis Holtby was shackled by Stefan Reinartz and was the first player to be substituted, while the midfield combination of Roman Neustadter and Jermaine Jones lacked calmness on the ball, or the necessary desire to charge forward and link the play. With Holtby barely involved, Klaas-Jan Huntelaar came deep, but no-one mirrored his runs into centre-forward positions.

Leverkusen tactics

Leverkusen started off defending with a high defensive line, and their centre-backs stayed tight together, starving Huntelaar of time in central positions. They dropped off and only pressed in their own half when the ball was played into Jones and Neustadter, seemingly not worried about the passing ability of Schalke’s centre-backs. They squeezed Schalke’s play effectively in midfield, and there was little sign of the high line being exploited.

In possession, Leverkusen’s formation became 3-4-3, as Reinartz dropped into the back to get out of Schalke’s natural press, allowing the full-backs to spread and move high up the pitch, forcing Draxler and Farfan into defensive positions. But although Leverkusen used the space well, their passing wasn’t particularly swift or incisive when Schalke had men behind the ball.


Instead, this game was purely about the counter-attacking potential of Leverkusen’s front three. On the right, Gonzalo Castro is something of an all-rounder, able to play in various positions (including full-back) rather than an out-and-out winger. He  moved into defensive positions when Schalke had possession, tracking the forward runs of Christian Fuchs. Meanwhile, Stefan Kiessling played a mobile role as the main striker, dropping away from the centre-backs into clever positions in the channels, exploiting the space when Schalke’s full-backs moved forward.

But the key battle was unquestionably Andre Schurrle against Benedkt Howedes. Schurrle didn’t replicate Castro’s movement on the other side, instead remaining in ‘free’ positions ready to counter. Simon Rolfes moved across to the left slightly, to make sure Hosogai wasn’t overloaded.

Schurrle v Howedes

Then, the game was a little like Portugal’s matches at Euro 2012, when Cristiano Ronaldo let the full-back advance past him, happy to remain in positions to counter-attack. The match was about who could do more damage – Howedes with his crossing ability, or Schurrle with his direct dribbling at the Leverkusen defence. It was a slightly risky move from Hyypia, within the context of a very cautious overall strategy – but it clearly paid off.

The battle was entirely down this side – Schurrle v Howedes, summed up by the fact both sides concentrated their attacking down that flank – see the below graphic, courtesy of WhoScored.com. – Leverkusen are on the left, Schalke to the right.

Howedes’ performance when given time on the ball was shocking – one second half cross was shanked horribly behind the goal under absolutely no pressure, and he failed to have a significant impact upon the game.

Schurrle, however, was the star man. He constantly picked up the ball on the move, prompting counter-attacks and linking with Kiessling – with Castro the third counter-attacker, almost a decoy at times. Between them, those three had 13 of Leverkusen’s 18 shots, a higher tally than Schalke’s entire side managed.

Schurrle hit a brilliant opener on the counter-attack (see how Howedes, number four, has advanced up the pitch and is in no position to stop him):

Schurrle went onto be a constant threat on the break. Kiessling got the second goal midway through the first half, and missed a penalty after Howedes brought one of Schurrle’s dribbles to a halt with a clumsy tackle in the box – which summed up the key battle, and who had the upper hand.


“I could have taken nine men off, and I did take some of them off,” said Stevens after the game. “And then the only one who actually performed well got a second yellow card (Kyriakos Papadopoulos), which is a shame. We were begging to lose this game. It was a total failure, we absolutely deserved to lose. I cannot remember when we last played so badly.”

It’s difficult to explain why Schalke passed so badly, but it’s easy to explain why Leverkusen could counter so readily – Schurrle put himself in space rather than tracking Howedes, and did the damage.

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