What prevents the German Bundesliga from becoming a boring predictable league is the surprise element teams like Wolfsburg, Stuttgart, Schalke, Werder Bremen provide every so often, either by challenging the usual suspects or ultimately, as in 06-07 & 08-09, winning the league. And this element becomes even more critical now that Bayern and Dortmund are perhaps at their dominating best.
The two combined have won the last four Bundesliga championships, and there is almost a cent percent possibility that this year won’t be any different. The onus will thus be on last season’s third placed team Bayer 04 Leverkusen to challenge the mighty duo.
The manager and the formation:
Last season Bayer was led by the managing duo of Sami Hyypiä and Sascha Lewandwoski. Lewandowski this term has returned to leading the Bayer youth team. The combined leadership meant that Bayer by and large played the 4-3-3 formation, but now that Hyypiä is solely in charge of the first team, one can expect the team to play a majority of the season in the 4-3-2-1 formation that he favours.
Also, with the recent changes in personnel, the squad at his disposal would suit the 4-3-2-1 formation better. Notoriously low in the possession stats, Bayer play a counter-attacking game. Very quick on the break and often very direct, last term, even though they didn’t feature amongst the top 10 teams with respect to possession percentage, they still had the top two players in the ‘shots per game’ category.
With Stefan Kiessling leading the attack, Bayer will look to play long aerial balls from the deep (Kiessling is perhaps the best when it comes to winning aerial duels). If that is the plan, then Bayer can also switch to the conventional 4-4-2 with Kiessling and the newly arrived South Korean Son as the two forwards.
The biggest headline making transfer associated with Bayer was Andre Schürrle’s transfer to Chelsea. Kießling aside, Schürrle was the biggest fish in the Bayer pond. There is no doubt Schürrle’s move away from the club does creates a sizeable void. That being said, he is not entirely irreplaceable. The €21.2 million that came in from the transfer is sufficiently high to fill the void.
Daniel Carvajal is a player who will be sorely missed at the Bay Arena. Carvajal started the majority of Leverkusen’s matches last season at right back, and was quite instrumental in both defense and counter attacking. But again, the money received from the deal was good enough. The only downside is that the back-up right back of the team, Hajime Hosogai, was also allowed to leave the club.
Other notable absentees in the 2013-14 season will be Michal Kadlec (Fenerbache) and Manuel Friedrich (released).
It is safe to say that for all their personnel losses, Bayer have made adequate signings both in terms of quality and numbers. The vacant right back slot will be filled by either of the newcomers: Giulio Donati and Roberto Hilbert. The Italian U-21 right back Giulio Donati made a respectable name for himself playing for Serie A giants Inter Milan and the Italian national side at the recently held Euro U-21 championships.
The biggest acquisition for Bayer is Son Heung-Min from Hamburg. One of the best young Asian talents around, he will fit almost perfectly in the role Schürrle played for Bayer. Son, who scored 12 times for Hamburg last term, is comfortable playing on both flanks and also in the attacking midfield, He can also be the second striker. Based on his performances last season, and with the comparatively better players around him this season, he could well be the bargain transfer of the season.
The club has also brought in Robert Kruse from relegated Fortuna Düsseldorf. Kruse created the same amount of goals (7) as Schürrle whilst playing for Fortuna, a club that didn’t just get relegated, but where no one on the team netted 10 league goals or more.
Another big transfer in is Emir Spahic from Sevilla. The established Bosnian centre-back will in all probability not just challenge the two first-team centre backs, but actually displace one from the starting line-up. The move will further facilitate improvement in the set pieces in both directions.
Stefan Kiessling: It won’t be wrong to say that the fortunes of Bayer hinge on Kiessling’s form. Last season’s top marksman in the Bundesliga, he will have to at least equal his 25 goal haul to ensure Bayer comfortably secure another direct Champions League qualification.
Lars Bender: The lynch-pin of Bayer’s midfield. An immaculate tackler, his defensive leg-work shielding the back four will be critical for Bayer. Lars has added a lot to his game in the recent past, and his explosive runs and cutting passes will give an impetus to the Bayer counter-attacking game.
Gonzalo Castro: Bayer’s Mr. Versatile, like previous seasons will be used various roles as the situation demands. Right-back, left-back, holding midfielder, box-to-box midfielder, right forward – Castro has played almost everywhere on the pitch and his versatility will be very handy for Hyypiä when the games start coming thick and fast.
The squad this season is overall better in terms of depth. Hyypiä now has fringe/back-up players with enough quality to challenge the first team players for starting places. A perfect example is Andres Palop, who has just been brought in; and with loads of experience at his disposal, he will immediately challenge the young and improving keeper Bernd Leno. With a very good mix of youth and experience, the team is in a slightly better position than they were at the start of last season.
The Achilles ’ heel:
Any long term injury to Stefan Kiessling can seriously curtail Bayer’s chances. Although there is back-up in the form of Kruse and Arkadiusz Milik, Kießling is a level above them.
It would be very surprising, almost a shock if Bayer finish higher than third. Although strong and full of potential, Dortmund and Bayern are currently much better and it will take a couple of seasons for Hyypiä’s Bayer Leverkusen to collectively reach their prime.
If they don’t end up in a potential group of death, Bayer can safely reach the knock-out stages of the Champions League. The German Cup is certainly an achievable objective. As it has been 20 years since the club has won any silverware, the ‘Werkself’ faithful will hoping they can shed the ‘Neverkusen’ tag sooner than later.