Meet the third force in German football

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FourFourTwo's award-winning FREE Stats Zone app now also covers the top flights in Italy, Spain, France and Germany (as well as English Premier League, Champions League and Europa League). Michael Cox uses it to investigating the next big thing in German football…

It must have been a strange season for fans of Bayer Leverkusen, Germany’s third-placed side. They’ve nearly confirmed their objective for 2012/13 – finishing in the Bundesliga's final automatic Champions League place (they're seven points clear of fourth-placed Schalke) – but with their illustrious rivals Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund qualifying for the Champions League final with brilliant semi-final performances, Leverkusen have hardly received any attention outside Germany. They’re the Michael Collins to Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin – they’ve been there in the background, but won’t receive the fame.

The coaching set-up at Leverkusen is unusual: Sami Hyypia is effectively head coach, but as he doesn’t possess a full coaching licence, Sascha Lewandowski is officially the manager. "The arrangement is not easy for either of us,” admits Hyypia. “We must compromise a lot, which does make it a bit more difficult. I need to discuss things with Sascha first before making a decision.” However, the joint managership hasn’t prove a barrier to success.

Lewandowski and Hyypia: Marriage of convenience

Leverkusen are a completely different side to Bayern and Dortmund – while the two Champions League finalists boast the highest possession statistics in the Bundesliga, Leverkusen aren’t even in the top 10. Of the major clubs in Europe, Hyypia’s side are arguably the purest counter-attackers.

While Leverkusen have considerably less possession than Bayern and Dortmund, they have nearly as many shots – because they’re thrillingly direct in possession, breaking forward immediately at great speed. Indeed, their two main forwards, Stefan Kiessling and Andre Schurrle, are placed first and second in the ‘shots per game’ statistic amongst all the players in the Bundesliga.

Kiessling scores, as Kiessling does

Leverkusen’s main strength is their front three. Classic old-school No.9 Kiessling spearheads the side; the 6ft 3in striker is just one goal behind Robert Lewandowski at the top of the Bundesliga’s scoring charts, but has fallen out of favour with national team manager Jogi Low, with Kiessling saying he doesn’t expect a call-up for World Cup 2014.

There are two major features of Kiessling’s game – his finishing and his aerial power. The recent 5-0 win over Hoffenheim demonstrates how clinical he is in the penalty box, particularly when receiving crosses from wide…

…while the narrow 3-2 defeat against Dortmund showed how many aerial duels he wins – and how often he’s awarded free-kicks when defenders foul him in the air.

Kiessling’s raw aerial threat is complemented nicely by Schurrle’s sheer speed from the flank. The Chelsea target plays an interesting role, not unlike Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid – he stays very high up on the left, not bothering to track the opposition right-back and instead remaining in a position where he can counter-attack quickly.

He’s the main catalyst for Leverkusen’s excellent breaks, and he’s capable of hitting fine long-range shots on the run from distance. The 5-0 win over Hoffenheim was a good example of his style of play…

…while the 3-0 win over Hamburg demonstrated that while Schurrle often beats players, he’s very much a shooter rather than a crosser.

Hyypia’s only dilemma is on the other flank. There, the most exciting option is Sidney Sam, a pacy winger who likes to stay wide and dribble past opponents before shooting from difficult angles – not unlike Schurrle on the left.

But Gonzalo Castro is generally preferred on the right. He’s more of an all-rounder: he initially impressed as an attack-minded full-back, he’s extremely energetic and he makes Leverkuseny’s front three more balanced. He stays deeper and gets involved in the centre, although he’s not the most creative player.

Sadly, there is a good chance that at least one of Schurrle and Kiessling will leave this summer. “If the club wants success, then it can't sell all the best players every year,” insists Hyypia. If they stay, Leverkusen could be a real dark horse in next season’s Champions League t– although with the Bundesliga now being spoken about as Europe’s strongest league, they may not go unnoticed as the old cliché comes back into play: never write off the Germans.

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