Bayer Leverkusen were the forgotten side in last year’s Bundesliga – while Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund stormed Europe and competed in a fast-paced, intense final, few were talking about third-placed Leverkusen.
But they were one of the most interesting sides in Europe last season, eschewing the dominant modern obsession with possession and instead playing a pure counter-attacking game. Therefore, they’re suited to this away contest against Manchester United, where they’ll surely start as underdogs and see relatively little of the ball.
There have been changes over the summer, chiefly because Sami Hyypia is now in sole charge following a period as joint-manager with Sascha Lewandoswki. His more experienced colleague’s tactical knowledge will certainly be missed, although the former Liverpool centre-back is showing signs of becoming an excellent coach.
There were also three major departures in the starting XI. Andre Schurrle, who was the star man in his advanced left-sided role and was the instigator of the majority of counter-attacks, has left for Chelsea. On the opposite side, attacking right-back Daniel Carvajal impressed so much that Real Madrid wasted no time in activating their buy-back clause after just one season. Meanwhile, in the centre of defence, Michal Kadlec departed to Fenerbahce.
Nonetheless, there are three players David Moyes will need to keep a close eye on. The first is centre-forward Stefan Kiessling. Last year’s Bundesliga top goalscorer with 25 goals, one ahead of Dortmund’s in-demand Robert Lewandoswki, there’s something old-fashioned about him. In the age of false No.9s and strikers who drift wide, Kiessling is an old-fashioned target man who stays inside the penalty box.
No player in last season’s Bundesliga had as many shots as Kiessling, and none won as many aerial duels – although Kiessling insists he doesn’t score a particularly high number of goals with his head. Still, Nemanja Vidic’s aerial ability will be needed against the strong, 6ft 3in striker. Competing in aerial battles is essentially all Kiessling does outside the penalty box.
The second dangerman is right-sided Sidney Sam, a pacey direct forward who was often used from the bench last year, but who has thrived in Schurrle’s absence – combining excellently with Kiessling so far this season. Both have recorded four goals in the first five Bundesliga matches.
Sam specialises on the counter-attack, breaking directly into space. He’s capable of beating oppnents with mazy dribbles when he picks up full speed, and provides a consistent goal threat. In the 4-2 win over Borussia Monchengladbach, Schurrle set up Sam for two fine goals.
Finally, there’s central midfielder Lars Bender. Twin brother of Sven, who reached the final with Dortmund last season, Lars is arguably more of a complete footballer, although is most notable for his tenacious defensive work – putting in plenty of tackles in the central midfield zone.
Leverkusen’s 4-3-3 system means they pack the centre of the pitch, with Bender the most dominant force to the right of the pitch – he might attempt to stop Patrice Evra’s forward bursts, a notable feature of United’s play so far this campaign.
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