In an era when the game’s richest teams can outspend their rivals by previously unimaginable margins, the second-tier elites of the top European leagues have had to find creative ways of competing. If you’re a club of Tottenham or even Liverpool’s size and you want to keep up with Chelsea and Manchester City, you can’t simply build a good team, play decent football, and expect to win. You need a tactical system that cancels out some of the discrepancy in talent. English sides have only managed to find such a system on occasion. Liverpool’s frantic high pressing, narrower system last season allowed them to punch above their financial weight. The free flowing counter attacks of Tottenham under Harry Redknapp briefly allowed Spurs to do the same.
But the Premier League is still waiting for its version of the two clubs who will face off in the Champions League second round Wednesday evening when Spanish champions Atletico travel to the BayArena in Germany to face Roger Schmidt’s frantic Bayer Leverkusen side. These two sides, more than any other remaining Champions League side save Borussia Dortmund, have developed unique tactical systems that allow them to compete more closely with the elites of their respective domestic leagues.
Why Atleti’s Favoured Status Won’t Affect the Tie
Several previews have talked up the point that Atletico head into this tie as the somewhat unlikely favourites. Viewed more superficially, it’s easy to see why a person might frame the tie in that way. Bayer Leverkusen finished 4th in the Bundesliga last season, only securing Champions League qualification when they completed a comeback win at home against Werder Bremen on the last day to fend off a surging Wolfsburg side that finished one point behind them. In comparison, Diego Simeone’s Atletico won La Liga and were only a Sergio Ramos injury time equalizer away from defeating local rivals Real Madrid to win the team’s first ever Champions League title.
However, the fact of Atletico’s status as favourites is unlikely to play a defining role in this tie. Under normal circumstances, the favoured side is expected to have the bulk of possession and to spend much of the match in the attacking third - things that would be uncomfortable and foreign to Simeone’s notoriously defensive team. But playing Roger Schmidt’s Bayer Leverkusen means that the circumstances are far from normal.
The Frantic Rush of Bayer Leverkusen
If you don’t ordinarily watch the Bundesliga, then you aren't prepared for what you’re going to see from Bayer Leverkusen. For Premier League fans, the best analogy is to imagine Mauricio Pochettino’s Tottenham, only faster… way faster. Like fellow Bundesliga side Borussia Dortmund, Schmidt’s side uses a gegenpressing tactic that relies on winning the ball back as soon as it is lost. But what sets Leverkusen apart is what they do after they win back the ball. They throw men forward, often ending up in what looks like a 4-2-4 shape or even a 2-4-4 depending on how far forward the fullbacks get. But not only do they throw their players forward, they also shoot on sight, cutting the majority of their attack moves to seven seconds or less. But the basic idea is similar to what you see from sides like Tottenham, Liverpool, or Borussia Dortmund. Leverkusen have just pushed it to an even faster, more frantic level.
How Both Teams are Very Much Like Each Other
What makes this tie so intriguing is that Atletico is actually not that different from Bayer Leverkusen, despite the obvious difference in how the teams attack. Though Bayer Leverkusen use an extremely high offside trap and press the ball like maniacs in the attacking third, they actually aren't that different in one significant way from Simeone’s more defensive Atletico. Indeed, both teams are built on the same basic principle: If you allow your opponent to play wherever they like and that opponent is more talented than you, you are likely to lose. But if you can force them to play where (and how) you want them to play, then you have a chance.
As noted above, these two teams live in the shadow of domestic rivals with resources that are many times greater than their own. If Atletico goes out and plays a fairly open game against Real Madrid or Barcelona, they’ll get carved up. Leverkusen faces the same reality with Bayern Munich. The difference in the teams is in how they apply the principle described above. Leverkusen forces opponents to play the bulk of the game in their own defensive third, relentlessly pressing and squeezing the field, forcing their opponent to crack under the relentless pressure of their high line and constant running.
Atletico, in contrast, favour a much deeper defensive line and gladly allow their opponents to monopolize the ball. They were the only title winners in Europe’s elite leagues last season to average less than 50% possession. Yet when you watch Atletico play you realize that they actually exert a similar degree of control over the game. Leverkusen (and Dortmund, Spurs, and Liverpool) try to control games by running directly at their opponents. Atletico control games by letting their opponents run at them and then break against them like water on rocks.
But when they have the chance, the Rojiblancos can be just as aggressive pressing the ball as Leverkusen--they just pick their spots much more carefully than the Germans. But once Atletico do win the ball their attack actually looks a lot like Leverkusen’s. They press in wide areas, win the ball, and the attacking four, the two wide men and two forwards, surge forward. Indeed, the 4-4-2 shape can shift into a Leverkusen-like 4-2-4 or 4-2-2-2 as Arda Turan and Koke push forward, just behind the front two which this season has usually been Mario Mandzukic and Antoine Griezmann. In another similarity to their German opponents, the Spanish champions often use direct running and short passing between runners to counter, rather than relying on the long ball route one strategy more commonly seen in English football.
Predictions And Conclusions
The tie will swing on which side succeeds at imposing their style on the other. Atletico’s compact defending will, one suspects, frustrate Leverkusen’s gegenpressing style because the Rojiblancos will not attack the ball aggressively as the Germans are used to seeing in the Bundesliga. If your opponent doesn't try to win the ball off you in midfield and attack it’s harder to exploit their unbalanced defence, which is Leverkusen’s main way of attacking in most games. Indeed, Leverkusen doesn't necessarily have a pure playmaker as their system depends less on opening up packed defences and more on hitting defences before they can organize themselves. But they’re unlikely to have many chances to do that against the Atleti.
On the other hand, Leverkusen’s constant shooting could take Atletico out of their comfort zone, inviting them to be a bit more enterprising going forward as Leverkusen will not look to monopolize possession or slowly build their attack in the way that Real Madrid or Barcelona would. If Leverkusen can suck Atletico into their fast paced style then the tie will start to swing in the German side’s favour.
Pay particular attention to Leverkusen wingers Son Heung-Min and Karim Bellarabi and Atletico’s linking counter attack Antoine Griezmann. If Leverkusen is going to score on Atletico it’s likely to come through those wingers, either by unleashing an unstoppable long-range bomb to beat Atletico keeper Miguel Angel Moya or by doing some neat dribbling to get into the box and create a chance. Griezmann, meanwhile, will be the man expected to drive Atletico’s counter attacks forward. Mario Mandzukic is as good in the box as Diego Costa, but he doesn't offer the counter-attacking threat the Spaniard did. That task has fallen to the French winger Griezmann who is usually deployed in a central attacking role by Simeone. If Atletico can get the ball to Griezmann in dangerous areas and let him run at the Leverkusen defence they should get some good looks at goal.
Atleti, by all accounts, should win the tie thanks to their organization as well as their experience in the competition and superior talent. But Leverkusen is a funny side. When their pressing is off they can look distinctly average. But when the midfield is buzzing, they are winning the ball quickly, and are getting numbers forward the team can look like the best Dortmund sides of the Gotze/Lewandowski era. Atletico should win, but games involving Leverkusen seldom go as one might expect.