The 2016/2017 season was supposed to be Bayer 04 Leverkusen’s time to firmly establish themselves as the Bundesliga’s undisputed third power behind the juggernaut that is Bayern Munich and the always-spirited Borussia Dortmund. However, their campaign ended up delivering nothing more than middling mediocrity and troughs that were much deeper than any little peak that came to the fore. But with enigmatic new coach Heiko Herrlich, things may turn around for the Werkself in the 2017/2018 season.
A 12th place league finish was a shock to the system of fans and onlookers alike, with the campaign yielding only 11 wins compared to 15 losses – And a sad goal differential of -2. Nothing sums up what a letdown the Werkself‘s season was more than their second-round DFB-Pokal exit to 3.Liga side Sportfreunde Lotte on penalties, an utterly embarrassing result not so much because off the loss, but rather the utterly insipid performance that leads to it. Ultimately, manager Roger Schmidt paid the price for Bayer 04’s struggles and was sacked in March, but interim boss Tayfun Korkut was unable to provide any kind of galvanising effect with some suggesting that Leverkusen just as well could not have appointed anyone to the role for all the impact the Turk ended up having.
But where did it all go so wrong? Schmidt was very highly regarded upon joining the Werkself in 2014 after an extremely impressive spell managing Red Bull Salzburg where he won the Austrian Bundesliga and Cup. Known for his compact, intense and fast-paced football based on relentlessly pressing the opposition and swiftly transitioning from attack to defence, Schmidt’s Leverkusen finished 4th and 3rd in 2014/2015 and 2015/2016 respectively. There seemed to be progressing, until Bayer 04 completely stagnated and ground to a halt. A fundamental contributor to their struggles in this past season was the fact that they conceded 10% more goals than the Bundesliga average from set-pieces, which clearly indicates that the required hours weren’t put in on the training ground to practice defending these situations. As the old saying goes; fail to prepare and prepare to fail.
Another key factor in Leverkusen’s struggles was their inability to hold on to leads and a penchant for conceding first – Both of which are considerable stumbling blocks to potential success. Take, for instance, their home loss to Borussia Mönchengladbach at the start of the year where they played well and took what seemed to be a comfortable two-goal lead, only to completely collapse and allow the Fohlen to net three without reply to snatch the win. That being said, Schmidt and his temporary successor Kurkut were both hamstrung by something completely out of their control. Bayer 04’s main attacking focal point and set-piece maestro, Turkish midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu, missed the entire Rückrunde, or second half of the season after FIFA found him guilty of breach of contract with Turkish side Trabzonspor and suspended him for four months. In 2011, as a minor playing for Karlsruher SC, Calhanoglu agreed on a deal to join Trabzonspor, only to sign for Hamburger SV instead.
The Werkself also weren’t helped at all by the fact that a number of injuries kept key personnel such as Javier Hernandez, Kevin Volland, Karim Bellarabi and Jonathan Tah, to name a few, out of the team for crucial periods of the season. Curiously, Leverkusen had a strong Champions League campaign regardless of their domestic struggles, emerging second from a tough group that included Monaco, who went on to thrill spectators with their vibrant football deep into the tournament, Tottenham Hotspur, who put together another impressive Premier League campaign, and seasoned European veterans CSKA Moscow. Bayer 04 were eventually knocked out by Atletico Madrid, but not without giving the Spanish giants a tough battle. This only serves to reinforce the fact that it was the right decision to let Schmidt go because he clearly couldn’t motivate his charges for the weekly grind of delivering in the league while providing tangible evidence they did, in fact, have the quality to deliver at a much higher level than they had been.
Leverkusen’s top scorer was Chicharito, who only managed a paltry 11 goals. However, this provides a crystal clear insight into how the team as a whole struggled. The Mexican striker is a pure finisher, and not a Robert Lewandowski type who can put the ball in the back of the net as well as create opportunities for others and actively orchestrate attacking moves. Granted, the aforementioned ban of Calhanoglu robbed Bayer 04 of their main playmaker, but even when he was available Schmidt tried to shoehorn the 23-year-old into his system rather than building the attack around him, to the detriment of the entire team. Rather than slightly adapting his high-intensity approach to accommodate a central attacking fulcrum, Schmidt shifted Calhanoglu around constantly, from wing to midfield, from left to centre to right, with little of a clearly defined role. This meant that the Turk never quite could dictate play because his skill-set just doesn’t include playing on the wing, just as for example Arsenal’s Mesut Özil is much less effective when stuck out wide rather than in a roaming playmaker’s role. Thus, Hernandez and other attackers such as Volland never quite could get the service they needed to consistently pressure the opposition’s goal.
But with such a disappointing chapter for the club now closed, there is much to be optimistic about for the coming season. New manager Heiko Herrlich will bring steel, experience and an ability to adapt to Leverkusen – Both in footballing terms and in life. Herrlich, in German, means splendid, or glorious, and the former SSV Jahn Regensburg coach has certainly lived up to his name. As a player at Leverkusen, Gladbach and Borussia Dortmund, Herrlich won almost everything there is to win – Two Bundesliga titles, two DFB Pokal triumphs, the UEFA Champions League, Club World Cup and Supercup, as well as winning the Torjägerkanone, or top goalscorer’s award, in 1995. But the greatest win of his life came against cancer. The news that Herrlich had been diagnosed with a brain tumour was revealed in 2000 by Dortmund, as they were the first German team to go public on the stock-exchange, necessitating that everything related to club and players is made available to shareholders. After a tough battle that left him physically shattered by his own admission, Herrlich’s inoperable tumour was successfully treated with radiotherapy. It is a testament to the man that on his return to football with Dortmund, against arch-rivals Schalke in the Ruhr-derby, no less, he was awarded a resounding ovation from fans and opponents alike.
As a manager, Herrlich guided former club Jahn to back-to-back promotions – First to 3.Liga and then in 2016/2017 to the 2.Bundesliga. The latter was achieved in the promotion-relegation play-off against crisis-club 1860 Munich, who they beat 3-1 on aggregate over two legs. Gracious in victory, Herrlich asked his ecstatic players to abstain from the traditional celebration of a beer-shower in order to show respect to their utterly humiliated opponents. A strong believer in focusing on the team over the individual, his philosophy is that “A successful team is built of eleven servants.” (11Freunde) “You can be very talented but if you think only of yourself, you have already lost in this sport”. This kind of mentality may be just what the Werkself need to get back on top – Less focus on the one, more on the many. Herrlich is also seemingly the perfect person to take advantage of Bayer 04’s impressive youth system, having had extremely successful coaching stints with youth teams at Dortmund, VfL Bochum, SpVgg Unterhaching and even Bayern Munich, especially with a number of first-team players such as Hernandez, Kampl and Julian Baumgartlinger rumored to be heading out of the club as well as Calhanoglu already having departed for AC Milan.
With 17-year-old midfielder Kai Havertz having burst onto the scene last season, Leverkusen boasts an already-impressive amount of first-team ready young players, not even considering some of the prospects coming out of the academy that has yet to feature for the senior side. Jonathan Tah and Tin Jedvaj (Although injured at the moment) are already established players for Bayer 04 in defense, despite both still only being 21 years of age, while 20-year-old Benjamin Henrichs looks set to make the right-back position his own after a strong showing when called upon for Germany in the Confederations Cup, particularly in the demolition of Mexico. In attack, Julian Brandt has long been the jewel in the Werkself‘s crown, and while it is inevitable that he will eventually be snapped up by one of Europe’s elite clubs, a season under the tutelage of Herrlich may help him take that next step in his career.
Every ending heralds a new start, and for Bayer 04 Leverkusen a disappointing season may have been the catalyst for something great. In Herrlich, they now have a mentally strong leader who can teach his players the value of teamwork, and help youngsters grow not only as players but also human beings. As he says; “It’s certain that no-one dies when you lose a game”. (Bundesliga.com)
Regardless, Herrlich is a winner in every sense of the word, and the 2017/2018 Bundesliga season is one where we should keep a keen eye on the Werkself.