23rd May 2014; Eintracht Braunschweig finished bottom of the Bundesliga and were relegated straight back to the 2.Bundesliga. Karim Bellarabi, who'd been loaned to his former club for the season, would return to Bayer Leverkusen. The Westphalia club had gone through a season of turmoil themselves, with Sami Hyypia being sacked and Roger Schmidt being chosen to take the reigns. At the time, it was unclear what was to become of Bellarabi. The wide-man was signed from Braunschweig, on a costless, back in 2011 and he had shown great promise during his spells with 'die Lowen', but was he good enough to earn a starting berth at a Champions League side?
Just a few months on from the relegation with Braunschweig, Bellarabi answered the doubters in emphatic fashion. The winger is blessed with pace, attacking prowess and, most importantly to Schmidt, a mighty impressive defensive work-rate. He's been in Leverkusen since 2011, but only featured eighteen times. So for a coach to put faith in him like Thorsten Lieberknecht did last season, Schmidt's selection of him has further boosted his confidence. That grit and determination has only been multiplied, thanks to a seemingly regular starting place at one of Germany's best clubs.
Bellarabi has been a revelation – since he returned from Braunschweig – in both attack and defence. Last season, limitations were put on the attacking-side of his game, as Lieberknecht required the utmost in defensive concentration to play his high-pressing game. That preparation has served the 24-year-old well, as it was a natural progression to play under Schmidt and his style of football. The former-Red Bull Salzburg coach, who achieved great things with the Austrian champions, has made Leverkusen a joy to look. The fast-passing, counter-attacking and high-pressing game, which he has implemented with great effect and speed, was executed to near perfection against Borussia Dortmund.
The 0-2 victory at the Westfalenstadion, including the fastest ever Bundesliga goal, showcased Bellarabi and Schmidt's true qualities. Bellarabi was the scorer of the historic goal, also setting up Stefan Kießling for the second:
"We always play the ball directly forward from kick-off,'' said the winger to bundesliga.de. "That's what we did again this time, and that is our plan. I'm delighted because of course this is something quite special for me. I didn't know (it was the quickest goal) when I was on the field. I only found out about it after the final whistle and I've got to wait for it to sink in. It's a great thing for me, but the most important thing is that we took three points from Dortmund.''
"We knew we were capable of beating Dortmund,'' added Bellarabi on Bundesliga.de. "We imposed our style of play for 90 minutes and that was decisive. We had the right mentality and that's why we deserved to win.''
The current confidence in Leverkusen is extremely refreshing, notably so, in comparison to the final stages of Hyypia's time in charge. Last season, this commandeering style of play would not have been possible. Schmidt has installed a new-found belief into his players. They seem capable of shaking off the shackles of previous and imposing themselves on a game. Tin Jedvaj looked like a seasoned campaigner, while the trio behind Kießling had a new lease of life. Jedvaj and Bellarabi formed a formidable partnership down the right-hand side on Saturday evening. Any threat down the the Dortmund left was quickly dealt with and then turned on, so that Leverkusen could break away.
The pressing paid dividends and created the second goal. Bellarabi robbed Erik Durm and then fed Kießling to finish the game off. Not only did it create the goal, but it completely disrupted BVB's rhythm. In the simplest terms, Schmidt 'out-Dortmunded' Dortmund in a pressing sense. The hosts were sluggish and lacked the spark to get them started. However that must be put down to, at least in part, Leverkusen's play. While stats don't paint the whole picture of a game/player, it does say something for Karim Bellarabi's season so far. Having ran almost 14 kilometres and to still be able to press in such a vigorous fashion the 95th minute, is something to behold; a credit to player and coach. It doesn't stop there, however. 62 high-intensity runs and 45 sprints were a combined league high, only Eintracht Frankfurt's Lucas Piazon made more runs on Matchday 1.
Bellarabi didn't complete a cross and wasn't involved in much passing against BVB, but this season does show a huge improvement in relation to his final product. Two goals and three assists in a trio of competitive matches is extremely impressive, especially for someone who only managed three goals and four assists during the whole of last term. He also managed two tackles and intercepted the ball three times against their Westphalia rivals.
All in all, for a 'late-bloomer', Bellarabi can still develop into a major player at Bayer Leverkusen. He thrives under the exact system that Roger Schmidt uses and both should remain at the club for a very long time, this should allow the winger to continue in the same vein in the coming years. The clinical instinct will come through and as will an even more impressive defensive contribution. It's early doors yet, nothing is certain in football, but the pair could form a great partnership in the years to come.