It’s been a season of highs and lows for Roger Schmidt’s Bayer Leverkusen, their late run of extreme form saw them clinch third place in the Bundesliga, securing Champions League football for next season.
Following his appointment in 2014, this season really emphasised Schmidt’s fit with Leverkusen, and how he has successfully stamped his efficient and attractive style of football on the club. The 2014/15 campaign saw Leverkusen finish in fourth, scoring more and conceding fewer goals than this season, portraying the story of the lack of competitiveness at the top of the league this season.
The drop in form of Wolfsburg and Schalke, along with the re-emergence of Borussia Dortmund, left the top three of this season massively isolated from those below them.
Schmidt’s success with Leverkusen didn’t just come on the pitch this season, but off it too as he secured the signing of Javier Hernandez in particular, for approximately £9m in August. The striker has proved to be a bargain for Werkself, scoring 26 goals in all competitions.
Lows of the season
The season did not start in style for Leverkusen, losing three of their opening five games, seeing them down in thirteenth after their fifth game; a 3-0 away loss to Borussia Dortmund. A tough run of fixtures could be held responsible for the slow start, as away trips to both Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund in the space of three weeks left the confidence low in the dressing room.
Sandwiched between the away trips to the Bundesliga top two was a home defeat to Darmstadt; an early goal deciding where the points would go in a 1-0 Leverkusen loss. However, Leverkusen’s biggest defeat of the season came in March, when a geared up Werder Bremen side fired four past the hosts in a 4-1 defeat at the BayArena. A Claudio Pizarro hat-trick inspired a wilted Bremen team to earn a crucial three points in their campaign.
Highs of the season
With every low comes two highs, was the story of Leverkusen’s season. The end of their season proved to be crucial to their Champions League hopes, a seven game winning streak saw Schmidt’s team jump from seventh to third in the space of seven weeks.
The kickstart to Leverkusen’s European mission was inspired by Hakan Çalhanoglu’s last minute penalty in Augsburg on match-week 35 of the Bundesliga. The Turks last minute goal levelled out the score at 3-3, which marked the beginning of an eight game undefeated run.
The winning streak demonstrated everything positive that Schmidt has installed in Leverkusen, as his team looked like a force to be reckoned with in preparation for next season. One of the most important wins in the remarkable run was the 3-2 win in Gelsenkirchen, when Werkself came away with three points after going 2-0 down to Schalke within twenty minutes.
Leverkusen’s biggest victory of the season came in December, a 5-0 demolishing of Borussia Mönchengladbach in which the NRW club showcased the ability of their strikers; Chicharito claiming a hat-trick and two goals from Leverkusen’s current longest serving player, Stefan Kießling. Unfortunately for Leverkusen, Borussia achieved revenge for the loss, as they ended Schmidt’s end-of-season winning streak, beating Leverkusen 2-1.
Stars of the season
There has been stand out performers all over the pitch this season for Leverkusen, from front to back the team has improved its quality, just in time for next season.
The form of the attacking four of Julian Brandt, Karim Bellarabi, Hakan Çalhanoglu and Javier Hernandez has been critical for Leverkusen this season. The four have a combined 33 goals between them, holding them responsible for over half of their teams total number of goals scored in this campaign. Julian Brandt in particular lit up the final third of the season, as he scored six goals in six games for his team. His goal-scoring form and his overall performances did not go unnoticed, as he earned himself a spot in Joachim Löw’s provisional squad for the European Championships this summer, also featured was fellow winger, Karim Bellarabi.
There has also been a significant improvement in defence for Leverkusen, the young combination of Wendell (22), Jonathan Tah (20) and Benjamin Henrichs (19), has proved to be a source of stability at the back for Schmidt’s team. The three youngsters have won a total of 113 tackles this season, made more significant by their admirable level of discipline; 13 yellow cards and one red in 83 appearances between them.
The improvements in defence are complimented by the stability of 24 year old Bernd Leno between the sticks for Leverkusen. The German keeper has earned the title of ‘shot-stopper’ this season, with 72 saves resulting in 12 clean sheets. The heroic performances of the keeper have earned him a call up for the national team, featuring alongside Bayern Munich’s Manuel Neuer and Barcelona’s Marc-Andre ter Stegen.
Looking ahead to next season
The main objective for Leverkusen next season will be the same as every other Bundesliga team; to close the gap on Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund. Despite finishing third, Leverkusen finished eighteen points away from Dortmund in second, and a disastrous twenty eight points off Munich at the top.
However, Schmidt has communicated to the world his state of intent next season, as he has already recruited midfield rock, Julian Baumgartlinger from Mainz, and Kevin Volland from Hoffenheim. The recruitment of Volland will hopefully bring Leverkusen ever closer to closing the gap on the numbers of goals scored between them and the top two; Volland is not just the scorer, but the creator of goals too as he contributed to fifteen goals last season, eight goals and seven assists in a depleted Hoffenheim squad.
With Champions League football confirmed, squad depth will prove to be essential in what will be a demanding season for Leverkusen. The last time Leverkusen finished in the top two was 2011, in which they finished second; it will sure be interesting to see if Roger Schmidt can re-charge the form of the end of this season into the next one, in a hope to close the gap at the top.