Ahead of Lazio and Leverkusen’s Champions League play-off round second leg clash at the BayArena on Wednesday evening, we take a look at what happened in their first leg, which Lazio won 1-0 thanks to a Keita Balde strike.
Leverkusen press affects Lazio build-up play
This match was shaped primarily by the form of Leverkusen’s pressing game. While nominally lined up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, they took on a 4-2-4 shape when out of possession. This was an assertive formation in which to assemble, but their pressing was not particularly intense. Instead, they pressed fairly high with the front four, with the primary objective of restricting the ability of Lazio’s defenders to supply their central midfielders with the ball to feet.
Leverkusen’s press led to disjointed Lazio attacks. Whenever Stefan de Vrij or Mauricio received the ball, they were pressed by one of the two central players in Leverkusen’s front four, Hakan Calhanoglu or Stefan Kiessling, depending on who was closest. Again, the press was not particularly hard but more aimed towards triggering the Lazio centre-backs into doing something they did not wish to do; knock the ball long.
For example, when de Vrij received the ball he was often closed down by Calhanoglu. Under pressure and with passing lanes cut off by the other three in Leverkusen’s front four, he was forced to seek alternative options further forward, leading to Lazio playing long aerial passes out from the back.
Initially, instead of reacting to Leverkusen’s press by covering up and dropping back as a unit, Lazio refused to be compressed and tried to keep a hold on the game. To this end, Dusan Basta, Lucas Biglia and Senad Lulic played behind Leverkusen’s front four, as opposed to dropping deep to play in front of them.
This was a brave move which led to some success early on. There appeared no danger in Lazio playing vertical, aerial balls to their diminutive wingers, Felipe Anderson and Antonio Candreva, who were unable to consistently win headers. However, Lazio were often able to win the second ball through their extra numbers in midfield.
Gradually, Leverkusen gain territory
Lazio’s long ball game was something forced upon them as opposed to being something they implemented proactively. Leverkusen’s setup simply didn’t allow Stefano Pioli’s side to play their normal style of football and, after the early initial success, Lazio were gradually forced back.
Unable to pass out from the back and subsequently unable to successfully maintain possession, Lazio began to wilt, with their greatest period of difficulty coming early in the second half. The fluidity of Leverkusen’s forward four was a source of danger, especially considering Lazio’s man-oriented zonal marking. With each Lazio player attempting to remain close to specific members of the opposition, the interchanging and movement of Leverkusen’s front four caused problems.
Mauricio found the situation particularly hard to deal with, often being drawn out of position by the nearest opponent to him. On one occasion, he went straight through Karim Bellarabi with a dangerous high tackle that could easily have resulted in a red card. On another, he followed Calhanoglu out to the left touchline only to fail to win the ball and leave space behind him for Leverkusen to drive into. From there Leverkusen scored, though the goal was incorrectly ruled out for offside.
As Lazio were pushed further back into their own territory, they began to accept a deeper-lying shape. Their wingers dropped deeper to cover the Leverkusen full-backs as Lazio acknowledged the changing dynamic of the game. They were no longer able to compete toe-to-toe with Leverkusen and, rather than continue to be bold in the face of the German side’s intelligent pressing game, they became tolerant of a more reactive position.
Aggressive stance leaves Leverkusen open
Throughout the game, Leverkusen’s aggressive stance had left them occasionally open to counter-attacks. An example of this came immediately after they hit the post in the 26th minute through a Lars Bender strike. With too many players in front of the ball Leverkusen were immediately vulnerable and were reduced to a series of lost one-on-one encounters that left them open as Anderson tore away from inside his own half to tee up Miroslav Klose, who hit the post.
This issue only became more prominent as Lazio adapted to the circumstances and accepted a more defensive posture. They had brought on Keita Balde for the injured Klose at half-time and his pace allowed the Italian outfit to play deeper with more realistic hope of springing away on the counter, with Keita’s pace a prime outlet in such circumstances.
Leverkusen’s Greek centre-back Kyriakos Papadopoulos took on a more aggressive role throughout the match, breaking his team’s defensive line to press his opposite man and stymie Lazio attacks while the more athletic Jonathan Tah covered behind him. This role was exposed by Keita’s introduction, as the youngster’s raw pace saw Papadopoulos constantly dragged out of position and with significantly less chance of recovery.
The only goal of the game came from this issue, as Papadopoulos pressed Keita only to miss the ball and the man, leaving Keita free to run directly at Tah. This he did successfully, beating Tah for pace and finishing beyond Bernd Leno to give Lazio a crucial lead. That wasn’t the last time Leverkusen’s disorganised pressing from the back, led by Papadopoulos, led to problems. He could have been sent off for hauling down Keita on 82 minutes, while he also failed when rushing out as Lazio countered from deep in second half stoppage time through Felipe Anderson. The move came to nothing as the Brazilian winger fired straight at Leno, but once again Leverkusen’s pressing had been exploited in the second-half by a faster Lazio side with specific intention of counter-attacking.
While some commentators depicted this game as a one-sided contest decided solely by the combination of Papadopoulos’ individual error and Keita’s individual athletic attributes, the reality is drastically different. Leverkusen set out with a clear plan to disrupt the rhythm of Lazio’s passing game, which they did, though they failed to capitalise on this.
Lazio held Leverkusen at bay well for much of the first-half, bypassing and hence nullifying the visitors’ high press by long balls. The Aquile then adapted once more when under the cosh in the second half by reverting to a more counter-attacking strategy, aiming to utilise the pace of Keita, as well as Candreva and Anderson, on the break.
Aside from a 20-minute spell in the second half, Leverkusen’s pressing – although successful in its plan to disrupt Lazio – did not result in dominance.