Despite a 6-2 victory over Hertha Berlin on the final match-day, Bayer Leverkusen's dismal 2016/17 campaign saw the club finish an unthinkable 12th. For a team that had placed outside the top seven just once since 2003 it was a disastrous season.
Roger Schmidt’s 125-match tenure had already ended after a 6-2 loss to Borussia Dortmund in March 2017 with current Stuttgart manager Tayfun Korkut seeing out the final 12 games of a miserable season.
In came Heiko Herrlich, whose surname literally translates as glorious, a former Leverkusen youth player and German Cup winner who, in 1995, was the record transfer in the Bundesliga at 11million German Marks.
He was a successful striker in the 1990s with 74 goals in 274 games, most notably for Dortmund and Gladbach. However, his career was cut short in 2000 because of a brain tumour. Herrlich's appointment was not met with universal approval, however, and he was the bookmakers' favourite to be the first Bundesliga coach to lose his job this season.
Herrlich’s coaching career had begun promisingly as the youth coach at Dortmund and was followed by a stint between 2007 and 2008 as Germany Under-17 manager. But unsuccessful spells at Bochum and Unterhaching followed while two years with Bayern Under-17s saw the side finish fifth and sixth.
Yet Herrlich, who frequently uses the Bible in meetings and credits his faith for overcoming his battle with cancer, would rebound once again, taking Jahn Regensburg from the fourth division all the way to the second division after beating favourites 1860 Munich in the play-offs.
Out with the old, in with thew new
With the sales of Javier Hernández, Hakan Calhanoglu, Ömer Toprak, Kyriakos Papadopoulos and Schmidt favourite Kevin Kampl, many expected Bayer to struggle this season.
However, Leverkusen’s business manager Jonas Boldt – the former scout who discovered Bayern Munich‘s Arturo Vidal and a host of other South American talents – hit on Lucas Alario. The £21.5million Argentine striker has five goals in 1,034 minutes this season.
The other resounding success in the transfer market was the £16million acquisition of Panagiotis Retsos, a 19-year-old Greek centre-back who is rated as the 12th best prospect in his age group by the CIES Football Observatory behind Christian Pulisic and Kylian Mbappé.
Retsos has logged more than 1,100 Bundesliga minutes and has registered three assists in addition to having played in every defensive position.
Dominik Kohr's return to his parent club from Augsburg for just £1.8million has been a steal, and the industrious central midfielder has shown some new playmaking skills.
His xG chain (total xG of every possession he has been involved in) is at nine for the season and 0.62 per 90. Both figures better his previous bests of six and 0.25 at Augsburg. Kohr’s capability to play out from deep positions and run the length of the field has created excellent goals like this against Bremen in the cup.
That move was finished off by Julian Brandt who, despite taking a career low 1.3 shots per 90, has already surpassed his season total’s with four non-penalty goals and has been an invaluable creative force with a career-best 2.2 key passes per 90 in Herrlich’s free-flowing tactical system.
Bayer's system enables individual talent
Leverkusen’s style under Schmidt was a transition based one, dominated by an intensive high-press that successfully suppressed the number of shots his side faced – though that still rose from 8.79 per game in the 2014/15 season to 11.67 by the end of Schmidt’s tenure.
But at times it backfired spectacularly. Boasting the Bundesliga’s lowest PPDA (passes per defensive actions) with 5.50 in 2014/15, 5.93 in 2015/16, and 6.53 until Schmidt’s departure in March, Bayer’s press was carved open too often with a couple of passes, leading to keeper Bernd Leno facing lots of high-quality chances.
Efficiency, then, has certainly been Herrlich’s calling card in another key facet of his team: counterattacks. Under Schmidt Bayer would produce 18 counters per 90 minutes. Die Werkself now attempt 16 counters per game but with an average of three shots and, more importantly, a total of 13 goals – the best return in the Bundesliga.
One of the key components of that counter has been Chelsea transfer target Leon Bailey, who many rate as the best player in the Bundesliga this season. With a combination of lethal speed, a variety of dribbling moves, excellent playmaking and great long-distance shooting, Bailey is the total package.
His fine form was nearly recognised with the player of the Hinrunde (the first half of the season) by his peers and the prestigious Kicker magazine. He is still leading the Kicker ratings and ended up winning the player of the Hinrude honour from die Welt and Bild as well.
Bailey has the numbers to back up that claim. Nine goals and five assists put him behind only Robert Lewandowski and Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang, and his involvement in 19 scoring attack is also the third-most behind that same duo.
He’s second in total passes into the box (93), sixth in total successful dribbles (64) and his 62 per cent success rate is up there with the league leaders like Amine Harit, Kingsley Coman and Liverpool-bound Naby Keïta. The best comparison and highest praise for his game is how well he looks this season versus the last four years of Arjen Robben.
Herrlich has also swapped the rigidity of Schmidt’s double pivot, mostly in a 4-4-2 and occasionally in a 4-2-3-1, to a flexible look. Under the new manager Leverkusen can switch between six or seven formations and make in-game adjustments.
Their three centre-back system features Wendell as the playmaking left-back or left-sided centre-back who is not shy about getting forward – three assists and career-bests of 1.9 xG90 and 1.09 key passes per 90 both surpass last year’s totals. Retsos’ positional flexibility is also a huge boon for Leverkusen.
In midfield, besides the surprising Kohr, the internal improvement of Charles Aránguiz and Julian Baumgartlinger have added a great mix of defence and occasional playmaking.
In the attacking department, alongside Julian Brandt, Liverpool transfer target Kai Havertz is putting up impressive numbers with six assists, an xG chain of 10.31 and an xG chain per 90 of 0.73.
The 18-year-old's numbers compare very favourably to those of Bayern star James Rodríguez who has six assists, an xG chain of 9.71 and 0.77 xGC90 in roughly the same amount of minutes (1,267 to Havertz's 1,135).
Of the 18 Bundesliga players who have an xG chain of ten, four are Bayer players; Brandt, Havertz, Bailey and the resurgent Kevin Volland. Volland is another player who’s shone under Herrlich after a disappointing first season and, while he’s benefitting from some conversion luck (ten goals from 40 shots), he’s put up a career best ten non-penalty goals, enough to get himself back into the conversation for Germany's World Cup squad this summer.
It’s hard to quantify the level of buy-in from the players towards Herrlich but, aside from the early struggles prior to match-day five, Leverkusen had yet to put in a bad performance until last week’s loss to Hertha.
You’d be hard-pressed to find players who aren’t performing, with Karim Bellarabi and Benjamin Henrichs perhaps the only two exceptions. On the other hand, the improvement in Bailey, Volland, Baumgartlinger, Aránguiz, Brandt, Havertz, and Jonathan Tah, as well as the incorporation of Sven Bender, Alario, Retsos and Kohr as key performers, is nothing short of exceptional coaching.
The remarkable improvement on set piece defending – just three goals conceded from corners versus 12 last year – is another subtle adjustment that should be credited to Herrlich and his staff.
Ultimately, what looked to be a transition year where Leverkusen would attempt to climb back towards respectability and mid-table, is suddenly looking like a breakout season of attractive football that may just result in a return to the Champions League. Glorious, indeed.