Schmidt’s Bayer Leverkusen have taken the pressing game to a whole new level—and are dismantling some of the world’s biggest sides in the process.
On August 23rd, the opening day of the Bundesliga season, a sea of yellow-and-black-clad humanity pulsed inside Borussia Dortmund’s Westfalenstadion, ready for another year of football under the guidance of Jurgen Klopp. Dortmund’s opponents were Bayer Leverkusen, led by new manager Roger Schmidt who you probably had never even heard of unless you were really into last season’s Europa League. Leverkusen were a worthy opponent, but this was Dortmund at home on the opening day of the season—against a team with a new manager. It was hard to envision anything but a Dortmund victory.
Schmidt and Leverkusen didn’t get the memo. The opening whistle blew, and Leverkusen sent four attacking players flying towards Dortmund’s goal, slicing through the startled defense and scoring seven seconds into the game, a new Bundesliga record. Before a silenced Yellow Wall, the Leverkusen players celebrated, and Klopp and his players stared at each other wondering what the hell just happened. Roger Schmidt rubbed a thumb across the side of his nose, turned, walked to his bench, and took a sip from a bottle of water. There was no celebration. For Schmidt, playing like that is an expectation.
A few days after he had been appointed the manager of Bayer Leverkusen, Schmidt said that “there is no quiet, calm football any more,” and he meant it. His teams don’t just want to press their opposition, they want to suffocate them every minute of every single game in an unyielding onslaught on the opposition’s physical and mental toughness. If Klopp’s philosophy can be described as heavy metal, then Schmidt’s could probably best be described as some sort of twisted death metal that disorients, confuses, frustrates, and makes your ears bleed.
But until January 2013, Roger Schmidt was virtually unheard of. He bounced around the lower divisions of German football as a player and was doing much the same as a manager until he arrived at Red Bull Salzburg. In his second season in charge of the Austrian club, Salzburg hosted Bayern Munich for a friendly in mid-January. Schmidt’s team pressed Bayern into submission, forcing costly mistakes in their visitor’s own half and ruthlessly punishing them for having the audacity to think they would be able to build up play from the back against Schmidt’s 4-2-4 pressing formation. Salzburg went on to win the game 3-0.
But that was just a friendly, and Bayern wasn’t at full strength. The real eye-opener came when Salzburg visited Ajax in the last 16 of the Europa League, and did what Schmidt teams do best: shock and awe. Virtually the entire first half was played on Ajax’s side of the pitch, despite the Dutch-side’s dominance of possession. Salzburg deployed their usual 4-2-4 and pressed Ajax relentlessly. When the Ajax goalkeeper had the ball, the two Ajax center-backs would split very wide and deep, allowing the holding-midfielder Daley Blind to drop down to try and pick up possession. Salzburg’s two strikers marked Blind while the wingers cut off the outlet pass to the fullbacks.
They would let the goalkeeper have the ball as much as he liked, but as soon as he played it to an outfield player the hunt was on. Ajax continually fell into Salzburg’s pressing trap, and the players who had been schooled in total-football and possession-play since they were young were forced to hoof it up field. Salzburg finished the game off by halftime, already up 3-0. They would win the second-leg 3-1.
Salzburg would exit the Europa League in the next round, but his philosophy was already capturing the imagination. On April 15 he was hired by Bayer Leverkusen to become the head coach for the following season. When Schmidt left Salzburg, they were 18 points clear on top of the Austrian Bundesliga table.
In an age dominated by possession and slow build-up play, Schmidt’s philosophy has gone in the opposite direction. He isn’t bothered by not having the ball. In fact, it’s better for Schmidt if his team doesn’t. That way, his team can get into their 4-2-4 pressing formation, pin their opposition into their own half, turn the ball over, and get the ball forward quickly for a high percentage goal-scoring opportunity. Schmidt’s philosophy is all about putting the opponent under pressure of every second of the match, everywhere on the pitch. This means when they get the ball back after hunting you down all over the field, that they’re not going to start tapping the ball around setting up an attack. Its simplicity is its beauty, and it is working wonders for Bayer Leverkusen, who stand sixth in the Bundesliga, and could top their Champions League group with a win over Zenit Saint Petersburg on Wednesday.
Let’s end where we began, on that late-August day in Dortmund. In the 95th minute, right-midfielder Karim Bellarabi muscles an exhausted looking Erik Durm off of the ball, and fires a cross to Steffan Kiessling, who first-times it into the goal. The cameras show the Leverkusen players celebrating in the corner, before cutting to a close up of Jurgen Klopp. Looking stunned, the right side of Klopp’s mouth starts to raise up in a smile, but the rest of his face doesn’t join in. It’s the kind of half smile you get when you’re not quite sure to make of what you’re seeing, of disbelief.