Friday night’s Bundesliga clash between Mainz 05 and Bayer Leverkusen made for a thrilling encounter which saw the former grab a dramatic victory in the dying embers of the game. Despite the away team’s dominance in possession, it was Mainz’ strategic plan and perseverance which earned them three points. What were the dynamics behind this?
On Friday, it was a battle between Mainz’ 3-4-2-1 and Leverkusen’s 4-2-3-1 which set the Bundesliga alight. From the get go, we saw Mainz’ defend using a 5-3-2 shape in order to match Leverkusen’s 3 in midfield (A). This numerical equilibrium resulted in Leverkusen building play using wide-overloads instead. At first, these wide overloads were created simply from the 4-2-3-1’s original shape as such, allowing Leverkusen to take advantage of narrow nature of Mainz’ press (B). In other words, Mainz’ narrow forward press left their wingbacks exposed (2v1) to Leverkusen’s wide overload (C). It wasn’t long however, that Mainz noticed this threat and increased their press’ intensity in order to “follow the ball” into wide areas, providing more support (3v3) to their once exposed wingback (D).
This increased intensity not only allowed for extra defensive support, but it also allowed the home to team to begin winning balls high up the pitch. When Mainz’ press intensity increased, they were able to completely stifle Leverkusen from playing out from the back due to their numerical matchups up top (2v2) (E). This forced mistakes from Leverkusen’s CBs, resulting in Mainz’ winning balls high up the pitch and creating chances as a result. In response to this, we saw Leverkusen quickly adapt to this threat by shifting to a make shift 3-4-3. Here, Leverkusen were able to gain numerical superiority against Mainz’ threatening first line of press and thus facilitate playing out from the back with more ease (F).
At this point, Leverkusen persevered with progressing play via wide overloads, however, with a little twist. Since Mainz’ press was so high, it created massive space between the lines to be penetrated (G). Therefore, instead of forcing play through wide areas against Mainz’ wingback, Leverkusen launched medium to long diagonal passes toward their forwards who were specifically positioned in those empty spaces between the lines. This is how Leverkusen were able to gain the lead against Mainz through a Patrik Schick long shot from exactly this area.
In the 2nd half, Leverkusen reverted to building play with a flat back 4, which I assume was in order to retain a more defensive set up by having their fullbacks in closer proximity to their CBs. Unfortunately for them, Mainz’ press also retained its intensity, and thus created the same problems seen in the first half. That is, Mainz’ front 2 were able to match up to Leverkusen’s 2 CBs making it very difficult for them to build out from the back (H). Here Mainz were able to force the same mistakes as in the first half but this time apply pressure/create chances for a dominant 20-minute period, ultimately seeing them equalize in the 57th minute.
In response, Leverkusen retreated back to their 3-ATB shape, but with a little twist. Since Mainz’ midfield 3 were already primed to shift wide to prevent Leverkusen from building through wide overloads, Leverkusen instead created a central overload by having their ST drop into attacking midfield as such. This allowed more passing lanes to open in central areas (I), which saw Leverkusen regain attacking control of the game, eventually retaining the lead in the 74th minute. But despite falling behind for a 2nd time in the game, Mainz responded with pure will and perseverance. Yet again Mainz increased the intensity of their press, this time following the ball from side to side, stifling Leverkusen’s build up as much as possible. Here, Mainz were able to continuously force mistakes from the away team, eventually resulting in many created chances and 2 set pieces which saw Mainz to a dramatic victory at the dying embers of the game.
All in all, the alternating tactics of this game reflected the back and forth nature of this encounter seen visually. Making for an exciting viewing which yet again shows the unique nature of the Bundesliga. Here, Mainz were able to beat Bundesliga’s most in from team, Bayer Leverkusen, who had won all 4 of their previous league matches before this game.
By Ryan Gunness.