With five minutes to go, defender Stefan Reinartz pounced on a loose ball, firing in from close range to put his side ahead 2-1. The minutes ticked by until Bayer Leverkusen was seconds away from three points at Augsburg – three vital points that would lift the team above its opposition and, more crucially, back into the Bundesliga’s Champions League places.
Enter Marwin Hitz, the Augsburg goalkeeper at fault for allowing Leverkusen to take the lead, fumbling an effort from Josip Drmić to allow the Bayer forward to tuck in the rebound. The 35-year-old had missed three months with a knee injury, but that didn’t stop him from getting forward for the late corner. While Leverkusen scrambled to clear the ball, the ‘keeper snuck in to grab the equalizer with the final strike of the match, leaving Bayer chasing Germany’s top four.
Saturday’s match could well be a metaphor for Leverkusen’s season, condensed down into 90 minutes: early pressure nearly overwhelming its opponents; Karim Bellarabi running the show; Heung Min-Son kicking off counter-attacks; Drmić putting his shots wide. Bright start, underwhelming follow-through. The team that shocked the world with a thorough beating of Dortmund to start off the season, the team that looked like it might challenge Bayern Munich for the Bundesliga title, now sits sixth.
Bayer might only be two points behind fourth-placed Schalke, but it’s on a worrisome trajectory. Upon returning for the Rückrunde, Bayer played out a goalless draw against still-struggling Dortmund and has gone on to win just one of its five matches – against relegation-threatened Hertha BSC. The defense has conceded nine in the last three games; by comparison, Leverkusen let in just 20 goals in the first half of the season.
Just another year, then, for Neverkusen, the club that never quite hits its mark. But this season was meant to be different. Last spring, with the team in a desperate race to beat out Wolfsburg for the final Champions League spot, the board went out and secured the signature of Roger Schmidt, whose Red Bull Salzburg had already won the Austrian league title – with eight games remaining. Leverkusen once again had reason to hope. And the rest of the world finally had a reason to care about Germany’s most plastic club.
Schmidt immediately promised to “enthrall” supporters with his exciting brand of soccer. That, after all, was what he had built his reputation upon. Dortmund is famous for its pressing, Wolfsburg somehow managed to kick that pressing up a notch, but Schmidt’s Leverkusen exploded, rarely dialing down the intensity yet somehow seeming not to tire. The aim was to put shots in as quickly as possible, winning the ball, tearing forward, finding the perfect pass, quickly challenging the opponent’s goal.
Photo: Jamie McDonald/Getty Images.
It seemed to work, too. Bayer lost just once in the first nine games this season, scoring 17 goals along the way. But what Schmidt (above), who uses a single-striker system, didn’t count on was Stefan Kießling’s continued decline. He likely should have — after all, the forward was 30 when the season started, and after winning the Golden Boot in 2012-13, he’d managed only 15 last season, 10 less than his return the year before. Now Kießling has just four in the league. So does Drmić, Schmidt’s only real alternative up top.
There’s no denying Leverkusen can be a real thrill to watch. But the beautiful picture has yet to produce consistently compelling results. To quote the great Cher Horowitz, Schmidt’s team is like a full-on Monet: From far away, it’s OK, but up close, it’s a big old mess. It’s fun to watch the players getting off shots, but when you look closely, you realize they’re not making them from effective positions. If the shots aren’t finding the back of the net, the whole we’ll-just-score-one-more theory falls apart in practice. Add to that Leverkusen’s injury-riddled backline, and we’re now standing nose-to-paint with Waterlilies.
In the Bundesliga, Leverkusen can still knock in enough goals to keep the team in the running for next year’s Champions League; after all, the rest of the clubs seem to take the same lackadaisical approach to defending. But in this year’s tournament, it’s about to face Atlético Madrid. And yes, Atléti is still the same methodical, organized, defensively sound unit that we watched take the 2014 final into the very last minute.
For all its attacking flair, it’s difficult to see this Bayer side making it past the Round of 16. But perhaps that’s for the best. The club has come to expect Champions League soccer, after all — but it’s necessary to earn their spot in what’s become an extremely tight race. Without the distractions of the current tournament, Leverkusen should be able to focus on securing European play for next season. That should be enough to keep Schmid on the bench, allowing him time to perfect his system (and perhaps bring in a striker who can score). It won’t be just the club, but neutral fans worldwide, that will reap the rewards.