In Martí Perarnau’s excellent book ‘Pep Confidential’, which details the first year of Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich reign, the author described the Catalan’s fascination with a fellow coach, how he became ‘very taken’ by him and had been studying his team for a while.
Perhaps it is a surprise that the coach was Roger Schmidt, the coach of the soon-to-be Austrian champions Red Bull Salzburg. The obsession began on Guardiola’s 43rd birthday – the 18th of January 2014 to be precise- when Bayern were hammered 3-0 by Salzburg in a friendly game during the winter break of their respective leagues. Guardiola always stresses how you learn much more in defeat than victory, and after the game he couldn’t hide his admiration for his colleague, stating “I’ve never in my career come across a team that play’s with such intensity”.
Considering Guardiola’s standing in the game, his almost child-like passion for Schmidt’s work is surprising, though certainly commendable. Michael Reschke, who worked at Bayer Leverkusen and now Bayern Munich as technical director, spoke of how Pep told him that he “..loves how Schmidt understands the game”.
Guardiola even used a post-match press-conference after his side’s game against Hamburg to show his love of Schmidt’s football, stating it was ‘incredible’ three times. Schmidt left Red Bull in the summer as a double winner to take charge of Bayer Leverkusen, perennial bridesmaids and a club lacking a real identity throughout the years. His playing career never properly took off, he spent his time in the German lower leagues before being given his big chance in Salzburg after guiding Paderborn to a respectable 5th position during the 2011-12 2.Bundesliga campaign.
Leverkusen represents a big step up, and so far has made a steady start as we head towards the month-long winter break. Schmidt took over a side that finished 4th under caretaker-trainer Sasha Lewandowski following the sacking of Sami Hyypia in early April, and though B04 haven’t finished outside the top five for six seasons, it was the lack of identity that brought Schmidt to the club. His ferocious pressing and incredible tempo ticked the boxes that Leverkusen were looking for, and the 47-year-old went to work.
One training method he brought from Austria was his famous ‘alarm clock’. When his team lost the ball he started the clock, and for five seconds the team had to press relentlessly, but should they fail to win the ball, the alarm would sound and his team had to retreat into defensive positions. The opening day win at Dortmund showed early signs of progress, the Ruhr side not used to being harrased so high up the pitch and Leverkusen fully deserved their 2-0 win.
Possession isn’t high on the agenda; a 50% average so far in this Bundesliga season proves this. But on chances created, only Bayern, Wolfsburg and Dortmund are ahead, with B04 averaging 11 a game, and are making on average 11 key passes per-game.
But Leverkusen are second only to Guardiola’s men in the shots-on-goal average with an impressive 18 per-game. However, shot accuracy perhaps explains why Leverkusen sit 4th and not higher, as only 44% of efforts are on target, a paltry 12th in Bundesliga. Possibly the reason for this is the loyalty shown towards club icon Stefan Kießling. Though his 114 goals in 253 games for Bayer is impressive, the striker only has two goals in 14 appearances this term and has just ten shots on target, indicating a different approach is needed.
There’s little doubt that the creativity is there for Schmidt. Midfielder Hakan Calhanoglu has been a revelation this season, not only for his incredible technique with the dead-ball but also in his superb ability to fashion out chances for his teammates. Already this campaign the Turkish international has created 28 chances, which to put into perspective is six more than Mario Gotze of Bayern Munich. Calhanoglu – who was signed in the summer from Hamburg- has adapted well to his new coach, and Schmidt described his star as having “the ability to act with calm in extreme conditions”. Indeed, the 20-year-old’s 70% pass completion is impressive when considering how high up the pitch he plays, in crowded areas where space is a rare luxury. There can be little doubt Schmidt sees him as a key man in his side.
Schmidt’s Leverkusen met Guardiola’s Bayern last Saturday and gave the Bavarians one of their toughest half’s of the season, pressing them far higher up the pitch than they’re used to and creating chances that could easily have gone in. But when any side plays against Pep’s men they must take their chances, and Franck Ribery’s early second-half goal proved the difference. Schmidt’s men couldn’t maintain their aggressive tempo and faded in the second period, with Bayern finishing as comfortable winners.
Despite this setback, Leverkusen sit in 4th and are steadily adapting to Schmidt’s demanding methods, and Guardiola was in no doubt about his capabilities, stating post-match “This is a great team and I’m a big fan. We weren’t used to a team pressing us so aggressively and it was one of our toughest games. Compliments to Schmidt and his team”. Praise indeed, and with the teams due to meet again in May, we await to see what the next chapter will bring in this unlikely story of friendship.