Champs League loss to Atleti exposes Bayer Leverkusen's deficiencies
Bayer 04 Leverkusen's defeat at home to Atletico Madrid on Tuesday night came down to a difference in size, as well as two goals. The Spanish visitors proved eine Nummer zu gross, as they say in Germany -- one size too big.
On another night, the home side could have scored a goal more, get a penalty (Javier Hernandez had a decent claim for an elbow in the face), defended less amateurishly. But for all the good work Roger Schmidt's young side (their average age is below 24) did with the ball, for all the spells of decent pressure and slick attacking play before and after the break, they ultimately couldn't seriously trouble a far superior team.
It's game-over for Leverkusen. Atleti have won the tie with 90 minutes to spare.
"We have to make sure we concede fewer goals, that's important in this competition," Diego Simeone said, already thinking about the next round.
A warning about Leverkusen having "nothing to lose" sounded hollow and perfunctory. One Spanish reporter castigated Atletico for conceding twice, insisting they would have won a game against such opposition "4-0 two years ago." We'll never know. But there certainly won't be a repeat of Bayer's trip to the Vicente Calderon two years ago, when they managed to hold out valiantly for extra-time and tragic penalty shootout.
This was an Atletico that was said to be past their best, a tamer version of the beast that Europe had grown to fear in seasons gone by. A few shaky moments at the back in the absence of Diego Godin perhaps underlined these suspicions. But as long as the forwards move with as much precision as they did on Tuesday and take their chances with such chilling efficiency, they'll remain formidable opponents. Leverkusen weren't on the same page. "Naive," mercurial winger Julian Brandt called his team's performance.
After matching the Spaniards blow for blow in the aforementioned war of attrition in 2015, Leverkusen had stormed forward without any balance or security. Schmidt's tactical risk, combined with individual failings, made for a catastrophic combination: Bayer were not sharp enough in possession, not quick enough in defensive transition, not up to the task mano a mano.
Unlike the visitors, Leverkusen couldn't compensate for the loss of their best defender, Jonathan Tah. His replacement Aleksandar Dragovic had a nightmare at the BayArena.
One could tell from sporting director Rudi Voller's demeanour after the final whistle that the result leaves his club in a difficult spot. There's of course no disgrace in falling prey to Simeone's "hyenas." But the gap in class between the two teams poses uncomfortable questions about Leverkusen's present state and their future.
How come Bayer, with a better squad than in 2015 and an array of exciting, much coveted youngsters such as Brandt, future Germany right-back Benjamin Henrichs and 17-year-old Kai Havertz (who admittedly looked a little overawed by the occasion) were so far off the pace following their commendable group stage results against AS Monaco and Tottenham Hotspur?
Their league form (eighth place) suggests something's broken, that there are fundamental, collective deficiencies that go well beyond isolated incidents. Schmidt, the longest-serving manager at a Bundesliga top team, hasn't so much overseen development as regression. Bayer have gone backwards in his third season in charge.
Just when two consecutive wins in the Bundesliga, against Frankfurt (3-1) and Augsburg (3-0), had staved off the 49-year-old's dismissal, the manner of the defeat on Tuesday brings back mistrust in his very demanding methods, and a game based on constant running. It's a truism that teams will only put up with a coach and his tactics as long as they feel that he's helping them to perform to their best.
With Bayer, one wonders if the time is ripe to change the script. Their one-dimensional pressing game feels almost antiquated in comparison to the more layered work done by Julian Nagelsmann at Hoffenheim and Ralph Hasenhuttl at Leipzig -- with individually less-talented squads at their disposal.
These two teams could well take up the two remaining Champions League places behind Bayern and maybe ahead of Dortmund. A drop down to the Europa -- or even out of Europe altogether -- would hurt Leverkusen's bottom line, but more importantly, it interferes with their unique selling point. They manage to attract top players because they can promise them regular game time and space to further their careers at the highest level, domestically and internationally.
Once either part of the equation -- the personal development or the chance to play in Europe -- falls away, Leverkusen don't look half as appealing to ambitious young pros anymore. Last summer's perfect transfer window, notable for a lack of high-profile departures, will be impossible to replicate if Leverkusen end this campaign going nowhere in the league and under-utilising the considerable potential of their players. The very best of them are too good, too driven, too much in-demand to waste their time in mid-table.
The upshot of all this will be three months of heightened tensions. After imminent elimination in the Champions League and another early exit in the DFB Pokal, Bayer's chances to win the "trophy" of fourth spot hang by a thread. The seven-point gap behind Hoffenheim will be very hard to make up.
Leverkusen have long realised that they can't be another Atleti, a second-tier side on the very cusp of the global super-club elite. They're simply not cut out for that, being based in a small city in the most densely populated and most football-crazy part of Germany. But they won't accept relegation to also-ran status in the Bundesliga either after establishing themselves as the nation's third-best team with three Champions League runs in four years. They're too big to settle for the small-time.
Thus, a difficult end to the season awaits.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein