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While Mainz impressed against Werder Bremen in midweek, Leverkusen had to cope with a disappointing home defeat against Hertha BSC Berlin. Despite 72% ball possession at times, Leverkusen could not show a convincing performance in Mainz once again. In contrast, they particularly benefited from Mainz’s lack of accuracy in the final third. Until Alario’s last-minute winner, Mainz outperformed the guests after xG with 2.47 – 0.45.

In the following tactical analysis, we will examine Mainz’ tactics against the ball and their dangerous counter-attacks. This analysis will also emphasize Leverkusen’s struggle in offence and their changes in the second half.

Lineups and formation

Bundesliga 2019/20: Mainz vs Leverkusen - tactical analysis tactics
Both teams’ lineups

After their convincing win against Bremen on Tuesday, Achim Beierlorzer didn’t have many reasons to change his lineup. Consequently, Mainz used a 4-2-3-1 again without a change of players. Robin Zentner was the man between the posts while the back four was made of Aaron Martin, Alexander Hack, Moussa Niakhaté and Ridike Baku. Edimilson Fernandes and Pierre Kunde were the defensive midfielders. Jean-Paul Boetius was the playmaker and the wings were occupied by Robin Quaison and Levin Öztunali. Adam Szalai played as the single striker upfront.

Peter Bosz fielded his team in 4-2-3-1, too, with the Finn Lukás Hrádecky in net. Wendell and Panagiotis Retsos, who made his first start in the Bundesliga this season, were the full-backs with Sven Bender and Jonathan Tah sitting at centre back. Moussa Diaby and Kai Havertz manned the wings, whilst Charles Aranguiz and Kerem Demirbay played in central midfield. Nadiem Amiri played in the central role behind striker Kevin Volland.

However, after a disappointing first half, Peter Bosz changed his formation in the second half. The substitution of Karim Bellarabi for Retsos meant that Leverkusen started the second half in a 3-4-2-1 formation with Moussa Diaby and Karim Bellarabi occupying the wings.

Mainz’s variability in pressing

Mainz were prepared very well against the way the guests played and were very variable in their press. They usually approached the guests 15 meters before the midline with Adam Szalai upfront. However, in some phases, Mainz pressed even higher up the pitch, while in other phases they sat a little deeper to lure the guests.

Regardless of their pressing intensity, Mainz’s main focus was to prevent passes through the middle into the final third. Therefore, the wingers Öztunali and Quaison always moved inside to narrow the field.

When taking a closer look at Mainz’s defensive approach, one can see, that they allowed Leverkusen’s centre backs time on the ball or at least the perception that they had time on the ball. However, this could change very quickly as Mainz suddenly started to press aggressively. One could also say: they tried to lure Leverkusen into traps.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Mainz vs Leverkusen - tactical analysis tactics
Mainz don’t make any intention to press Leverkusen’s build-up. The wingers sit narrowly to prevent passes through the middle. However, as soon as Tah plays the ball to Bender (not in the picture), Szalai starts to press.
Bundesliga 2019/20: Mainz vs Leverkusen - tactical analysis tactics
Bender played the ball with his first touch to left-back Wendell. Mainz have shifted towards the ball, leaving Wendell with very few options. He eventually played the ball to central midfielder Demirbay, who was under pressure with two defenders next to him and thus lost the ball.

The example above was a typical pattern of Mainz’s defence in the first half. At the latest, as soon as one of Leverkusen’s defensive midfielders got the ball, at least one defender attacked them. This led to several inaccurate passes under pressure. Therefore, Leverkusen lost the ball frequently in the centre of the pitch in the first half.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Mainz vs Leverkusen - tactical analysis tactics
Leverkusen’s losses in the first half

When Peter Bosz changed the formation in the second half, Beierlorzer had to change the approach of his team as well. Due to Leverkusen’s build-up with 3 at the back, Mainz pressed in a more man-oriented way. This way of defending enables the opposition to create space easier when one player misses to apply pressure on his opponent. We will further analyze this in the section about Leverkusen’s improvements.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Mainz vs Leverkusen - tactical analysis tactics
Leverkusen build up with 3 at the back. Mainz’s striker and the two wingers mark Leverkusen’s back 3 while left-back Aaron puts pressure on the Bellarabi.

Leverkusen’s struggle in the first half

Leverkusen disappointed in the first half, creating almost nothing in attack (0.06 xG). The reason for that was especially their poor positional play as we will point out in this section.

In possession, Leverkusen lined up in an asymmetric formation. As Havertz likes to move inside from the wing to the half-spaces in front of Aranguiz, he shifted the team’s focus inwards. Nadiem Amiri then moved a little bit to the left half-space. The other winger, Moussa Diaby, was positioned on the flank to create width.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Mainz vs Leverkusen - tactical analysis tactics
Havertz and Amiri occupying the half-spaces in front of Demirbay and Aranguiz.

However, the focus towards the centre, made it easy for Mainz to stop Leverkusen’s attacks as the occupation of the flanks (especially the right) was missing. This was also due to the full-backs, who didn’t move up the pitch.

As aforementioned, Mainz’s winger always moved inside to create numerical superiority in the centre and to prevent passes into the final third. Nevertheless, the situation below illustrates Leverkusen’s focus to play through the middle regardless. Mainz stood very compact, allowing almost no space.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Mainz vs Leverkusen - tactical analysis tactics
Every Leverkusen player has an opponent in his back. No player occupied the wings as all of them moved inside.

Leverkusen’s struggle to get into dangerous areas was also due to the intense and variable pressing of the home side. This led to very few progressive passes into the final third. Below we can see a positive example of how to overcome this pressing.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Mainz vs Leverkusen - tactical analysis tactics
As soon as left-back Wendell receives the ball, Öztunali presses him. Since the ball near defensive midfielder Aranguiz is marked and Szalai runs towards centre back Bender, Wendell has few options. However, when Aranguiz makes a progressive run forward, this opens up space for the ball far midfielder.
Bundesliga 2019/20: Mainz vs Leverkusen - tactical analysis tactics
With a simple switch, Leverkusen could create space in the middle of the pitch. Demirbay now has time and space to progress the ball since two midfielders of Mainz are taken out of the game.

Improvements in the second half

By changing the formation to 3-4-2-1, Peter Bozs’s team found its way into the game better and allowed less defensively. Due to this change, Leverkusen were able to stretch the field and finally occupy the wings with Bellarabi and Diaby. As already explained, Mainz adjusted their pressing to a more man-oriented way. However, Leverkusen were able to exploit negligences in Mainz’s pressing. In some situations, Leverkusen then could take advantage of their numerical superiority in the centre.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Mainz vs Leverkusen - tactical analysis tactics
Leverkusen builds up with 3 at the back and the wings are finally occupied. In this situation, Tah plays the ball to the right-wing Bellarabi, who has no opponent yet. In the centre, Leverkusen are in numerical superiority.

However, this change didn’t really improve their offensive output. Their most dangerous situations arose when they were able to pass the ball out to a winger, who put in a cross.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Mainz vs Leverkusen - tactical analysis tactics
After progressing the Ball through the middle, the ball is played to the right side, where Bellarabi can put in a cross. Four attacking players are in the penalty area.

After the red card for Wendell in the 73rd minute, Peter Bosz brought on Dragovic, who took the position of the Brazilian in a 3-4-1-1. Amiri then occupied the left-wing. Despite the red card, Bosz wanted to win the game and subbed on Lucas Alario for Kerem Demirbay to play in a 4-4-1 during the last ten minutes.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Mainz vs Leverkusen - tactical analysis tactics
Leverkusen’s 4-4-1 from the 80th minute.

Mainz’s counter-attacks

Mainz was able to create several chances throughout the match. At times, Mainz tends to take a lot of low-quality shots from outside the box. However, in this match, they created enough high-quality chances to score, 4 of them which had an xG-value > 0,3.

The example below explains how Mainz were able to exploit Leverkusen’s defence with quick counter-attacks. Leverkusen tried to play through the middle and lost the ball a few meters before Mainz’s penalty area. Due to the narrowed pitch, the sides were wide open. The full-backs of Beierlorzer’s squad used this space and took over a significant part in their counter attacks.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Mainz vs Leverkusen - tactical analysis tactics
Mainz win the ball before their own penalty area and start the counter-attack with an airball to left-back Aaron, who has plenty of space on the left side. Quaison is marked with a star as he will be important as the sequence continues.
Bundesliga 2019/20: Mainz vs Leverkusen - tactical analysis tactics
Just a few seconds later, Quaison is on the other side of the pitch and makes a progressive run behind Leverkusen’s backline. Aaron plays the through ball.

In general, Mainz offensive wings didn’t position themselves wide but moved inside. This opened up space for the full-backs. The next situation is another evidence for Mainz’s vertical-oriented passing and Quaison’s progressive runs behind the defence. In addition, it further illustrates the space that Leverkusen left on the wings.

Bundesliga 2019/20: Mainz vs Leverkusen - tactical analysis tactics
After Mainz won the ball on the right side, they immediately try to progress the ball. Although Aaron has space on the left side, Fernandes decides to play the through ball behind Leverkusen’s backline. Quaison, once again, made a progressive run between centre back and full back.


As this tactical analysis has shown, Leverkusen struggled to break Mainz’s defence and create high-quality chances. In contrast, Mainz was able to use the spaces in Leverkusen’s defence and thus created dangerous situations. However, in the end, it was also due to Peter Bosz’s brave decision to bring on a striker for a midfielder despite the red card that Leverkusen won this match 1:0.

While this win helps Leverkusen to keep up with the Champions League ranks, Mainz continues to fight against relegation. Nevertheless, there’s no reason to be depressed as their performance was quite good and will be rewarded sooner or later.

Total Football Analysis Magazine #16: December 2019

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