Bayer Leverkusen were expected to be chasing a European place. But instead of putting the pressure on the likes of Bayern and Dortmund near the top of the table, they're sliding towards relegation
Three matchdays before the end of the season, Bayer Leverkusen are staggering towards relegation.
The Werkself has won only once in their last ten games, putting them just three points above 16th place - the relegation playoff spot - going into their match against Ingolstadt.
However, a superior goal difference and the conviction that at least one of the teams trying to avoid relegation will remain below Leverkusen is fostering hope of survival. But the question remains: how can this club drift so to the abyss?
A missing mentality
Leverkusen is in a bubble. The wages are good and the pressure to succeed is much smaller than in Munich or Dortmund. Everything is fine as long as they take part in European competition. It makes for a very good life for average and slightly above average players.
The number of players in Leverkusen's squad that can handle pressure is pretty small. The attitude of believing until the end that you can decide the outcome of a game - for which Bayern Munich is famous - is not widespread Leverkusen lacks players with winning mentalities and that has become clearer in the current unsuccessful stretch.
"We have not showed that we can withstand pressure so far," said Leverkusen forward Stefan Kiessling after the 1-4 loss against Schalke.
Lars Bender embodies the type of player that Leverkusen urgently needs. But the captain has barely taken the field due to various knocks. The defensive midfielder's season has been over since the beginning of March because of an ankle injury.
Kiessling, another leadership presence, also could rarely help due to hip problems. The former top goal scorer has only been in the squad in 17 of the 31 league games and has only been on the field for 491 of a possible 1530 minutes. Karim Bellarabi (16 appearances) and Jonathan Tah (17) also missed almost half the season with various muscular injures.
On top of the injuries was the four-month suspension for Hakan Calhanolgu, who has only been allowed to watch after the CAS verdict at the beginning of February. Despite all of his mistakes, the Turkish attacker possesses the winning mentality that Leverkusen currently lacks.
The wrong man in charge
The record proves the change from Roger Schmidt to Tayfun Korkut has not brought anything positive. Leverkusen had a 1.3 points per game average in 23 games under Schmidt, and Korkut has brought that average down to 0.75 in eight games. There is no recognizable concept under the new coach and, although the defensive stability has improved, there is still a lack of ideas going forward.
Leverkusen's game is formulaic and predictable - the opponent has it easy when preventing goal scoring opportunities. The whole league knows for example that Kevin Kampl will never shoot with his left and would rather dribble than pass, or that Julian Brandt likes to dribble on the edge of the penalty area instead of to go towards goal. It still doesn't change anything. You have to ask
It is hard to understand Korkut's approach. Brandt has not been producing good performances or body language, but remains in the team. Meanwhile, Admir Mehmedi and recently acquired midfield talent Leon Bailey sit on the bench. Chicharito, who leads the team with ten goals, was not used at all against Schalke. That also goes for Bellarabi in the loss to Freiburg. Fullback Benjamin Henrichs has recently been used only as a substitute under Korkut despite the weak performances from Wendell.
Weak club leadership
Even in tough times, there has to be strong person that has the courage to make tough decisions. Sporting director Rudi Völler is doing that only half-heartedly.
As the fans blocked the player parking lot and demanded answers after the game, Völler was no where to be seen. "Close your eyes and cross your fingers" appears to be the motto. Not until after the season, according to Völler, will there be "a hard-hitting analysis, then we will roll up our sleeves and move on." But by then, it may already be too late.
Völler should have adjusted differently earlier in the season. He needed to sense the team's collapse under Schmidt, to have taken the squad's dissatisfaction with athletic trainer Oliver Bartlett more seriously and to have acted in both cases at an earlier time.
In January, the often stubborn Schmidt was given Jörn Wolf as a coach-coordinator. He became a sort of buffer between the coach and his operating team so Schmidt would not be smashing more porcelain with his brash style. Other clubs had already changed their coaches by this point. That Völler did not do this and held on to Schmidt so long is now at his feet.
What will happen?
In the end - whether relegated or not - Leverkusen need a new start. After all, the club already constructed the most expensive squad in their history and turned down many lucrative offers for key players last summer.
The team will surely be broken up. Chicharito, who has the desire to play in the Champions League, will definitely transfer. Ömer Toprak has already signed with Dortmund. The completely overstrained Brandt will be wooed by Bayern, the flawless goalkeeper Bernd Leno by Real Madrid. There is also interest for Kampl, Bellarabi and Tah from some clubs that can not only entice them with money but also with a ticket into European competition.
Leverkusen still needs the right coach along with some new players. And a strong person next to Völler, who makes the big decisions in the decisive moments, would be a welcome addition.