Chicharito, Leverkusen need to dig deep in second half of season

Of all the teams competing for one of the top four Bundesliga positions to gain entry to the UEFA Champions League, Bayer Leverkusen has perhaps disappointed the most. Last season’s fourth-place finishers, Leverkusen is fifth in the table at the halfway point, yet performances have been less than convincing.

Leverkusen’s season has threatened to spark into life in fits-and-spurts, with Javier Hernandez’s goals powering Roger Schmidt’s side to victories. Late in the year, Chicharito’s hat-trick versus Borussia Mönchengladbach was a notable highlight, but across the campaign there have been signs of a shakiness in their ranks.

During one turbulent spell in Fall, Leverkusen managed to win three of 14 competitive matches – one of those wins was at amateur side Viktoria Köln in the German Cup. Had neither Wolfsburg or Borussia Mönchengladbach encountered such rocky starts to the season due to important changes, Leverkusen’s outlook could be different.

Head coach Roger Schmidt is widely-acknowledged to be one of the league’s brightest minds, his high-pressing, fluid approach is held up as one of the main benchmarks in European football by the German FA (DFB) and further afield. But the efficacy of Leverkusen’s pressing has declined this season and when the team is out of sync, the opposition has ample opportunity on the counterattack.

One of the club’s major summer additions, Charles Aranguiz, hasn’t kicked a ball in Germany following an Achilles injury. Meanwhile, midfield pair Lars Bender and Christoph Kramer have missed several games with injuries. Such has been the injury crisis for Schmidt, that Leverkusen appear to play without defensive midfielders at times.

Perhaps the team’s best performer of the year is Kevin Kampl who returned to his former stomping ground after a stint at Borussia Dortmund. The confident Slovenian attacker has shown flashes of quality, orchestrating the team’s play through midfield and even supporting the attack on his own. However, without the form of Hernandez, Leverkusen’s credentials would be scuppered.

Signed from Manchester United towards the end of the transfer window, Hernandez has bagged 19  goals in 22 competitive matches, while scoring 10 in his last eight Bundesliga encounters. As Tottenham completed a deal to sign Son Heung-Min, Leverkusen’s transfer team was already wrapping up the 12-million-euro transfer of Hernandez. "With him, you don’t need scouts," Schmidt said on the club website. 

Goals are obviously a valuable commodity for any top-level team, but the lack of support for Hernandez must be a palpable concern. Leverkusen’s next highest scorer is Stefan Kiessling with three before a cluster of other attackers have scored two time this term. For a side competing on three fronts – Bundesliga, German Cup and Europa League – the responsibility cannot just fall on Hernandez.

"It doesn’t matter if I score 34 goals if we don’t get into the UEFA Champions League spots," said Hernandez. "A lot of people are talking about [my goalscoring record], but if you look at my statistics in Manchester, Madrid and at Chivas — in comparison to the games I started – they’re quite similar."

But the Mexican credits his scoring run to confidence and rhythm given his prominent role in Leverkusen’s team. "What I was missing in the last two or three years, it was like I was playing sometimes and then returning to the bench. Now that I am playing most of the game or almost all of my games here in my club, that’s what I need," he told the Orlando Sentinel. 

Leverkusen spent their winter camp in Florida, where they beat Santa Fe 1-0 and drew 3-3 with Internacional. Schmidt’s side went down 2-1 at home on Tuesday to second-tier Bochum ahead of the club’s return to league action at Hoffenheim this weekend.

"The result is of secondary importance, because we have tried a few things," Schmidt told reporters. "You can tell the guys worked hard in the training camp in the US, but until the Hoffenheim game, there are still a few days to go."

The five-goal destruction of Gladbach has changed the landscape for Leverkusen. It ended Gladbach’s impressive run under Andre Schubert, which has seen them return to the top-four places, while Leverkusen’s goal difference is no longer relegation-standard, caused by a blend of poor finishing and weak defending at set-pieces.

There’s clearly a mental question about this team in high-pressure situations, both in the league and in Europe. The Champions League exit was tepid, but the question of doubt around beating mid-table opposition will surely hamper top-four aspirations. To achieve what they did last season, Leverkusen will need to dig deep for some kind of mental strength for the rest of the season.