Bayer Leverkusen vs Tottenham: Roger Schmidt praises Spurs' familiar system ahead of Champions League tie

Bayer Leverkusen's inspirational coach describes the similarities between his side and Spurs' high-tempo pressing games, in an exclusive interview

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The Independent Football

After masterminding Bayer Leverkusen’s 2-0 defeat of Borussia Dortmund on 1 October, Roger Schmidt flew to London, to see the same story again. The following day Tottenham Hotspur beat Manchester City by the same scoreline, another victory for pressing against pressing, fire against fire.

Schmidt was there to scout Tottenham because Bayer Leverkusen host Spurs in the Champions League on Tuesday] night. He liked what he saw, a team based on similar principles, a similar commitment to winning the ball back as early as possible, with all the running that entails.

When two pressing teams meet fireworks often follow. That is how Leverkusen and Spurs won their big matches two weekends ago, and why Tuesday’s game at the BayArena will be the best of this round of Champions League games. Schmidt, speaking to The Independent before the game, promises a spectacular meeting of two types of pressing. “For the fans, there are a lot of situations where one team wins the ball and tries to switch onto the offensive,” he says. “That is what the spectators want to see.”

It was Spurs’ ferocious pressing that most impressed Schmidt when he was at White Hart Lane two weeks ago. Spurs never let City get into a rhythm, stopping them from developing the build-up that is so important to a Pep Guardiola team. That is the type of football that Schmidt’s Leverkusen play.

“I saw a very good football match, and a very good Tottenham team,” Schmidt says. “They dominated the match because when City tried to develop the match from the defensive to the offensive, Tottenham played very well against the ball. They won the ball very early and City made a lot of mistakes. Playing against the ball they had control of the match.”

That, in short, is how Bayer Leverkusen like to play. Schmidt took over in summer 2014, after a brilliant two-year spell at Red Bull Salzburg, and has set about imposing his own aggressive high-tempo philosophy ever since. Schmidt has taken Leverkusen to finishes of fourth and third in Bundesliga, establishing them as Champions League regulars with their characteristic style of play, and winning admirers for his work throughout English football.

“My philosophy of football is the style that we play at Leverkusen,” Schmidt explains. “We play intense football. One of our main points is a good organisation against the ball. We try to win the ball very early, very close to the goal of the opposition. We try to be very fast to the ball, and switch to the offensive. It is a little bit similar to Tottenham.”

This means that Leverkusen have to be ferociously fit, but they are, thanks to Schmidt’s hard work, pressing drills and eight-second games in training. He has worked this squad now to the point where they can implement his plans, with their high line and constant organised pressure on opponents.

“In this style, with a lot of pressing, that means that you make a lot sprints,” Schmidt says. “That is why the players need to be in good physical condition, as they need the ability to make a lot of short sprints in the match. Because if you want to press, you want to win the ball, you have to do it at high speed. It is easier to win the ball if you are fast.” 

If you can win early balls, you can dominate the match. All the good teams in possession, Barcelona or Bayern Munich, have good pressing. You need it to be successful.

Roger Schmidt

The similar physical demands of Schmidt and Pochettino explains why Heung-Min Son has been successful since leaving Leverkusen for Tottenham last summer. While Son spent his first season adjusting to England, this year he has been excellent, with four goals already. Pochettino has even decided that Son is a more incisive option at number nine than Vincent Janssen, starting him in the 2-0 defeat of Manchester City that Schmidt attended.

“I think that Heung-Min is a fantastic player for this style of football, for pressing,” Schmidt says. “Because he has a big heart, and all the things you need for pressing: intelligence, ability to read the match and read situations. He has good anticipation for passes of the opposing team, and he can win the pass. He has very good physical condition. After winning the ball he can transition to the offensive, then he can use his speed to score.” 

It is no surprise, then, that the South Korean has started to fit so well which what Pochettino demands. “He was fantastic for Leverkusen and I was sure he would be a very good player for Tottenham,” Schmidt says. “I am very happy that he is having a good season.”

Schmidt and Pochettino, though, have taken very different routes to their own forms of pressing. Pochettino learned from Marcelo Bielsa, first at Newell’s Old Boys then at Espanyol, in developing his philosophy of the game. Schmidt is influenced more by Ralf Rangnick, father of a more German school of pressing. It was when Schmidt worked with Rangnick at Salzburg, after leaving Paderborn, that his promising career really took off.

“Every job of mine as a trainer developed me,” Schmidt says. “I improved in every job, especially at Salzburg, where we tried to make a new football style. Ralf was sporting director there, with a long history as a coach. His style of football, as a coach, was also a lot of pressing. We developed very well at Salzburg, and in two years we played with very good aggressive pressing. It was a very important time for me.”

That Salzburg team was remarkable, winning the Austrian double in 2014, setting a new points record along the way. It is no surprise that Sadio Mane, who played for Schmidt at Salzburg and loved it, has flourished at Liverpool under Jurgen Klopp. Schmidt has Klopp as the first German coach to play that aggressive pressing in the Bundesliga. That Austrian spell helped to form a clear sense for Schmidt about the future of football, with fast players and constant pressure on the opponent. Leverkusen and Spurs are two of the great exponents of it, all the more so for not having top money to spend on players. But it is the fact that even the big teams with the big budgets play this way that shows its true value.

“You need everything, good development of play when you have possession,” Schmidt says. “But in modern football it’s also necessary to have good pressing, pressing after losing the ball is very important. If you can win early balls, you can dominate the match. All the good teams in possession, Barcelona or Bayern Munich, have good pressing. You need it to be successful.”

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