There will be a familiar rival in an unfamiliar role at Old Trafford tomorrow night. Sami Hyypia, who visited 10 times as a Liverpool player, is back, this time as head coach of Bayer Leverkusen.
Since leaving Liverpool for Leverkusen four years ago, Hyypia has been a great success, first on and then off the pitch. He is just as popular in the city on the banks of the Rhine as he was on Merseyside. So popular, in fact, that when he was offered a permanent return to English football just a year into his time in Germany – as a player-coach under Roy Hodgson at Anfield in 2010 – Leverkusen stopped him.
“I told him ,‘No, Sami, you cannot get a green light. We need you as a player next season, and be sure, you can be the coach of Bayer Leverkusen in the future’,” the Leverkusen general manager, Michael Reschke, recalled.
Reschke was right. After another season playing, Hyypia became a coach, before taking over as joint manager last year, guiding Leverkusen to a third-place finish in the Bundesliga and assuming full control this season. It is all working out very well indeed and, while Hyypia may dream of returning to manage at Anfield one day, he is settled at the BayArena for now.
It should be no surprise. That calm authority and perceptive intelligence that served Hyypia so well as a player have transferred perfectly. Leverkusen sensed this as soon as he joined.
“From the first moment he opened the door to the dressing room, we knew he was a very special person,” Reschke said. “A great character, with great behaviour, a total professional in an unbelievable way. From that first moment he was respected by everyone.”
So after his two seasons playing, Hyypia joined the coaching staff. And when the 2011-12 season faltered, with four straight league losses and a drop to sixth in the table, manager Robin Dutt, who never adequately followed Jupp Heynckes, was removed. The club were hoping to win their disgruntled fans back over, so he was replaced by the much admired Hyypia, working jointly with the youth coach Sascha Lewandowski.
It was a strange working dynamic. Hyypia was not fully qualified to coach, so he was “teamchef”, the figurehead and dressing-room motivator. Lewandowski was “cheftrainer”, in charge of training and tactics, the Malcolm Allison to Hyypia’s Joe Mercer. But the arrangement worked. Leverkusen finished 2011-12 sufficiently well that Hyypia and Lewandowski kept their job-share through 2012-13. Hyypia had to learn on the job, while studying for more coaching qualifications, and even said he was “still figuring out if I am a good manager”.
He must have learnt quickly. With Lewandowski, he developed a counter-attacking style that was perfect for their solid squad and their big underappreciated centre-forward Stefan Kiessling, the Bundesliga top scorer last season with 25 goals, one ahead of Borussia Dortmund’s Robert Lewandowski.
Leverkusen were the only team to beat Bayern Munich in the league last year, and the first to take points from them, with a brilliant 2-1 win in the Allianz Arena in October. They spent much of the winter in second place, before Dortmund finally clambered back over them in the spring.
The players were certainly admirers of Hyypia. “His coaching is a mix of his natural authority and knowing how the players think and how to deal with them,” Stefan Klüttermann of Rheinische Post explained. “He is a coach everyone respects. The captain, Simon Rolfes, is always talking very positively about Hyypia, even though he doesn’t play at the moment in the first team.”
This summer, Hyypia took sole control, with Lewandowski moving back to work with the academy. He has some talented young coaches around him, to whom he delegates, Jan-Moritz Lichte and Daniel Niedzkowski (33 and 36 respectively), so he still maintains personal relationships with his players. He is always calm and fair, very rarely losing his temper. German football writer Benny Berger called it “a success story in silence”.
Leverkusen signed Hamburg’s South Korean winger Son Heung-min and Seville’s Bosnian defender Emir Spahic in the summer, and both started well as Bayer beat Freiburg, Stuttgart and Borussia Mönchengladbach. They lost to Schalke before the international break but returned to winning ways with a 3-1 win over Wolfsburg at home on Saturday, Kiessling scoring twice.
It is not a big squad, though, and there will be a new challenge this season as they endeavour to balance a very difficult Champions League group with keeping hold of third place in the league. Aside from Manchester United, they have Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Sociedad to face. It will require all of their manager’s nous, patience and careful judgement. Fortunately for Leverkusen, these are qualities he has in abundance.