Called a "results machine" by Jürgen Klopp in the autumn, Bayer 04 Leverkusen are back to their ruthless best, as UEFA.com's Steffen Potter explains.
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Sunday's 3-0 Bundesliga victory at SC Paderborn may not have been the performance of the season for Bayer 04 Leverkusen, but with their UEFA Champions League round of 16 decider against Club Atlético de Madrid to come, the Werkself are rediscovering their ruthless streak.
Up against a similarly aggressive Paderborn team, Roger Schmidt's men were held in check until 17 minutes from time when Kyriakos Papadopoulos headed the opener. Son Heung-Min then killed the game with two goals on the break. "We showed our class in the closing stages and exploited the space after taking the lead," Schmidt concluded. A suitably cold-blooded assessment of a side described as a "results machine" in the autumn by Borussia Dortmund boss Jürgen Klopp.
Schmidt took over at Leverkusen last summer, eager to introduce the 4-4-2 system with extreme pressing that earned him attention at FC Salzburg. His Salzburg team had notably beaten then-reigning European champions FC Bayern München 3-0 in a January 2014 friendly, prompting Josep Guardiola to note that he had never come up against a side that pressed the opposition quite so hard. The Bundesliga was soon to feel the force of Schmidt's Leverkusen.
The Werkself won 2-0 at Dortmund in their 2014/15 curtain-raiser and featured in some thrilling matches in the autumn: a 4-2 success over Hertha BSC Berlin, a 3-3 draw with SV Werder Bremen, a 4-1 defeat at VfL Wolfsburg, a 3-3 thriller at VfB Stuttgart and a 5-1 derby thrashing of 1. FC Köln. Devastating on the break, thanks to pacy wingers Son and Karim Bellarabi, Bayer's high defensive line also made them vulnerable on the counterattack – something opponents seemed to cotton onto as the campaign progressed, with goals noticeably drying up.
Back-to-back losses to Bremen (2-1) and Wolfsburg (5-4) in February meant Schmidt's team sank to sixth in the table, yet the coach has been learning from his mistakes. The 47-year-old's charges have eased up on their pressing while allowing a little less space out on the wings. If he has not abandoned his principles, Schmidt has nonetheless made sensible modifications. And the results have been – in their own way – dramatic: Leverkusen have won their last four competitive fixtures, scoring seven and conceding none.
That victorious streak began with the 1-0 UEFA Champions League home triumph against Atlético on 25 February. From the off, Leverkusen harassed the Spaniards – themselves known for an outstanding pressing game – and maintained a high but disciplined defensive line. Visiting coach Diego Simeone concluded that it was "a strange game" which could have ended with a "worse result". If the "results machine" has been successfully overhauled, it may be that Atlético have an even worse night to come.