The distinct pressing game is still there, Javier Hernandez’s goals keep flowing on a weekly basis and Bayer Leverkusen’s side is still packed with midfield talent.
But there is something pivotal missing from Roger Schmidt’s side this season – a lethal, finishing touch beyond the Mexican's inspired performances.
The German’s side are among the youngest and most inexperienced in the Bundesliga, with most of their starters aged 25 or under. At 27, Mexican striker Hernandez is a relative veteran.
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Yet it may be that dearth of experience is costing Leverkusen the chance to challenge for meaningful titles this season – they may even face a fight for a Champions League spot on recent form.
And their lack of potency is being ruthlessly exposed on both the domestic and European scene.
Hernandez's goals not enough as inexperience shows
Schmidt must be thankful for Hernandez’s signing shortly before the summer transfer deadline. While Manchester United are ruing the striker’s departure, the German outfit are benefiting with 14 goals in 17 appearances.
It says a lot, therefore, that Leverkusen are still struggling to win games with the Mexican’s prolific output and their recent draw with Barcelona saw the familiar problem flare up again.
Aside from Hernandez’s neat turn and finish, the other nine shots on target barely tested Marc-Andre ter Stegen, not to mention the chances screwed wide with others set in better positions as a 1-1 draw dumped Leverkusen into the Europa League knockout stages.
Hernandez’s frustrations finally blew into an on-pitch row with Karim Bellarabi when the German international shot straight at Ter Stegen, despite the striker being perfectly placed for a one-on-one opportunity.
Talented though they may be, the midfielders are not contributing enough to Leverkusen’s cause. Of their last ten goals, seven have come from Hernandez’s boot (one of those being an own goal) and the highest individual Bundesliga haul behind his seven is a host of players on two.
Hakan Calhanoglu and Admir Mehmedi have contributed goals in high-scoring Champions League matches against lesser opposition while Kevin Kampl is impressing without contributing directly to goals on a regular basis.
No Leverkusen players appear on the top assists in the league either, and one goal from 910 minutes of football is a poor return from substitute striker Steffan Kiessling.
Oft-changing, unstable defence not aiding the emerging Tah
If unlocking their attacking talent is a problem, an ever-changing defence is also detrimental to the Leverkusen cause.
Jonathan Tah, a 19-year-old German youth international signed from HSV during the summer, is marshalling their defence in his maiden Bundesliga season.
Tah has impressed as an ever-present but an unsettled back four has not been an ideal basis for the young defender to learn his trade.
Omer Toprak’s slow return to form after injury has not helped while a partnership with Kyriakos Papadopoulos was kamikaze at best on the European stage and indifferent on the domestic scene, before the Greek saw red in a disastrous defeat to near-neighbours Cologne.
A constant rotation of the full-backs has also contributed to Leverkusen’s inconsistent performances.
Their habit of dominating games, like they did for large parts of their encounters with Barcelona and Schalke, will not do in their quest for success.
They need more rounded performances from their attacking midfielders and Schmidt will need to address the issue if Leverkusen – and those individuals – are to reach their full potential.
If there are no changes, it might be time for the club to invest in experience come January.
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