In match week five of the UEFA Europa League, OGC Nice hosted Bundesliga side Bayer Leverkusen and lost 2-3. The result of this game meant that Leverkusen qualified for the next round of the competition with 12 points, and Nice were eliminated after only achieving a pitiful three points in a group we would have expected them to at least place second.
After this loss, the Nice board decided to part ways with Arsenal legend Patrick Vieira after five consecutive losses across all competitions, and for failing to achieve a favourable league position after 11 matches. Nice are currently placed 11th in the Ligue 1 and are not showing many signs of improvement after several COVID-19 scares, as well as poor overall performances. After the analysis, we will see where Nice can improve and where they went wrong against Leverkusen.
Bayer Leverkusen are currently third in the Bundesliga and playing some exciting football. In this tactical analysis, we will take a look at the attacking tactics deployed by the Germans, their energetic press and off the ball movements that make them so fun to watch.
Nice deployed a 5-4-1 formation that rarely changed shape during the match. Walter Benitez starts in goal, with Robson Bambu, Flavius Daniliuc and Stanley N’Soki as the central defenders. Hassane Kamara and Jordon Lotomba were deployed as wing-backs but were rarely encouraged to participate in the attack. We will see that when they did get up the pitch, they were rarely used effectively, if at all.
Danilo and Jeff Jason Reine-Adélaïde play in midfield, however neither one of them would drop deeper to help Nice when they attempted to build an attack out of defence. Myziane Maolida started on the left but was taken off early due to injury for Dan Ndoye. Opposite to him was Alexis Claude-Maurice and playing as a lone forward was Amine Gouiri.
Bayer Leverkusen deployed a relatively strong starting lineup, with Leon Bailey the only notable absentee. Lukas Hradecky started in goal with Jonathan Tah and goal scorer Aleksandar Dragović in central defence. Wendell and Lars Bender were the full-backs, with Wendell encouraged to go forward more than Bender, as Bender would often drop back into defence so his side could create a sort of 3-3-4 in attack. Julian Baumgartlinger started in midfield as the side’s main deep-lying playmaker.
He was always dropping deeper to receive the ball from his defenders and looking to spray passes across the field to start an attack. Kareem Demirbay and Nadiem Amiri often made late runs into the opposition final third. This tactic was used frequently as wingers Moussa Diaby and Karim Bellarabi stayed high and wide, pulling the OGC Nice defence apart, creating space for forward Patrick Schick to run into. Schick was also capable of holding the ball for his midfield teammates running in behind him, as we will see in this analysis.
Comparing the defences
Goals win games, but defences win titles. While this was a high scoring game, we can still analyse what made one defence better than the other. First, we will analyse the OGC Nice defence. On the ball is left full-back Wendell for Leverkusen. Nice look to press when their opponents are in wide areas, and through the wide player closest to the ball. In this example it is Claude-Maurice.
The issue here is that one player cannot press alone. There is no other Nice player moving to Leverkusen who may be a passing option and Wendell has time and space to find a teammate.
Leverkusen were rarely seen in a defensive shape like we see below. When they lost the ball, they immediately pressed as a team in order to win it back as soon as possible. However, when Nice were able to beat the press, Leverkusen would fall into a 4-1-4-1 or 4-5-1, with emphasis on Baumgartlinger marking Claude-Maurice, one of Nice’s most creative players. This proved to be effective, as Claude-Maurice had the least touches (44) of any outfield player to play 90 minutes.
Bayer Leverkusen are tireless
Leverkusen are no strangers to the press as it is a huge part of their playing style. Here we will analyse some examples of what made their press so effective. To begin, they aren’t afraid to commit numbers forward. Below we see six Leverkusen players in the Nice half and forcing Reine-Adélaïde to go backwards.
Another pressing tactic deployed by Leverkusen was used when they man-marked certain players who were most likely to be key passing options for Nice. Below, we see Demirbay marking Reine-Adélaïde, Baumgartlinger marking Danilo, and Bellerabi pressing N’Soki, who dropped deeper to receive the ball.
Below we see Nice goalkeeper Benitez receiving a pass. Before he has time to receive it, Schick is already changing direction to press him. Demirbay enters into the space between Danilo and Daniliuc, meaning that Benitez shouldn’t pass to them, or else they’ll be pressed immediately.
Alternatively, the goalkeeper might be able to pass into the middle third of the pitch, but we can see that there are three Leverkusen players occupying space there. The safest option for Benitez is to kick the ball as hard and far as possible. When this happens, the Leverkusen press proves to be successful in dispossessing their opponents.
OGC Nice struggle to build out from the back
We will now analyse Nice’s struggles when they attempted to start an attack from defence. Firstly, we see Daniliuc on the ball with no immediate passing option. Danilo eyes the space to move into instead of being in the space, to begin with. Daniliuc is being pressed by Schick, who is also moving to the same space Danilo is looking at.
Nice demonstrated several times that they could not drop a midfield player deeper into their half fast enough to ensure safety when starting an attack.
Another example below involves Bambu on the ball. With no ideal passing options forward, he must go backwards or sideways, or else he risks losing possession. Daniliuc is the most logical option, but where does the ball go after him? Nice rarely asked these kinds of questions when recycling possession.
If Daniliuc is expected to receive the pass, then he should have more than just his goalkeeper and left centre-back as options. Enter Danilo. If Danilo drops deeper, Daniliuc will have an additional passing option. Nice struggled to start attacks because they struggled to move the ball forward.
As the game went on, Leverkusen pressed as we have seen them do throughout the match. Nice didn’t make any meaningful tactical changes to help them keep possession. Below we see that Benitez is on the ball, and can only pass to his defender as Bayer Leverkusen are either man-marking or eyeing up the Nice players.
Nice also failed to use the space in between the Leverkusen pressing lines as a method of building possession. At times, it seemed like they forced themselves to make long passes, instead of dropping deeper.
On the attack
Time to take a look at the attacking tactics from both sides. Below we see Bayer Leverkusen in possession. Tah is on the ball, Baumgartlinger stays between the Nice forward and midfield lines. If there is no immediate pass, Leverkusen know they can rotate possession amongst the defenders and Baumgartlinger. Demirbay and Amiri stay in between the Nice midfield and defensive lines, waiting for their time to make either a run in behind defence or to help maintain possession in the centre.
Bellarabi and Wendell provide width, and Schick stays with the Nice defensive line, waiting to run in behind if needed. Leverkusen had attacking options in all thirds of the pitch, proving to be flexible and creative when going forward.
Below we see the run from Amiri. Leverkusen adopted a 2-4-4 sort of shape in attack and this encouraged their creative midfielders to sprint forward towards the unsuspecting Nice defensive line, giving them not just striker Schick to worry about, but late runners in midfield too.
Dragović can launch the ball forward here because he sees that Amiri can exploit Nice’s high defensive line as they were focused on the movement of Schick.
Nice rarely threatened going forward, as both of their goals came from set-pieces. Below we see forward Gouiri receiving the ball. This is one of the rare moments for Nice where wing-backs Lotomba and Kamara moved forward and engaged with the attack.
They provide width so that Reine-Adélaïde and Claude-Maurice could remain central. However, these moments were often wasted with a long shot attempt or a misplaced pass. Nice did not showcase the best attacking tactics.
What was a great game for neutrals also proved to be an exciting tactical showcase from Bayer Leverkusen. Exciting midfield players making late runs, wide pacey wingers and creative deep-lying playmakers like Baumgartlinger have proven that this Leverkusen side may have what it takes to win the Europa League if they continue to get their tactics right.
As for Nice, this match will join the growing catalogue of matches this year that they would like to forget about. With just performances in Ligue 1 to worry about, Nice will be hoping that they can turn some results their way and push up the league table if they have any chance of qualifying for next season’s UEFA Europa League or UEFA Champions League.