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Roma vs Bayer Leverkusen: Another Tactical Masterclass from Xabi Alonso

Bayer Leverkusen holds the title of the invincibles. They are just unbeatable at the moment. At the Olimpico stadium, they showed again that they are no slouch of a team when they faced Roma with their new coach, Daniele De Rossi, in the Europa League semi-final. The Italian manager has brought new blood to the squad, making them one of Serie A’s most in-form teams.

Last season, Roma eliminated Alonso’s men on the same stage, so Bayer Leverkusen are looking for retribution this time. In fact, both teams have improved their way of playing since then; however, the focus on lifting the trophy has remained the same.

Daniele De Rossi switched three players who started the clash against Napoli. Rick Karsdorp replaced Rasmus Kristensen in the right-back position. Leandro Paredes came in for Edoardo Bove, and Sardar Azmoun made way for Romelu Lukaku.

Xabi Alonso’s selection was different from the one that faced VfB Stuttgart in the Bundesliga. Matěj Kovář got back to his position as a goalkeeper, and Piero Hincapié and Granit Xhaka returned to the starting XI instead of Kossounou and Exequiel Palacios. Josip Stanišić operated as a right wing-back, while Jeremy Frimpong and Florian Wirtz stepped up to the attacking midfield and central forward spots, respectively.

Bayer Leverkusen In Possession:

Progression Through, Around, and Over the Press:

Through Roma’s block:

Bayer Leverkusen started building their attacks up with 4+1 as Jonathan Tah dropped next to the goalkeeper, and Tapsoba and Hincapié ahead of them held the width and a single pivot between them. The hosts pressed high with four players. Romelo Lukako led the process, closing down the passing angles to the visitors’ goalkeeper Matěj Kovář, whereas, the other three man-marked Leverkusen pivot Xhaka and the wide centre-backs.


To deal with the Wolves of Italy’s high press, Xabi Alonso ordered Stanišić and Andrich to drop deep to support the team in the construction phase. The German professional was tasked with forming double pivots with Xhaka to neutralise the De Rossi man-marking approach. Xabi Alonso’s cleverness had been clear when he made Alex Grimaldo invert to receive in the central corridor, where a gap between Roma’s lines existed.


Grimaldo shifting across and Wirtz playing as a false nine gave the visitors the edge to go through Roma’s press. Bayer Leverkusen had been able to bypass the Wolves’ block, relying on Tapsoba’s breaking lines to pass to Wirtz, who comes deep and drags Chris Smalling out of position. As a result, Alonso’s boys found themselves in a numerical match against the hosts’ backline, where they could utilize their capabilities or play in combinations to score the opener.

Roma in the second half changed their pressing shape to 4-1-4-1 to match Bayer Leverkusen’s 3+2 shape in the construction phase. However, the hosts’ divergent lines eased the visitors’ central progression. In addition, Florian Wirtz, playing as a false nine and coming deep, provided him with time and distance. Therefore, Leverkusen could construct and make their way up through him, then find runners in the inside channels (below).

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Bayer Leverkusen didn’t have any problem playing the ball backward to the goalkeeper and started the process again when they found themselves pressed by Roma’s players. The calmness on the ball, the patience, and the confidence in the effectiveness of the plan awarded them the second ball. Here, Stanišić noticed Roma had the upper hand, therefore, he opted to go backward. They re-started the process by building up with a three on the back and two midfielders working in close proximity.

The five players kept circulating the ball around and enticing the press until the appearance of a gap to progress. The inversion of Stanišić and Roma’s front three players man-marking Bayer Leverkusen’s backline generated a numerical superiority in the midfield, where Paredes gets outnumbered. The German league champions’ obsession with the central progression resides in Wirtz moving wide to pull Pellegrini out to open the space for Xhaka to play the progressive pass straight to Grimaldo, who was inverting inside.

Over Roma’s Block:

Xabi Alonso’s tactical tweaks never end. Bayer Leverkusen showed versatility in the build-up phase, relying on a 3+2 shape with Andrich and Xhaka operating at different heights of the pitch, with Grimaldo ahead in the central channel behind Roma’s second pressing line. Amine Adli and Jeremy Frimpong hugged the touchlines to pin the opposing fullbacks. Bayer Leverkusen aimed to target the space created behind Roma’s backline by pulling Smalling out and making Stanišić run in the vacated space to take advantage of Grimaldo’s central position, and Wirtz was drawing Mancini’s attention with his movement as a false nine.


Another way of playing over Roma’s block is when the ex-Manchester United goalkeeper Kovář had been targeting the front players between the lines with accurate long balls. They were well-rounded at receiving the ball and combining, relying on quick rotations and positional interchanges.

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Around The Press:

After 10 minutes, De Rossi set his team up in a 4-4-2 mid-block. In response, former Arsenal player Granit Xhaka dropped next to the back three of Bayer Leverkusen; Hincapié stepped up to hold the width, and Amine Adli tucked inside. They aimed to find Grimaldo in the inside channel to exploit the space between Mancini and Smalling or to free the area between Smalling and Spinazzola. For instance, here Roma’s right-back Karsdorp going with Hincapié to cut off the passing lane to Adli. The latter makes a decoy run to pull Mancini out and open the space for Grimaldo. However, Paredes retains the ball before it arrives.

Bayer Leverkusen were always looking for ways to vacate or stretch the space between the opposing fullbacks and centrebacks (using multiple patterns) to enable the runners to exploit the inside channels. Here, Roma are pressing five players up front. The inversion of Stanišić and Grimaldo, Wirtz in a deeper position, Adli, and Frimpong in wide channels gave Leverkusen a numerical match against Roma in the back. Tapsoba is one of the best defenders to play progressive passes to break down the opposition lines.

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Using this quality and Frimpong speed, Tapsoba made the Dutch wingback run in the right inside channel, burst past Spinazzola, and looked for the cut-back to Wirtz, who didn’t deal with the ball correctly to put it in the net.

Bayer Leverkusen showed tactical maturity in their way of playing. Position interchanges were calculated as every player knew what to do and how to react in case of a position switch. For example, here Florian Wirtz plays as a natural attacking midfielder. Amine Adli makes a run between Karsdorp and Mancini (Grimaldo’s position at the beginning of the game), whereas Alex Grimaldo gets back to his natural role, playing on the overlap and looking for the cut-back to Frimpong, who’s free in the box without any marking. The Dutch right wing-back showed a unique diversity in fulfilling numerous positions, but the last finish was lacking on many occasions.

The second example of Leverkusen position switches is when Tapsoba passed the ball to Frimpong, who dropped deep, looking to tuck inside with the ball. At the same time, Josip Stanišić made way for Xhaka to take his position, bringing with him El Shaarawy to the wide channel. Grimaldo shifted across switching places with Wirtz and Adli took the latter role as a false nine.

When the goalkeeper was involved in the build-up, it was likely Jonathan Tah, who dropped deep alongside him, while Hincapié and Tapsoba split wide in the fullbacks’ spots, ahead of Xhaka and Andrich as double pivots. Bayer Leverkusen utilized his backline ability to take the ball and carry it over long distances to break Roma’s pressing lines.

Bayer Leverkusen Out Of Possession:

When defending in their half, Alonso set his team in an interesting 6-3-1 shape to face Roma 3-4-3 in possession. De Rossi placed El Shaarawy and Dybala in the half spaces to take advantage of their movements (they dropped deep to drag Stanišić and Hincapié out of their positions and free spaces for runners).

For instance, Mancini plays a diagonal long pass to El Shaarawy, who’s running behind Stanisic. Roma number 92 controls it then cuts it back to Lukaku. But, the visitors were lucky as Xhaka tracked back for the rescue.

Nevertheless, Bayer Leverkusen proved to not fall twice for the same trap. Their backline players showed proactivity in reading the game. Here, Hincapié jumped over Cristante before the latter made a move. In the middle of the process, he noticed Paredes’s intention to play the ball. The Ecuadorian professional quickly adjusted his body to prevent the pass, which enabled his team to instantly transition.

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Adding to that, Bayer Leverkusen tried to prevent the hosts from central progression. Here, Roma build their attacks with three players, in which the centre-backs split wide to allow the goalkeeper to participate in the process. In front of them, Paredes and Cristante form double pivots, working close to each other, whereas, Spinazzola steps up in the wide channel and Pellegrini comes deep to help the team in the construction phase.

To neutralise that, Florian Wirtz and Amine Adli take charge of the Wolves centre-backs. At the same time, Bayer Leverkusen double pivots, Stanisic jumps over Roma’s three midfielders, and Frimpong man-marks the opposing left-back. Alonso’s pressing approach forced Roma to switch the play and go long.


Roma attempted to target Romelu Lukaku with long balls, taking advantage of his ability to win aerial duels and the first ball, then laid it off, exploiting the lack of sufficient players from the Leverkusen side who were involved in the press high up the pitch.

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The Bundesliga winners pressed with three players up front to force Roma to go wide. When the ball went to one of the pitch sides, Bayer Leverkusen’s double pivots joined the press to close down all the passing alternatives in order to steal the ball and turn over or to drive Roma players to go for long balls and regain the ball back by winning first and second balls.

Bayer Leverkusen defended their territories with a 5-4-1 mid-block in the second half to face Roma 3-1-6 in possession. In the case of Roma bypassing the visitors’ first and second lines centrally, Bayer’s defenders were proactive enough to track the player who was supposed to receive between their lines, jump over, and force him to play a wrong pass to retain possession.

AS Roma looked controlled by the visitors as they struggled against Bayer Leverkusen’s high and mid-blocks. The Italian Wolves need to establish harmony and coordination with each other to achieve something in the second leg. On the other side, Xabi Alonso displayed a great tactical show again, enabling his team to have the upper hand to qualify for the Europa League final and keep their records unbeaten for 47 matches while waiting for the return at the BayArena. Daniele De Rossi’s men must work hard to progress and play the way their Italian coach wants them to in big stages.

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