It’s Friday the 4th of April. Leverkusen have travelled to relegation threatened Hamburg, with both teams needing an absolutely essential three points to keep themselves alive in the fight for either Bundesliga survival or the Champions League fourth spot. Manager Sami Hyypiä has gifted a first Bundesliga start to seventeen year old winger Julian Brandt. It was a good choice – Brandt scoring his first ever first team goal for the club, with a large hand from a calamitous example of goalkeeping by Hamburg’s René Adler – but that is the luck of a club pushing for Europe, isn’t it?
Except it’s not. Hamburg scored either side of that goal – through Hakan Çalhano?lu and Heiko Westermann – to seal a vital victory for themselves and, with the help of a terrible run of form, consign Hyypiä to the dreaded sack. Sitting in a handsome-looking second place after the Hinrunde, with an excellent 37 points from 17 games, Bayer Leverkusen have duly managed to fluff their lines, amassing a mere 11 from 12 games since the winter break. That was quite clearly enough for the club, whose European ambitions are no secret whatsoever, and after that poor 2-1 defeat away in Hamburg, the previously heralded Hyypiä was sacked to general agreement everywhere. Replacing him now is the man he managed the club in tandem with last season, Sascha Lewandowski – but that’s a story for another article. Where did it all go wrong for Sami Hyypiä?
The answer: many places. The Finn was seemingly unable to defeat some lower half teams, falling to 1-0 losses even before the winter break at the hands of Bremen, Frankfurt and, probably most shocking, Braunschweig. He managed the big games well enough – beating an injury stricken Dortmund, and joining a club of only four teams to not cede all three points to Bayern, but this inconsistency in the club’s results didn’t help whatsoever. It had looked for so long that there was another horse in the race for the title, with Leverkusen maintaining touching distance for so long, but the horse collapsed quickly.
What didn’t help Hyypiä’s cause was the strength of the chasing pack. Dortmund and Schalke, who both had forgettable first halves of the season, still managed to remain in with a shout of automatic Champions League qualification, and have since kicked on, losing only three games between them thus far. Behind them at Christmas, a further group of clubs – Borussia Mönchengladbach, VfL Wolfsburg and Mainz – have all strung together enough results to be, essentially, level with Leverkusen currently. Despite their terrible 9-game winless slump, Mönchengladbach have still managed to gain the four point swing they needed to level up with Leverkusen, and have a better goal difference. Wolfsburg have, by and large, chugged along consistently all season, with a few consecutive losses since Christmas being cancelled out by a few wins in a row, too. Mainz are perhaps the form team of the three, at least since Christmas, gaining nine points on Leverkusen since then.
In that view, it’s understandable why Leverkusen cut their losses. European qualification of some kind is essential for the club if they’re to push on, and in reality they should be aiming for the Champions League. Hyypiä’s awful Rückrunde form was in danger of losing even any hopes of the Europa League, with the teams behind them still in touching distance, and in much better form. With five games to go, Leverkusen now only need to scrape together two or three wins to qualify for Europe, and the new manager effect that handing Lewandowski the reign until the end of the season could quite easily account for that.
Europe, though, has been the cause of a lot of Leverkusen’s problems this season. As you’ll surely be aware, Leverkusen got thumped twice by Manchester United in the group stages (still edging through a tough group also containing Shakhtar Donetsk and Real Sociedad, it must be said) and over two legs by Paris Saint Germain in the knockouts, but that’s not the main problem – those results were arguably to be expected, and the club’s aim was to progress from the groups. They did that. The Leverkusen squad was and is, though, arguably too thin to consistently push on both fronts, with players quickly getting tired and needing rest. There’s no better example of this than Hyypiä’s perhaps most telling error. In mid-February, heading into a midweek tie against PSG, Hyypiä chose to rest key player Sidney Sam for the weekend game against Schalke – an absolutely crucial game in the Champions League race at the time. What complicated things even further was that Sidney Sam had recently opted to join Schalke at the end of the season, making Hyypiä’s decision look ridiculous both at the time and in hindsight. Sam was probably fit enough to play in both games, and equally Hyypiä’s management of the squad was quite clearly sub-par, especially at that moment.
That is, on a basic level, why Hyypiä lost the job so catastrophically. His man-management of the dressing room was quite clearly not enough to keep the job, and for a manager whose man-management skills are the main draw, his tactical nous being questionable at times, it’s completely understandable why Leverkusen cut their losses. Hyypiä no doubt has a future in the game, but it’s not now, and it’s not at Leverkusen either.
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