Manchester United's Champions League group is hardly bursting with managerial experience. While Shakhtar Donetsk's Mircea Lucescu has featured previously, the combined managerial experience of Real Sociedad's Jagoba Arrasate, Bayer Leverkusen's Sami Hyypiä and Manchester United's David Moyes in Europe's top continental competition amounts to just two games -- the qualifying tie that the latter lost with Everton to Villarreal in 2005. Both Moyes and Hyypiä have experience playing in Europe, of course, but their clash tomorrow night is the first proper chance for either of them to actually coach in the competition proper.
Hyypiä's emergence into one of Europe's brightest, youngest managers has been an interesting subplot to recent footballing narrative. Ten years playing at Liverpool preceded a move to Germany and Leverkusen in 2009, where after Robin Dutt's team hit a rapid decline the Finnish defender was stunningly handed the chance to become caretaker alongside Sascha Lewandowski, the club's U19 coach.
It wasn't quite the spur-of-the-moment decision from the club hierarchy that the bare facts seems to portray. Instead, as Michael Reschke, general manager, recalls, Hyypiä turned down a potential return to Liverpool under Roy Hodgson in 2010 on the word that he might one day take charge. "I told him, ‘no, Sami, you cannot get a green light," Reschke told the Independent. "We need you as a player next season, and be sure, you can be the coach of Bayer Leverkusen in the future."
But it was not quite as simple as that. It's extraordinarily rare to come across a coaching partnership at the highest level and indeed the strange marriage was not always cosy, with Hyypiä musing midway through last season on the frustration of having to run decisions through a right-hand man. That was not a dig at Lewandowski, but rather an acknowledgement of the difficulty in coordinating team management when the role is split into "teamchef" -- essentially the change-room coach -- and "cheftrainer" - the training ground coach.
But surprisingly Leverkusen surged their way to a strong third place finish thanks largely in part to the clever counter-attacking system that either Lewandowski, Hyypiä, or perhaps both devised. The 4-3-2-1 formation was simple in its intent: provide a good, solid defensive structure with three physical midfielders: Lars Bender, Stefan Reinartz and Renato Augusto, who help protect the back four and rarely venture forward - consequently, Leverkusen conceded the second least goals in the Bundesliga last season.
This in turn allowed the front three to stay relatively high up the pitch in positions ready for the transition from defence to attack. This phase of play has become so important over the last decade and Leverkusen were amongst the best in Europe last season at exploiting it, thanks to the directness of Andre Schürrle and the physicality of Stefan Kießling. The latter works the channels superbly and holds up play intelligently, thus occupying central defenders and opening up space for Schürrle to cut inside, from where the young German scored an impressive seven goals in the Bundesliga. However, Kießling is more than a basic target man and one of Europe's underrated strikers, finishing with Germany's Golden Boot last year with 25 goals.
Surprisingly, the 29 year old has very rarely been the focus of transfer speculation but there was little doubt his younger counterpart in crime, Schürrle, would be on the move to Chelsea. The winger's London move seemed like a transfer secured and signed at the start of the summer but it dragged on for reasons unknown - until it emerged when the deal had been stalled until Leverkusen were able to announce they had simultaneously pulled off the coup of Son Heung-Min from Hamburg.
What made this deal so impressive was that Leverkusen had directly replaced Schürrle with a very similar player and made a handy profit in the process. Son flourished in 2012-13 as a goal-scoring winger, frequently moving off his designated left-wing position to make runs typical of a centre-forward: very similar in style to Schürrle. True to his Hamburg form, where he scored twelve goals last season, Son has made an immediate impression at Leverkusen, scoring on his debut and contributing to Leverkusen's remarkably effective system, which itself has rewarded Hyypiä with four wins from the five matches so far this campaign.
However, the most impressive contributors so far have been Kießling and Sam, each having taken their goal tallies to four within those five games, with the latter's boldness in possession and willingness to take defenders on especially eye-catching. He appears to have flourished in the wake of increased responsibility. The battle between him and United's left-back Patrice Evra should be particularly interesting, almost a battle of wills: the German may be asked by his manager to sacrifice some of his attacking intent and play more reservedly to counter Evra's threat going forward -- and in turn, invite him forward, as to open up room in behind to break into.
European encounters are generally cagier and more centred around counter-attacking, so despite Hyypiä's relative inexperience at this level his side are well-geared to the challenge that awaits them in their return to the Champions League.