Analysis: Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen are on course to break their Bundesliga duck

Analysis: Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen are on course to break their Bundesliga duck

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For the first time since the 2009/10 season, Bayern Munich have failed to beat Bayer Leverkusen in either of their Bundesliga fixtures. Moreover, both results were big boosts for Die Werkself’s title hopes, as they scored a stoppage-time equaliser in September to stay level at the top with Bayern, at the time, and then went on to record a huge 3-0 win last weekend to open up a five-point advantage at the top.


By Neel Shelat


It finally looks likely to happen. Bayern Munich’s decade of dominance has never looked so threatened, so the Rekordmeister could finally miss out on the Bundesliga title for the first time in 12 seasons.

Their place at the top has been taken not by regular rivals Borussia Dortmund (who almost broke their streak last season), not by the ever-strengthening RB Leipzig, but by Bayer Leverkusen. No one could have seen this coming even a year ago, but Xabi Alonso and his men are doing something truly special this season.

The Spaniard was appointed in October 2022 when Leverkusen found themselves perilously close to the relegation zone after a terrible start to the season. He made an instant impact in his first first-team coaching job, turning Leverkusen’s season around and pulling them up to a top-six finish.

Die Werkself really strengthened in the summer as they invested over €50 million in transfer fees to fill a number of crucial areas in their starting XI. So, their squad looked quite strong going into the season, but everyone familiar with the Bundesliga was very hesitant to consider them among the title contenders.

You see, Bayer Leverkusen have developed quite a reputation for being a team that flatters to deceive. In the 2001/02 season, they completed the runners-up treble by finishing second in the Bundesliga, DFB Pokal and Champions League, earning the “Neverkusen” moniker which they have not been able to shake off since. Their one and only major title is a cup from 1993, and despite building some strong teams of late, they have never been able to sustain a trophy challenge and almost always crumble when it comes to the crunch.

With that context, it becomes easy to see why their win over Bayern Munich was a huge deal. In almost any other season, Leverkusen would have looked really strong going into the game but then gotten flattened and fizzled out of title contention in about a month. This time, though, they completely outplayed their opponents to extend their lead, rather than lose it.

With 13 matches to go now, the title already seems Bayer Leverkusen’s to lose. On the evidence of what we have seen so far this season, there is nothing to suggest that they will throw this away.

Balancing Structure and Fluidity

The most impressive aspect of Leverkusen’s game this season has to be their possession-play. Alonso has devised a brilliant 3-4-2-1 system which affords his players a great deal of freedom within a loose structural framework. Of couse, it helps that he has some fantastic players at his disposal.

His two first-choice wide centre-backs, Odilon Kossounou and Edmond Taposba, are both fantastic ball-players who can help the team build out under pressure and progress the ball through their excellent passing and carrying.

The key to their possession-play, though, has to be their midfield pairing of summer signing Granit Xhaka and the excellent Exequiel Palacios. The duo have developed a fantastic understanding with each other and the team as a whole, constantly moving about to offer passing options and quickly keeping things ticking in the centre while also offering great ball retention. Thanks to their work, Bayer Leverkusen are the best passers in the Bundesliga by far.

Perhaps the most important signing of the summer, though, was Alejandro Grimaldo. The Spanish wing-back has come in and completely transformed Leverkusen’s left flank – one of their weak spots last season. From dropping back to help progress the ball, to creating chances through crosses in the final third, and even scoring a few himself, the ex-Benfica man has been doing it all this season.

His excellent work up and down the wing enable the creative genius of Florian Wirtz to thrive in central areas as he tends to drift inside. His intelligent positioning between the lines and magical close control help his team break into opposition territory, where he himself poses a significant threat through shooting as well as chance creation.

New signing Victor Boniface was the talk of town in the first half of the season as he ripped up the league through his brilliant all-round centre-forward play. His clever off-ball movement and great link-up play enabled him to offer more than just goals, as he also chipped in with 7 assists.

With the Nigerian international absent in 2024 as he went on AFCON duty and picked up an injury, there were concerns about whether Leverkusen could keep up their attacking output. Even though they lack a striker of his ilk, they have comfortably managed to do so as the supporting cast has really stepped up. The exclusively attack-minded wing-back Jeremie Frimpong has done a fair bit of damage on the right, with the support of Jonas Hofmann, while Grimaldo and Wirtz have not showed any signs of letting up either.

With five players in double digits for goal involvements already, it is easy to see why Leverkusen’s attack has been so irresistable this term. Stopping one threat will only lead to the emergence of another, so there really is nothing their opponents can do when Die Werkself are in full flow.

Defensive Solidity

While Leverkusen’s possession-play is what has made them one of the most exciting teams in the world right now, it is often said that defence wins titles. Alonso certainly seems to recognise this, as he has quietly built one of the most defensively solid teams the Bundesliga has seen.

The best part about Leverkusen’s defensive tactics is their flexibility. The Spaniard has always been happy to make slight tweaks to his side’s approach, from match to match, or even between matches, depending on what their opponents are doing. The variables include their structure (mostly between a 3-4-2-1/5-2-2-1 and 3-4-1-2/5-2-1-2) as well as their line of engagement, which can vary from a very high press to a much more compact deeper block depending on the game situation.

Thanks to this flexibility, Leverkusen have struck a near-perfect balance out of possession too. They not only have the best defensive record in the league with the fewest goals conceded, but they are also the most successful pressers in the division.

Of course, their ability to win possession in the final third is also boosted by their fantastic countepressing, which ties back into their possession-play principles of keeping close distances between players. Clearly, their tactics are all very interlinked, combining to create a very cohesive and successful system that has taken the Bundesliga by storm.

So, can they really do it?

The big question on everyone’s minds is a simple one: can Bayer Leverkusen end their duck and finally win a Bundesliga title?

As we have seen, all indications look very positive from their perspective. If they can simply keep performing at the level they have kept up for well over half the season, they will surely go on to win the title because they have dropped just eight points so far and are unbeaten in over 30 matches.

And yet, the threat of Bayern Munich always looms. Even though Thomas Tuchel’s side are enduring a really tough season by their standards, they are just a couple of potential results away from the top spot. The underlying numbers – which do fail to contextualise a few things such as game state – suggest that they are a cut above Leverkusen when it comes to attacking thanks to their immense attacking quality, so they could yet be a real threat if they weed out sloppy mistakes from their games.

Perhaps the biggest problem for Leverkusen, though, is their lack of squad depth. Die Werkself have managed to somehow make do without Boniface, but any further injuries in a couple of key areas could really derail their campaign.

They do have some decent options in the heart of the defence and midfield, while the likes of Nathan Tella and Amine Adli could stand in for the starters on the right, but the creative brilliance of Wirtz and especially left wing-back Grimaldo seem irreplaceable. Leverkusen’s title chances will suffer a serious blow should either of them be ruled out for a prolonged period.

As they enter the knockout stages of the Europa League as well as the semi-finals of the DFB Pokal in what promises to be a frantic end to the season, Leverkusen must be careful to avoid a repeat of 2002. They have maintained a fine balance in the first half of the season, which this side must carefully preserve for the next few months if they are to cement their names in the history books.


(Images from IMAGO)


You can follow every game from the Bundesliga, with deep stats and players ratings, on FotMob. Download the free app here.

Analysis: Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen are on course to break their Bundesliga duck

For the first time since the 2009/10 season, Bayern Munich have failed to beat Bayer Leverkusen in either of their Bundesliga fixtures. Moreover, both results were big boosts for Die Werkself’s title hopes, as they scored a stoppage-time equaliser in September to stay level at the top with Bayern, at the time, and then went on to record a huge 3-0 win last weekend to open up a five-point advantage at the top.


By Neel Shelat


It finally looks likely to happen. Bayern Munich’s decade of dominance has never looked so threatened, so the Rekordmeister could finally miss out on the Bundesliga title for the first time in 12 seasons.

Their place at the top has been taken not by regular rivals Borussia Dortmund (who almost broke their streak last season), not by the ever-strengthening RB Leipzig, but by Bayer Leverkusen. No one could have seen this coming even a year ago, but Xabi Alonso and his men are doing something truly special this season.

The Spaniard was appointed in October 2022 when Leverkusen found themselves perilously close to the relegation zone after a terrible start to the season. He made an instant impact in his first first-team coaching job, turning Leverkusen’s season around and pulling them up to a top-six finish.

Die Werkself really strengthened in the summer as they invested over €50 million in transfer fees to fill a number of crucial areas in their starting XI. So, their squad looked quite strong going into the season, but everyone familiar with the Bundesliga was very hesitant to consider them among the title contenders.

You see, Bayer Leverkusen have developed quite a reputation for being a team that flatters to deceive. In the 2001/02 season, they completed the runners-up treble by finishing second in the Bundesliga, DFB Pokal and Champions League, earning the “Neverkusen” moniker which they have not been able to shake off since. Their one and only major title is a cup from 1993, and despite building some strong teams of late, they have never been able to sustain a trophy challenge and almost always crumble when it comes to the crunch.

With that context, it becomes easy to see why their win over Bayern Munich was a huge deal. In almost any other season, Leverkusen would have looked really strong going into the game but then gotten flattened and fizzled out of title contention in about a month. This time, though, they completely outplayed their opponents to extend their lead, rather than lose it.

With 13 matches to go now, the title already seems Bayer Leverkusen’s to lose. On the evidence of what we have seen so far this season, there is nothing to suggest that they will throw this away.

Balancing Structure and Fluidity

The most impressive aspect of Leverkusen’s game this season has to be their possession-play. Alonso has devised a brilliant 3-4-2-1 system which affords his players a great deal of freedom within a loose structural framework. Of couse, it helps that he has some fantastic players at his disposal.

His two first-choice wide centre-backs, Odilon Kossounou and Edmond Taposba, are both fantastic ball-players who can help the team build out under pressure and progress the ball through their excellent passing and carrying.

The key to their possession-play, though, has to be their midfield pairing of summer signing Granit Xhaka and the excellent Exequiel Palacios. The duo have developed a fantastic understanding with each other and the team as a whole, constantly moving about to offer passing options and quickly keeping things ticking in the centre while also offering great ball retention. Thanks to their work, Bayer Leverkusen are the best passers in the Bundesliga by far.

Perhaps the most important signing of the summer, though, was Alejandro Grimaldo. The Spanish wing-back has come in and completely transformed Leverkusen’s left flank – one of their weak spots last season. From dropping back to help progress the ball, to creating chances through crosses in the final third, and even scoring a few himself, the ex-Benfica man has been doing it all this season.

His excellent work up and down the wing enable the creative genius of Florian Wirtz to thrive in central areas as he tends to drift inside. His intelligent positioning between the lines and magical close control help his team break into opposition territory, where he himself poses a significant threat through shooting as well as chance creation.

New signing Victor Boniface was the talk of town in the first half of the season as he ripped up the league through his brilliant all-round centre-forward play. His clever off-ball movement and great link-up play enabled him to offer more than just goals, as he also chipped in with 7 assists.

With the Nigerian international absent in 2024 as he went on AFCON duty and picked up an injury, there were concerns about whether Leverkusen could keep up their attacking output. Even though they lack a striker of his ilk, they have comfortably managed to do so as the supporting cast has really stepped up. The exclusively attack-minded wing-back Jeremie Frimpong has done a fair bit of damage on the right, with the support of Jonas Hofmann, while Grimaldo and Wirtz have not showed any signs of letting up either.

With five players in double digits for goal involvements already, it is easy to see why Leverkusen’s attack has been so irresistable this term. Stopping one threat will only lead to the emergence of another, so there really is nothing their opponents can do when Die Werkself are in full flow.

Defensive Solidity

While Leverkusen’s possession-play is what has made them one of the most exciting teams in the world right now, it is often said that defence wins titles. Alonso certainly seems to recognise this, as he has quietly built one of the most defensively solid teams the Bundesliga has seen.

The best part about Leverkusen’s defensive tactics is their flexibility. The Spaniard has always been happy to make slight tweaks to his side’s approach, from match to match, or even between matches, depending on what their opponents are doing. The variables include their structure (mostly between a 3-4-2-1/5-2-2-1 and 3-4-1-2/5-2-1-2) as well as their line of engagement, which can vary from a very high press to a much more compact deeper block depending on the game situation.

Thanks to this flexibility, Leverkusen have struck a near-perfect balance out of possession too. They not only have the best defensive record in the league with the fewest goals conceded, but they are also the most successful pressers in the division.

Of course, their ability to win possession in the final third is also boosted by their fantastic countepressing, which ties back into their possession-play principles of keeping close distances between players. Clearly, their tactics are all very interlinked, combining to create a very cohesive and successful system that has taken the Bundesliga by storm.

So, can they really do it?

The big question on everyone’s minds is a simple one: can Bayer Leverkusen end their duck and finally win a Bundesliga title?

As we have seen, all indications look very positive from their perspective. If they can simply keep performing at the level they have kept up for well over half the season, they will surely go on to win the title because they have dropped just eight points so far and are unbeaten in over 30 matches.

And yet, the threat of Bayern Munich always looms. Even though Thomas Tuchel’s side are enduring a really tough season by their standards, they are just a couple of potential results away from the top spot. The underlying numbers – which do fail to contextualise a few things such as game state – suggest that they are a cut above Leverkusen when it comes to attacking thanks to their immense attacking quality, so they could yet be a real threat if they weed out sloppy mistakes from their games.

Perhaps the biggest problem for Leverkusen, though, is their lack of squad depth. Die Werkself have managed to somehow make do without Boniface, but any further injuries in a couple of key areas could really derail their campaign.

They do have some decent options in the heart of the defence and midfield, while the likes of Nathan Tella and Amine Adli could stand in for the starters on the right, but the creative brilliance of Wirtz and especially left wing-back Grimaldo seem irreplaceable. Leverkusen’s title chances will suffer a serious blow should either of them be ruled out for a prolonged period.

As they enter the knockout stages of the Europa League as well as the semi-finals of the DFB Pokal in what promises to be a frantic end to the season, Leverkusen must be careful to avoid a repeat of 2002. They have maintained a fine balance in the first half of the season, which this side must carefully preserve for the next few months if they are to cement their names in the history books.


(Images from IMAGO)


You can follow every game from the Bundesliga, with deep stats and players ratings, on FotMob. Download the free app here.