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Bayer Leverkusen

Can Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen really win the Bundesliga?

For just the third time since 2011, Bayern Munich did not lead the Bundesliga standings during this winter break.

In the history of the league, the Herbstmeister have had a two-in-three success rate of going on to win the title.

Leaders Bayer Leverkusen should be pleased to hear that statistic, but they cannot get too far ahead of themselves.

They’ve been Herbstmeisters twice in the past and have finished as runners-up five times at the end of the season, but the title has always been out of their reach.

Die Werkself are seven points clear at the top of the league, although Bayern have a game in hand. Given they’ve dropped just six points this season, it is safe to say that their chances are looking good.

Shaking Off The ‘Neverkusen’ Tag

Before we dive into analysing Leverkusen’s work this season, it is worth acknowledging their historic track record.

The club only have one major title in their locker – the 1992/93 DFB Pokal – but have often fallen short at the final step on the path to glory on many other occasions.

Most painfully, they finished as Bundesliga runners-up, DFB Pokal runners-up and Champions League runners-up in 2002, earning the ‘Neverkusen’ moniker.

That reputation has haunted them in recent years, most notably in the 2020 cup final against Bayern. They started the 2021/22 league season quite well as they kept pace with the league leaders for the first half of the season, but then dropped off to finish 13 points off the top.

This season feels different. Leverkusen are yet to drop a single point from winning positions in the league and have always managed to come back to salvage something on the odd occasions when they have gone behind.

They are the only unbeaten team in Europe’s top five leagues this season, so their points per game average of 2.67 is unsurprisingly the best by far.

Most importantly, Die Werkself are now managing to grind out results in a way that would have been unimaginable for them even a year ago.

In the space of a week, they have won back-to-back matches in stoppage time. They took 94 minutes to score the only goal of the match against Augsburg, before going on to clinch a five-goal thriller At RB Leipzig soon after the fourth official’s board went up.

These signs have been evident since the early weeks of the season. As early as September, they scored a stoppage-time penalty equaliser against none other than Bayern, having conceded a very deflating goal in the 86th minute.

Leverkusen would have folded in almost any other season, but they seem to have irrepressible grit and fighting spirit this time around.

Alonso-Ball in Full Flow

All of these intangible qualities are nice to have, but they count for almost nothing without an appropriate tactical system in place. Leverkusen have that as well thanks to Xabi Alonso.

The Spaniard took charge of the club in October 2022, taking over from Gerardo Seoane. At the time, Leverkusen were in a big slump and found themselves much closer to the relegation zone than the European spots. Alonso instantly turned their season around, guiding them to a solid sixth-place finish.

The ex-Real Madrid star immediately identified his system of choice using a 3-4-2-1 formation, enabling the team to play some eye-catching and effective football.

However, the squad lacked several profiles to execute this style of play to its best potential, so the summer transfer window proved pivotal.

The addition of a well-rounded striker with a serious goal-threat in Victor Boniface, a defensively solid progressive midfielder in Granit Xhaka and, most importantly, a dangerous ball-playing left wing-back in Alejandro Grimaldo has taken the team to the next level this season.

The key to understanding the way Alonso’s team plays is that he has established a framework, within which the players have a good deal of freedom to play their way.

It is neither the strict positional play Pep Guardiola is known for nor the almost structure-free style we see from Carlo Ancelotti’s Real Madrid this season – it is somewhere in between his two former coaches’ approaches.

In Leverkusen’s average positions map from the season so far, we can see both. A rough 3-2-4-1 in-possession structure is visible, but so is the right-sided bias of the defence as wing-back Jeremie Frimpong effectively operates as a high winger, causing Odilon Kossounou to step up a touch.

This also creates more space on the left, where Grimaldo can drop deep to help build up and pose a serious creative threat in the final third.

The most important job perhaps falls to the two deeper midfielders, who shuttle around all over the place to constantly offer relatively short and secure passing options to their teammates to keep things ticking.

This is why Xhaka and Exequiel Palacios have completed well over 3,000 passes, contributing to well over a quarter of the entire team’s tally – the highest in the league.

This leaves Florian Wirtz with a lot of space to work with between the lines, where his excellent positional understanding and on-ball creativity shine through.

He is unsurprisingly among the top-four creators in the league with a return of seven assists. He is joined in that list by Grimaldo, whose whipped crosses and set-piece threat have made him a serious attacking contributor with 15 goal involvements.

Up front, the exceptional link-up play and box threat of Boniface have enabled him to return with ten goals and seven assists, as he both facilitates and finishes off sweeping attacking moves. His injury-enforced absence could be a decisive blow to their title hopes, but we will get onto that later.

It is also worth acknowledging Leverkusen’s excellent defensive record, as they have conceded a league-low 14 goals.

Part of their success stems from their principle of maintaining close distances in possession, enabling them to be the best counter-pressing team in the league.

Their general defensive organisation has been on point, as Alonso has made clever match-to-match and in-game tweaks. This has resulted in them winning the most high turnovers in the league, which also feeds into their attacking threat.

Stuttering Competitors

While Leverkusen have been excellent, they are also helped that many of their potential competitors have not had the best of seasons.

Having thrown away the title on the final day last season, Borussia Dortmund have been quite poor this term. They are outside the top four, so their concern is finishing in the Champions League spots rather than the title.

Leipzig were also tipped to challenge at the top after a strong summer transfer window, but their form has been quite patchy. Stuttgart have performed better than the pair of them this term.

All of that has left Bayern as Leverkusen’s only challenger. Of course, the record Bundesliga champions are a formidable foe as they seek to extend their title-winning streak to 12.

(Image credit: Soccerment)

The underlying numbers show that Bayern have still been better than Leverkusen this season, as they have accumulated a higher Expected Points tally.

However, they have uncharacteristically stumbled occasionally this season, such as against Werder Bremen this weekend or at Eintracht Frankfurt at the start of December, when they conceded by five.

Nevertheless, these numbers must be a stern warning to Leverkusen that they cannot afford any slip-ups. With Boniface injured for at least a couple of months, they must ensure that the goals keep flowing without having to wait for stoppage-time winners every week.

Additionally, a couple of their key players are away at the Africa Cup of Nations, so they will need to get through the next few weeks with a thinner squad.

If they can manage that, there is nothing to suggest that Leverkusen cannot win the title. All the pieces seem to be in place for them to create history – they just have to put it together.

Stats courtesy Opta via Fbref, Transfermarkt, Vizz App and Soccerment.

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