Neverkusen no more: Bayer Leverkusen’s relentless mentality powers title charge

The Werkself leads the table by a commanding 13 points, leaving defending champion Bayern Munich in the dust.

Published : Apr 14, 2024 15:09 IST - 6 MINS READ

Bayer Leverkusen coach Xabi Alonso celebrates with his players in front of their fans .
Bayer Leverkusen coach Xabi Alonso celebrates with his players in front of their fans . | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Bayer Leverkusen coach Xabi Alonso celebrates with his players in front of their fans . | Photo Credit: REUTERS

Scenes of pure jubilation erupted at the BayArena on Sunday as Bayer Leverkusen emphatically secured its first-ever Bundesliga title. A dominant 5-0 victory against Werder Bremen sealed the historic feat with five games to spare.

This remarkable triumph dethroned the mighty Bayern Munich, which held a vice-like grip on the league for eleven consecutive seasons. This fairytale ending comes just over a year after the club found itself precariously perched at the bottom of the table.

But under the astute guidance of Xabi Alonso, who is in his first full season managing a club’s first team, Leverkusen has undergone a staggering metamorphosis, transforming from relegation candidates into invincible champions. The treble, with the Europa League and DFB Pokal trophies still within reach, beckons as a testament to this extraordinary journey.

Interesting Facts
Bayer Leverkusen in 2023–24 has so far won 42 matches in all competitions in 2023–24.
13 points ahead of Bayern Munich in the Bundesliga table.
1 win away from securing its first-ever Bundesliga title.
6 games away from winning a treble (Europa League, Bundesliga and DFB Pokal) and 2 games away from winning a domestic double.
1 win/draw away from creating a Bundesliga record for the most undefeated matches in a single season.

What makes Leverkusen so good?

Playing 3-4-2-1, Alonso’s Leverkusen is a well-drilled modern football team that likes to dominate possession and use counter-pressing to win the ball back when they lose it.

Despite being an inexperienced coach at the top level, the Spaniard has played under some of the most influential managers of the modern era during his storied playing career.

From Rafa Benitez at Liverpool to Jose Mourinho and Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid to Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich and even his Spanish national team boss Vicente del Bosque, Alonso learned from the very best. He has taken all their philosophies on board and created his own unique style.

Without the ball, Alonso’s Leverkusen defends in a 5-2-2-1, the defensive block is narrow and compact which makes them difficult to play through. However, the Werkself is not a placid low-block team instead it tries to force turnovers through its defensive block.

The back three offer solidity and the wing-backs provide crucial width in attack as well as cover in defence. The central midfield duo acts as a bridge, controlling the tempo and orchestrating attacks. Up front, a mobile forward line prioritises movement and combination play.

The two attacking midfielders and the strikers play a fluid front three and how they function varies from opponent to opponent. Against the back three, the 10s push high to engage with the opposition centre-backs while against the back fours, the striker drops deep to pick up the opposition number 6 whilst the 10s press the centre-backs.

The wing-backs play a pivotal role in Leverkusen’s attacking strategy. They bomb forward, stretching the opposition’s defence and creating space for overlapping runs from midfield. Alonso also encourages full-back inversions, where one tucks into midfield while the other pushes high to create numerical advantages.

This system provides both offensive dynamism and defensive stability, allowing Leverkusen to adapt to different game situations.

Adapting to Win

Alonso’s tactical genius shone throughout the campaign with his masterful utilisation of the squad. The Spaniards’ fluid systems are designed to adapt to opposing threats, countering them with strategic ingenuity. His deployment of diverse player profiles in various positions to influence the game’s outcome underlines his credentials as a potent tactician.

During a crucial Bundesliga clash against Bayern Munich on February 10, the World Cup winner surprised many with his selections. He benched attacking wing-back Jeremie Frimpong, opting for traditional full-back Josip Stanisic instead. Winger Amine Adli led the attack, displacing established strikers Borja Iglesias and Patrik Schick, with Victor Boniface out of the picture.

Leverkusen’s setup was also adapted; instead of dominating possession and pressing high, it ceded control to Bayern, sitting deeper. Alonso seemed confident that his fluid structure, combined with direct attacks could exploit Bayern’s defensive fragilities.

These changes initially appeared unconventional, but Alonso’s plan proved successful. His team thrashed the Bavarian giants 3-0, taking a significant five-point lead in the title race.

Alonso has also demonstrated considerable faith in his squad by actively using substitutions. Bayer Leverkusen averages 4.12 substitutions per game in the league. Of the 29 players registered, 24 have made at least one league appearance, with 19 playing more than 200 minutes.

In all competitions, Bayer Leverkusen boasts the third-highest number of goal contributions from substitutes in Europe (29 from 162 subs) – behind only Liverpool’s 47 from 207 and Atletico Madrid’s 30 from 206.

From ‘Neverkusen’ to ‘Neverbeaten’: A Relentless Mentality

Earning the unfortunate moniker ‘Neverkusen’ after a string of runner-up finishes, Leverkusen has transformed its on-field mentality this season. It has become synonymous with late dramas, scoring 22 after the 81st minute across all competitions. In the Bundesliga alone, these late strikes have secured it an additional seven points.

It has scored four goals after the 91st minute in the league, without those crucial strikes, it would have been seven points less and Bayern Munich two points more, meaning Leverkusen would only be seven ahead of the defending champions.

Made with Flourish

Following their dramatic late win over Hoffenheim, Granit Xhaka perfectly captured the team’s new spirit: “It’s not a surprise anymore. We’ve scored so many late goals this season, we just keep fighting until the final whistle.”

This newfound mentality has propelled Leverkusen to the brink of history. They’re on the verge of becoming the first German team to go unbeaten for 29 league games.

Amine Adli echoed Xhaka’s sentiment, expressing the team’s unwavering confidence: “We feel like we can’t lose. We’re prepared, and we believe in ourselves.”

A Bright Future

Despite a limited managerial career, Xabi Alonso, 42, has a reputation for success. His prior role managing Real Sociedad’s B team (2019-2022) resulted in its promotion from the third to the second division. As a player, his trophy cabinet boasts a World Cup and two European Championships with Spain alongside club laurels.

Alonso’s name has been floated for upcoming managerial vacancies at major European clubs, before his recent commitment to Bayer Leverkusen. However, many see this as a temporary arrangement, and Leverkusen fans agree - they believe the time is now for the club to win the Bundesliga title with Alonso at the helm.

Leverkusen’s title victory isn’t merely a changing of the guard; it’s a reawakening. For over a decade, Bayern’s dominance cast a long shadow. Now, with the Meisterschale on the other side of the Rhine, the Bundesliga has a new dawn. Leverkusen’s triumph reignites the passion of fans and the promise of a competitive league, where unpredictability replaces predictability, and excitement burns brighter than ever.

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