Bayer Leverkusen: How Xabi Alonso’s ‘Neverkusen’ are challenging Harry Kane’s Bayern Munich

23 November 2023 0 By Total Football News
Bayer Leverkusen celebrate a goalBayer Leverkusen beat Union Berlin 4-0 to go into the November international break two points clear at the top of the Bundesliga

The Bundesliga conversation has been dominated this season by Harry Kane and his record-breaking scoring exploits - yet Bayern Munich are not even top of the league.

That honour at the final international break of 2023 goes to Bayer Leverkusen, who have been even more dominant than perennial champions Bayern.

Leverkusen have won 16 of their 17 matches this season in all competitions, including their past 12 in succession. The only game they failed to win was a 2-2 league draw at Bayern in September.

In the league, they have 31 points from 11 games, two ahead of second-placed Bayern. It equals the record for the best Bundesliga start, by Pep Guardiola's Bayern in 2015-16.

They are also impressing in the Europa League, through to the last 16 with two matches to spare after winning their opening four group games.

Under the increasingly impressive management of former Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern midfielder Xabi Alonso, Leverkusen look unstoppable - and in with a real chance of, at long last, getting their hands on the Bundesliga trophy for the first time in their 119-year history.

After retiring in 2017 from a playing career which saw him win the World Cup, European Championship, two Champions Leagues, three Bundesligas and a La Liga title as one of the modern game's great creative midfielders, Alonso moved into coaching with Real Madrid's under-14s in 2018.

The 41-year-old then had three years in charge of Real Sociedad's B team in his native Basque country, before being appointed coach of Leverkusen in October 2022 with the former Champions League finalists second bottom of the Bundesliga.

The turnaround was not immediate - his first Leverkusen match was a 4-0 league victory over Schalke, and a six-match winless run followed.

But Alonso, a natural winner as a player, soon instilled his mentality on the squad and a two-month unbeaten run towards the end of the campaign saw them to a sixth-place finish and Europa League qualification - and that form has continued.

Devastating counters and pinpoint passes

Victor Boniface shoots while playing for Bayer LeverkusenVictor Boniface had 38 shots in the first five Bundesliga games of 2023-24 - a league record

Leverkusen fended off interest from Tottenham in the summer, tying Alonso to a contract until 2026 - and their faith has been repaid tenfold.

A difficult start has been expertly negotiated, with three goals scored in wins over RB Leipzig and rivals Borussia Monchengladbach - who Alonso was previously heavily linked with - in their first two Bundesliga matches this season.

The trip to Bayern, during Oktoberfest, could have been messy, but instead Leverkusen spoiled the party by twice coming from behind to earn a point.

Since then, Leverkusen have blown away all comers. They have scored 34 goals in 11 Bundesliga matches - only Kane-powered Bayern have more.

Only Bayern have had more shots on goal - 215, to Leverkusen's 182 - or have a better expected goals (xG) with 34.0 to Leverkusen's 27.8.

That means Leverkusen are currently overperforming in attack, according to the stats, largely down to the relentless supply line to the forwards which Alonso's tactics allow.

Leverkusen play 3-4-3 and are devastating on the counter-attack - they have scored seven league goals on the break this season, a Bundesliga high.

Striker Victor Boniface has had 57 shots on goal this season, substantially more than Kane's 41. The Nigerian only has seven goals to Kane's 17, but if you keep feeding the forward, you will eventually get the desired outcome.

As expected for a team coached by one of the game's great passers, Alonso's side are excellent on the ball. They lead the Bundesliga for pass accuracy, with 90.2% finding a team-mate.

Leverkusen are equally efficient at the back, with Alonso's outfield players split strictly between five defenders and five attackers. They have conceded just five goals from open play in the Bundesliga this season.

The Championship winner and the ex-Arsenal veteran

Granit Xhaka jokes with Leverkusen team-matesFormer Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka (second from right) has started every league game for Leverkusen this season

All this has been done by a side which lost arguably its biggest individual star player in the summer - 2022-23 top scorer Moussa Diaby, who joined Aston Villa - and for who arguably the most recognisable name is Alonso himself.

Leading the line is Boniface, who at 22 has already had to come back from two anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) injuries and severe depression following the death of his mother in 2019.

He scored 17 goals in Belgium for Union Saint-Gilloise last season to earn a move to Leverkusen, and has maintained that form in Germany with balls provided by Jonas Hofmann and Florian Wirtz.

At 31, Hofmann is continuing his later career form following an impressive season last year for Gladbach, while Wirtz is showing the form which earned him links to the Premier League before his own serious ACL injury in March 2022.

Also impressing are wing-back Alex Grimaldo, whose phenomenal crossing and technical ability have helped Leverkusen solve a long-term issue on the left side of defence, and centre-back Jonathan Tah, who copped a large portion of blame for Leverkusen's rocky form last season but has been Alonso's defensive rock this campaign, including recording 100% passing accuracy from 56 passes against Bayern.

Nathan Tella - who won the Championship with Burnley, on loan from Southampton, last season - has impressed as Diaby's replacement, while Granit Xhaka knits the midfield together as the commanding voice, exactly as Alonso would have wished when signing him from Arsenal in the summer.

It all places Leverkusen in real contention for the title - although no-one at BayArena is counting their chickens yet. They have been here before.

Leverkusen have never won the Bundesliga, their best finish being runners-up on five occasions. Their last trophy was 30 years ago - the 1993 German Cup.

They last led the league after 11 games in 2020-21, under Peter Bosz, before their form nosedived after Christmas and they finished sixth.

This has led the club to acquire the nickname 'Neverkusen' among German football fans - but this time, with the winning mentality brought by Alonso, things feel different.

Bayern, and Kane, will have plenty left to say. But so far, Leverkusen and Alonso have all the answers.

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