Regarded by many ahead of the season as a tempting outside bet, Bayer Leverkusen have got off to a great start to 2023/24 under Xabi Alonso – is this finally their year to go all the way and win the Bundesliga?
1) Big early tests? Passed.
After last season’s march under Alonso from second bottom up to sixth, there was already a positive feeling around the BayArena ahead of a first full campaign under the Spaniard. When the fixture list was released, however, there may have been some nervous looks within the club.
An opening game at home to DFB Cup holders and recent Supercup winners RB Leipzig would provide a big first hurdle. And then a visit to rivals Borussia Mönchengladbach. A home game against promoted Darmstadt will have been viewed as a must-win ahead of the international break, prior to a trip down to Bavaria to face Bayern Munich on Oktoberfest’s opening weekend.
It was a first four matchday that really could go either way and would set the tone for the rest of the season. The Werkself faithful will now hope that is indeed the case. Statement wins over Leipzig (3-2), Gladbach (3-0) and Darmstadt (5-1) set up a top-of-the-table clash with Bayern.
As ever, a visit to the Allianz Arena is that bit different from most other away games – and we saw a different side to Alonso’s Leverkusen. For the first time this season, they had to contend with falling behind instead of protecting and ultimately building on a lead.
“I think we showed big character today to be down two times here, 1-0 and 2-1. To come back showed big character from the team,” said Granit Xhaka after the dramatic 2-2 draw – a result described as “fair” by players and coaches from both sides.
It keeps Leverkusen ahead of Bayern – both still unbeaten – on goal difference and equalling their best tally ever after four games in the Bundesliga (10 points).
2) Building the ideal squad
It was Bayern who stole the international headlines over the summer transfer window with the signing of England captain Harry Kane. It meant Leverkusen’s excellent work in the market went somewhat under the radar and it was more the departure of last season’s top scorer Moussa Diaby that initially caught the eye.
Yet they still had a budget left over from that Diaby deal after completing four of their main transfers. Switzerland captain Xhaka arrived from Arsenal with a wealth of experience and the ability to act as Alonso’s voice in midfield. Jonas Hofmann is a proven Bundesliga operator with some of the best-attacking stats of recent years, including the most Fantasy points of any player in 2022/23 from a middling Gladbach side.
Alejandro Grimaldo came on a free transfer from Benfica to fill the once unsettled left wing-back berth. And up front, Victor Boniface arrived at the BayArena on the back of top-scoring in the UEFA Europa League last year.
All have slotted straight in and made immediate impacts in a team that has gelled together. Alonso has used only 12 players across his four starting XIs in the Bundesliga but also has cover in every position if required. The imminent return of Patrik Schick, joint-top scorer at UEFA Euro 2020, adds even more top-quality competition.
“We’ve got a couple of really good new players, Granit, Jonas, Grimaldo, that bring a lot of professionalism and a lot of quality,” said captain and goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky after the draw in Munich.
3) The X(abi) Factor
Alonso’s impact upon taking charge in October 2022 appeared immediate, beating Schalke 4-0 for the biggest victory ever by a Leverkusen coach on debut, but Die Werkself then failed to win any of the next six. It took some time for the former Real Madrid and Real Sociedad youth coach to make his mark on a team low on confidence, culminating in a two-month unbeaten run across March and April to propel them into European contention.
And now boasting a squad more in his image, someone who was so used to winning as a player has instilled that in his squad as a coach.
“I think today we have played on the same level,” the 41-year-old said of the result away at former club Bayern. “We have shown personality. We have shown quality. We have shown mentality, and that’s the main thing that we want to build on. And there will come worse moments and that’s when we need to stick together. That’s part of football and part of the season, but so far, we have a good feeling.”
That good feeling will be something Alonso and his team will need to carry through the long season which also includes the DFB Cup and Europa League campaigns. There have been many false dawns before at the BayArena – think back as recently as the Peter Bosz era, when Leverkusen went toe-to-toe with Bayern up to the winter break before their form fell off a cliff.
There have also been many memorable close calls, like the treble that never was in 2002 with runners-up finishes at the last in the Bundesliga, DFB Cup and UEFA Champions League. Two years earlier they’d let the league title slip from their grasp on the final day. Dubbed ‘Neverkusen’ for those gut-wrenching near misses, the club still bears the mental scars and is something that Alonso, the serial-winner player in his first senior role as a head coach, also has to change if Die Werkself are to finally go one better than their five second-place finishes.
4) Blowing teams away
Conquering the mental challenge over a full season will be slow work, but there’s already convincing evidence that Alonso has made an impact on the pitch. Leverkusen have been scintillating in attack so far this season, with 13 goals scored after four matchdays just the headline stat.
Boasting German playmakers Hofmann and Florian Wirtz working in tandem behind the bullish Boniface, Bayer is no longer just playing the pretty football we’ve seen in the recent past but is making it count. They trail only Bayern for shots on goal (72 vs. 84) but lead the division for the quality of chances with an Expected Goals (xG) total of 10.5. Their shot efficiency, which compares how many goals a team has scored compared to their XG, comes in at 2.5 and ranks fourth in the division.
When comparing last season’s top six, Leverkusen led the way this year in terms of clear-cut chances created (11) and converted (seven). Alonso’s 3-4-3 system is also set up in a way that is suited to counter-attack, with his team also coming out on top for shots from counters (eight) and goals scored on the break (three).
The supply lines into Boniface in particular are seemingly relentless. The Nigerian’s 29 shots on goal after four matchdays is almost double Kane’s 15 and the next-best tally across all teams (Tim Kleindienst, 17), with four goals and two assists to show for his efforts in the opposition box – or even halfway line, as he very nearly showed against Bayern.
5) Solid throughout
Alonso the player was a playmaker in teams built to dominate, with the midfielder acting as the beating heart and link between attack and defence. He knows that if you have quality in the final third and a constant supply line, then the goals will come. Much of his efforts at the BayArena have had to focus on shoring things up elsewhere.
It took a bit of time to find both the system and the personnel, but Alonso has now got the balance he wants in his 3-4-3, which sees five designated defenders and five attackers.
Die Werkself only rank fifth for possession (around 54 per cent) – up on last season’s proportion, although the same ranking across the division – but the difference is in what they do with the ball. They are leaders by some distance when it comes to the number of passes in the opposition half, with some 87.5 per cent finding a teammate. That compares with an overall pass completion rate of 88.8 per cent – second only to the usually dominant Bayern.
All their passing stats are up in 2022/23, showing the impact that pass master Alonso has had both on the style of play and confidence. A case in point is Jonathan Tah. The centre-back looked on his way out last season but is now the main man in the back three and produced a top-quality performance against Bayern that saw him record a 100 per cent pass completion (from 56 passes).
And when it comes to actual defending, the recently recalled Germany international has helped shepherd a backline that has conceded just once from open play in 2023/24 (from Bayern’s Leon Goretzka).
Hard work is at the core of everything Alonso is trying to instil. Leverkusen outran Bayern by some four kilometres (2.5 miles) at the Allianz Arena and led last season’s top six by a distance when it comes to sprints towards the opposition goal.
Not that this season will be a sprint for Die Werkself. They remain a work in progress under Alonso, but all the ingredients look to be there. Can Leverkusen finally put them together to create the perfect product?