What makes Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen so good?

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Bayer Leverkusen are top of the Bundesliga after 12 games played. Let’s take a tactical deep dive into what Xabi Alonso is doing right.

Leverkusen are two points clear of Bayern Munich after 12 games played. They held the champions to a 2-2 draw in September, and that was the only time they’ve had to share the spoils, with the other 11 games victorious.

Alonso replaced Gerardo Seoane last October, so he is in his first full season as head coach, and last summer’s transfer window was the first in which he could recruit a full suite of players he wanted – in conjunction with sporting director Simon Rolfes.

Among the new arrivals were Granit Xhaka, Álex Grimaldo, Victor Boniface and Jonas Hofmann, and they have fitted in seamlessly to what has become Alonso’s preferred 3-4-2-1 formation.

A well-understood system
In each of Bayer’s 12 Bundesliga games so far, Alonso has used the aforementioned system. In front of Lukáš Hrádecký, there is a three-man central defence, supported by a double-pivot midfield in Xhaka and, invariably, Argentina World Cup winner Exequiel Palacios.

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Grimaldo on the left flank and Jeremie Frimpong on the right patrol the wings, covering the wide areas defensively but also getting involved in the attacks. Hofmann and Florian Wirtz pull the strings as a double 10 operating behind Boniface at the point of the attack.

In short, it is a 3-4-2-1 in which everyone knows their roles. The centre of the pitch is packed with bodies, leaving room for the pacy-wide men to advance.

Dynamic in possession, working hard to win it back
As can be evidenced from Bayer’s average positions in the recent 4-0 win over Union Berlin – in which Grimaldo was one of four different scorers – the widemen played high when in possession. But when the ball was lost they pulled back to around the halfway line.

Continuity in team selection
It is perhaps unsurprising that the aforementioned new boys have adapted so well – they have been given ample time to bed in without interruption. Indeed, Alonso has only made eight changes to his typical starting XI since the start of the season – which is by far the fewest in the league. Bochum and Heidenheim are second by this measure with 16 each.

No outfield player has played more minutes than Grimaldo’s (l.) 1,075 minutes, but the whole team looks settled. – Markus Gilliar

The Spaniard has used an identical starting line-up in eight of Die Werkself’s 12 Bundesliga games this season. Seven squad members have started every game, and a further three have started 10 times.

Spreading the load
Despite Boniface’s impressive start at Bayer – seven goals and five assists – they don’t have individuals far outperforming their xG such as Harry Kane at Bayern Munich or VfB Stuttgart’s Serhou Guirassy.

Instead, the goalscoring load has been shared. Against Union, Odilon Kossounou and Nathan Tella bagged their first Bundesliga goals. As well as Grimaldo, Jonathan Tah was on target the Saturday before the most recent international break, and Leverkusen are now up to 11 different scorers this season – a record league-wide.

That’s not to say Bayer lacks attacking quality. Only Bayern (33.5) and Stuttgart (28.3) – with Kane and Guirassy respectively – have a higher team xG than Leverkusen (26.7), and only RB Leipzig (9.5) and Bayern (8.5) have a greater xG efficiency – how close they come to achieving their expected goals – than Bayer (7.3).

A case for the defence
For all of Leverkusen’s attacking prowess, they have also been impressive defensively. Only Bayern have conceded fewer goals (nine to Leverkusen’s 10), and Die Werkself have kept five clean sheets.

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Due to their tactical discipline, Leverkusen are one of only two teams yet to have conceded a goal on the counter-attack – an incredible record for such an attacking team. Although they defend from the front, they are rarely offside, with players only flagged 10 times so far – another league-best mark.

With 107 shots on their goal, Leverkusen have allowed the second-fewest after Bayern and the 11 big chances created against them beat everybody but Eintracht Frankfurt. At both ends of the field, Alonso’s side are top-notch.

Even attacking zones but goals through the middle
Leverkusen’s attacking zones are distributed more evenly than any other team in the Bundesliga – 29 per cent down the left flank, 20 per cent in the inside left channel, 18 per cent in the inside right channel, and 33 per cent down the right. The result is that opponents can’t afford to focus on one source of danger, as another will open up.

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However, the goals normally originate from the centre – that is to say that Wirtz, Hofmann, Xhaka and Palacios pull the strings and are good at picking out the forward runs made by the wingers.

Some 24 of their 37 goals so far have been initiated from the middle of the pitch (65 per cent), which is a league third-best mark. Instead of the widemen putting crosses in, they are more likely to try to score themselves, hence Grimaldo’s seven goals and Frimpong’s four.

Set pieces
Leverkusen can often rely on their dynamic game from open play, but they also have an ace in the hole with their set pieces. Alonso was something of a free-kick master himself as a player for Bayern, Real Sociedad, Liverpool and Real Madrid before that, and set plays remain important to his side today.

Leverkusen have scored eight goals from set pieces – four corners, two free-kicks and two penalties – which is yet another Bundesliga high-water mark this season. When the team finds itself in the trenches, close games can still be decided this way.

Pass masters
Alonso may have shared his compatriot Grimaldo’s ability to score from a free-kick, but he is perhaps best remembered for his distribution, and that is something he had instilled in his Leverkusen team.

Last season, Bayer averaged 51 per cent of possession – a stat diluted by the fact that the Seoane was at the helm for the first two months of the season. That number has climbed to 58 per cent this term, second only to Bayern. They have also completed a league-high 90 per cent of their passes.

Even when taking into account final third passes alone – where a player may have to thread the ball through the eye of a needle compared to one of the centre-backs passing a matter of metres to a teammate – Bayer’s pass ratio only drops to 89 per cent.

Conclusion
Leverkusen’s system under Alonso is proving a handful to deal with, and the new players have gelled with the old in double-quick time. The squad is also deep, so when Bayer is forced to rotate, like at the Africa Cup of Nations in January and February, Patrick Schick, Josip Stanišić – signed on loan from Bayern – and Piero Hincapié will be ready to step in for Boniface, Kossounou and Edmond Tapsoba respectively.

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New midfielder Xhaka has completed 94 per cent of his passes. Wirtz, a relative veteran in this side despite his tender 20 years, has assisted 31 goalscoring chances up ahead of him.

The results have been phenomenal. No team has ever had more than 34 points at this stage of a season, although Bayern managed the same when Alonso still played for them in 2015/16, and their 37 goals scored are a club record to boot.

The season still has a long way to go, but Leverkusen looks like they could finally shake their ‘Neverkusen’ tag with the way they are playing under Alonso.