It’s first versus second in the Bundesliga on Friday night, as Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen travel to Bayern Munich. Both have 100% records thus far, and there are signs that Leverkusen could be Bayern’s biggest threat in the title race.
Bayer Leverkusen have made a dream start to the new Bundesliga season, sitting pretty at the top of the table with nine points from their first three games. After 2003-04 and 2013-14, this season is just the third time in history that they’ve started a Bundesliga campaign with three consecutive wins.
What’s more, Xabi Alonso’s men have done it by playing some sparkling attacking football. No Bundesliga side has scored more than their 11 goals so far this campaign, and Leverkusen themselves have never scored more than 11 goals in the first three games of a Bundesliga season in their history.
It’s been a long 31 years since the club’s last trophy, the DFB Pokal in 1992-93, and Bayer’s strong early form has their fans dreaming of an end to that drought. To do that, they’ll have to get past Bayern Munich, the perennial favourites for the Bundesliga crown. However, there are signs that suggest Leverkusen could be the Bavarians’ closest rival this season…
Victor Boniface Is Providing Firepower up Top
Due to Patrik Schick’s torrid time with injuries last season, Leverkusen often lacked a potent finisher in the opponent’s box, and Florian Wirtz or Amine Adli were often deployed as false nines to paper over that problem. The arrival of Victor Boniface from Union Saint-Gilloise has changed everything. The Nigerian, one of several of his countrymen making their mark across Europe, already has four goals to his name and a further two assists. His six goal involvements are the most of any Bundesliga player through three games this season. Since detailed data is available (2004-05), Boniface is only the third Bundesliga player to register six goal involvements in his first three Bundesliga games after Dortmund’s Paco Alcácer in 2018 and Erling Haaland in 2020 (both with seven).
At the heart of Boniface’s fast start has been his ability to get shots away at a great volume. His 21 shots are by far the most in the league, seven more than Bayern’s Harry Kane who sits in second with 14. In Leverkusen’s 3-0 win at Borussia Mönchengladbach on Matchday 2, Boniface attempted a staggering 11 shots – a new club record in a Bundesliga match (again, since 2004-5).
With Boniface spearheading the attack, it looks like Alonso’s found a reliable source of goals at the sharp end of the pitch.
The Return of Florian Wirtz
Bayer Leverkusen had to do without Wirtz for the first half of last season due a serious knee injury. It was not until the start of 2023 that the highly gifted youngster made his season bow. Wirtz hit the ground running though and registered six assists by the end of the season – the most of any Leverkusen player in that period.
The German international was able to carry his strong form into the new season and, in addition to his three goal involvements (one goal, two assists), he’s already created 13 chances for his teammates. Only Hoffenheim’s Andrej Kramaric (15) has created more so far.
Wirtz’s ability to fashion high-quality chances for his teammates will be key if they are to continue their hot start. Since his comeback in January this year, Wirtz has created 13 big – or clear-cut – chances for his teammates in the top flight – more than any other Bundesliga player in that period.
Granit Xhaka is Their New Leader in Midfield
Seven years after moving from Mönchengladbach to Arsenal, Granit Xhaka has returned to the Bundesliga after playing 297 competitive games for the north London side, and he brings with him the knowledge and experience of winning major trophies. Although Arsenal were denied the Premier League title by Manchester City last season, the Swiss still has several honours to his name after winning the FA Cup in 2017 and 2020.
Xhaka has settled into life at Bayer Leverkusen seamlessly. He’s started each of their three league games, completed the full 90 minutes twice and is every bit an on-field leader.
The former Arsenal man has brought his traditional steel to Bayer’s midfield, but he’s also continued where he left off with Mikel Arteta’s side, making telling contributions in attack.
Playing as the left-sided central midfielder in Leverkusen’s 3-4-2-1, he’s had license to push forward and support attacks.
After just three games, Xhaka has registered four secondary assists – the pass before the assist – and has attempted 52 passes into the attacking third. Both are the best figures in the league. Among all midfielders, his 278 passes are only surpassed by Joshua Kimmich (291), and Bayern’s temporary skipper is the only midfielder who’s started in all three games that can better Xhaka’s passing accuracy of 91%.
Dangerous Down the Right
With Moussa Diaby leaving for Aston Villa, Leverkusen lost the player with the most direct goal involvements for them last season (17). Together with Jeremie Frimpong, who often played behind Diaby as a right wing-back, the pair formed an extremely dangerous partnership down Bayer’s right flank.
Diaby is gone, but in Jonas Hofmann, who arrived from Borussia Mönchengladbach, Leverkusen have signed a strong replacement for the departing Frenchman. Since the beginning of the last season, Hofmann has been directly involved in 24 Bundesliga goals (13 goals, 11 assists) – a figure only surpassed by Randal Kolo Muani (27). Hofmann has been directly involved in at least two goals in six different Bundesliga matches during this period – only his new teammate Frimpong has managed this feat more often (seven times).
In the early stage of this season, Frimpong (one goal, three assists) and Hofmann (one goal, two assists) have already made several key contributions in attack as Leverkusen look to once again find joy down their right wing.
New Style of Play Under Xabi Alonso
In 2022-23, Alonso took over Bayer Leverkusen in a precarious situation. With his side second from bottom, he opted for a pragmatic approach to steer them away from danger. The clear focus was on stabilising the defence, and from a low block, Leverkusen would then look to spring forward quickly on the counter-attack through their direct and speedy wingers.
They didn’t look to press too regularly, but when they did, they were very effective. Alonso’s side registered the second fewest high turnovers (217) in the Bundesliga last season after Borussia Mönchengladbach (201), but had the third-most shot-ending turnovers. Bayer converted 20% of their high turnovers into a shot, which was the highest share in the league, suggesting they weren’t pressing much, but were taking their opportunities to do so very effectively.
But that style of play has changed dramatically this year. Due to the departure of Diaby – who offered them a quick outlet on the wing – and the comfort of their new signings in possession, Alonso has modified his side’s playing style over the summer.
What’s immediately most notable is how much higher Leverkusen set up on the pitch. Their press is more regular, and they’re starting their attacking sequences almost five metres higher up the pitch than last season.
In possession they’ve changed a lot, too, now relying on long passing sequences to manipulate their opponents’ shape. So far in 2023-24, Leverkusen have completed 65 open-play sequences containing at least 10 passes, by far the highest number in the league. As is their average of 640 passes per match.
Those are numbers that should make Alonso’s heart swell. The Spaniard is one of only three Bundesliga players in recorded history to have attempted over 200 passes in a single Bundesliga game, so monopolising the ball is something that comes naturally to him.
Having already upset his former club in March with a 2-1 win, Alonso will certainly want to prove on his first return to Munich that his team can have a significant say in the title fight this year.