Bayer Leverkusen were in the relegation zone when Xabi Alonso took over. A little over 18 months later, he’s led them to their first Bundesliga title ever.

Xabi Alonso was patient. Even before he took up a coaching role with Real Madrid’s Under-14s after hanging up his boots, he’d been offered senior positions elsewhere. The satisfaction of that job brought with it the realisation he really wanted to pursue a coaching career; yet he kept his feet on the ground, determined to learn and bide his time.

He was the head coach of Real Sociedad’s B team, ‘Sanse’, for three years, staying much longer than most would’ve expected of an ex-pro of his standing, with many of his peers already higher up the football pyramid. At Sanse, Alonso guided the team back to the Segunda División for the first time since the early 1960s, resisting the lure of Borussia Mönchengladbach that season and even signing a contract extension.

But in May 2022, with Sanse set to drop back to the third tier and Imanol Alguacil blocking his passage to the senior team, Alonso departed with his reputation greatly enhanced despite that relegation. Again, he waited patiently until October, when Bayer Leverkusen came calling as they sought a coach who could steer the team away from a relegation battle. To say he’s been a success since would be an understatement of immense proportions.

Sunday’s 5-0 thrashing of Werder Bremen at the BayArena ensured history was made. Alonso became the first manager or coach to ever win the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen; dubbed ‘Neverkusen’ or ‘Vizekusen’ (German for “second-kusen”) for historically finishing as runners-up, the Werkself made light work of Bayern Munich’s challenge this season.

Other prizes could yet be up for grabs as well, but the big one is the Bundesliga, their first trophy since the 1992-93 DFB-Pokal and the end of Bayern’s 11-season monopoly on the Meisterschale.

A Statement

Considering Bayer went into the weekend a whopping 16 points clear of Bayern and Stuttgart, to suggest there was one single decisive result would be to do their season a disservice – they’ve been consistently excellent over the whole campaign.

After all, they set a new Bundesliga record for most games unbeaten (29) from the start of a season after avoiding defeat to Werder on Sunday, but that undefeated streak isn’t just limited to the Bundesliga; they’ve not lost in any competition in 2023-24, with their most recent victory taking them to 43 games without defeat. Their 38 wins this term is also already a club record.

But such was Bayern’s stranglehold on the Bundesliga before this season, you have to highlight their meeting at the BayArena on 10 February. Who’s to say if it was a turning point, as Leverkusen may well have still romped to the title even if they’d lost, but that 3-0 victory was an emphatic statement, a signal that they had the quality and mentality to stand up to the Rekordmeister.

Leverkusen’s victory was significant because it left them with a 66% likelihood of going on to win the title, according to the Opta supercomputer at the time. Any other outcome would’ve seen Bayern remain the favourites with the projection model, their title chances rated at 54% if it’d been a draw and 73% had they won. It’s also worth noting that Thomas Tuchel’s men would’ve returned to the summit with victory.

Bundesliga title race - Bayer Leverkusen vs Bayern Munich
Bundesliga title success probability across the season, according to the Opta supercomputerJonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

Alonso’s tactical versatility came to the fore, however. He caught many off guard with some of his selections, leaving Jeremie Frimpong on the bench and starting with Amine Adli leading the line as opposed to recognised centre-forwards Borja Iglesias and Patrik Schick. He also adapted Leverkusen’s setup; usually they’d look to dominate the ball and press high, but on this occasion, they ceded possession to Bayern and sat deeper, with Alonso seemingly convinced their fluid structure combined with direct attacks could do damage.

Leverkusen’s seven high turnovers was their fourth fewest in a single Bundesliga game this season; their five pressed sequences was the fewest, as was their seven instances of passing sequences comprising 10 or more passes. Suffice to say, Alonso made plenty of tweaks.

Furthermore, despite Bayern having 61% possession, the most any team has had against Leverkusen in a single game this term, they created chances worth just 0.56 expected goals (xG). Bayern have only posted a poorer xG output in two Bundesliga games going back to the start of the 2017-18 season.

Bayer Leverkusen 3-0 Bayern Munich xG map

Alex Grimaldo’s infield runs coupled with Piero Hincapié’s forays into the vacated left wing-back areas proved helpful both in terms of creating central overloads and retaining a presence on the left flank; the runs of Adli and Nathan Tella in behind the aggressive Bayern defence brought joy; and Florian Wirtz, deployed as the central attacker, succeeded in creating space for colleagues by dropping deep in an attempt to lure Eric Dier, who routinely gobbled up the bait.

Leverkusen had some strokes of fortune, granted. For instance, Robert Andrich’s cross for Josip Stanišić’s opener luckily squeezed through the legs of a defender, and Frimpong’s late clincher came with Manuel Neuer stranded up the other end for a Bayern corner.  

But Alonso’s adaptability and the clarity of his tactics laid the groundwork for a real statement of a victory, and Leverkusen haven’t looked back since, also finally overtaking Bayern in the Opta Power Rankings at the start of April.

Alonso’s Lieutenants

Alonso deserves huge credit for the turnaround he’s overseen since taking charge in October 2022 with Leverkusen in the relegation zone, but he’s not done it alone. His players have delivered the goods on the pitch, with a handful particularly inspiring.

Granit Xhaka has been especially influential. While he did perform to a high level towards the end of his seven years at Arsenal, it’s fair to say his prominence back in Germany has surprised some.

He’s one of the main reasons Alonso’s been able to transform Leverkusen into a possession-dominant side (more on that later), with his 2,796 successful passes 68 more than any other player in the top five leagues this term. Those account for 92.2% of his total open-play passes, which is a pass completion rate only six Bundesliga players (minimum 1,000 passes) can better (though he’s attempted over 1,000 more than all of them).

But it’s not just a case of endless simple passes that add little. His distribution brings real value and purpose, as demonstrated by the fact his 409 passes into the final third is the most of any outfield player in Europe’s top five leagues this season. Additionally, his 206 open-play shot-ending sequence involvements and 93 combined chances created/secondary chances created (the pass before the pass that sets up a chance) are both only second to one player in the Bundesliga. And while he may not have tallied any assists, his 12 secondary assists (the pass before an assist) is double that of anyone else in the German top flight.

Granit Xhaka final third entries

That brings us nicely on to Florian Wirtz, the only player to rank above Xhaka for shot-ending sequence involvements and chances created + secondary chances created (227 and 107). The prodigiously talented 20-year-old attacking midfielder missed a chunk of 2022-23 through injury before sparkling again in the second half of that season; in 2023-24, he’s found another level to consolidate his reputation as one of the world’s most promising young players.

While there is so much more to him than sheer creativity, with Wirtz a fine dribbler, carrier and connector, being a creative source is undoubtedly one of his strengths. No one can better his 69 chances created and 10 assists in open play, and he’s even been a real goal threat, with his hat-trick in Sunday’s victory taking him into double figures with 11.

Florian Wirtz goal involvements

Sure, a couple of his assists were a little fortunate; Andrich’s long-range strike against Mainz in February was spilled into the net by the goalkeeper, and Jonas Hofmann’s goal against Freiburg in October hit the post and the keeper before the net. However, his league-high 9.0 expected assists (xA) reflects the value he provides, and there have also been moments of pure genius, such as the deft flick to tee up Hofmann in the 3-0 defeat of Köln or the run and pass to release Victor Boniface at Borussia Mönchengladbach in August.

In fact, Wirtz’s on-pitch relationship with Boniface was a huge factor in the opening months of the season. Before Christmas, they combined for seven goals in the Bundesliga, then the Nigerian suffered an injury from which he only returned in early April.

Florian Wirtz and Victor Boniface combination
Jonny Whitmore / Senior Data Editor

The fact Leverkusen continued full steam ahead even without Boniface, whose considerable attacking impact in the first half of the season can be outlined in the graphic below, speaks to the collective strength and excellence of Alonso’s squad.

Victor Boniface xG x xA in the Bundesliga
xG and xA per 90 minutes from the start of the season until Germany’s winter breakJonny Whitmore / Senior Data Editor

Grimaldo, Frimpong, Jonathan Tah and Hofmann all more than played their part, especially the former pair, who’ve scored 17 goals between them as wing-backs this season. You hope now, for the good of German football, the majority follow the lead of their coach and opt against jumping ship when the vultures inevitably begin circling this summer.

The Mastermind

What makes Leverkusen’s success even more impressive is how Alonso has adapted their style quite dramatically over his relatively short time in charge. There’s a significant difference in how they’ve played in 2023-24 to 2022-23, and much of this was even evident in the first few weeks of this season.

Bayer Leverkusen zones of control 2022-23

For most coaches after joining a club, they’ll establish (or try to establish) a style of play and core principles for the team to adhere to. Alonso did that, and then essentially did it again for the 2023-24 campaign.

Although Bayer did generally have more possession than their opponents in 2022-23, their average possession of 51.8% reflects a degree of pragmatism in Alonso’s tactics; they were happy to seek counter-attack opportunities, knowing they were effective in transition and had the pace of Moussa Diaby to exploit. However, this term their possession share has shot up to 63.1%, which is much more indicative of a team that seeks control. In fact, across the top five leagues in 2023-24, only Barcelona (65.0%), Paris Saint-Germain (65.5%) and Manchester City (65.9%) have had a greater average share of the ball.

The interactive above shows Bayer Leverkusen’s zones of control in 2023-24

Furthermore, of the teams to compete in the top five leagues across each of the past two seasons, only Tottenham have seen a more significant increase to their time on the ball (+13.3, from 49.8% to 62.1%) than Leverkusen (+11.2).

Last summer, Spurs hired a manager in Ange Postecoglou who represented a major departure from his predecessor, so a dramatic change makes sense; Leverkusen didn’t. It’s all Alonso.

That’s just the tip of the iceberg, though. With their time on the ball increasing dramatically, the way they manipulate possession has also changed as highlighted in the graphic below, and they’ve adapted to press higher as well, with Alonso evidently looking to contain the play in the opposition’s half as much as possible.

Bayer Leverkusen playing style this season vs last season
Jonathan Manuel / Data Analyst

They had shown signs of their pressing proficiency in 2022-23. While their 217 high turnovers (possession regains within 40m of the opposition’s goal) was the second-fewest in the Bundesliga last term, 20% of those led to a shot, which was the highest proportion of any team in Germany’s top flight. In 2023-24, they’ve remarkably maintained such efficiency (20%) despite seeing their high turnovers total increase massively to 315 already, which is 43 more than any other side in the division.

Bayer Leverkusen 2022-23 and 2023-24 stats

Most importantly, all of this contributes to them being effective in attack, with only Bayern (80) scoring more than them (74), and incredibly shrewd defensively, conceding 14 fewer goals than anyone else in the Bundesliga; only Inter (0.53) and Real Madrid (0.65) have conceded fewer on a per-game average than Bayer (0.66) across the top five leagues this term.

As a result, glory is theirs. No more is it a case of wondering if Leverkusen can overthrow Bayern; they’ve already done it, with their title triumph a worthy reward for an incredible season that the Bundesliga needed after 11 seasons of Bayern dominance.

Alonso’s patience has paid off handsomely and there could be even more to come.

Enjoy this? Subscribe to our football newsletter to receive exclusive weekly content. You should also follow our social accounts over on XInstagramTikTok and Facebook.