This weekend was a significant one in the title race, but why it was so important, and do recent results really mean Bayer Leverkusen are going to break their Bundesliga duck?
Bayer Neverkusen, sorry, Leverkusen top the Bundesliga, and they are dreaming of a historic first ever title.
They have that ‘Neverkusen’ nickname for a reason. Leverkusen have finished in second place on five occasions, which is three more times than any other title-less side in Germany. All five of their runners-up medals have come in the last 30 years, meaning recent history is very much against them, too. And given only one letter had to be changed to reach the word ‘Neverkusen’, opposition fans couldn’t really resist the opportunity.
But now, things might just be different. With serial winner Xabi Alonso – he of two Champions League wins, one in La Liga, three in the Bundesliga, two European Championships, one World Cup and a whole lot more as a player – at the helm, Leverkusen fans are hoping their team can finally lift the curse. At the weekend, they took a big step towards doing just that.
A week earlier, they had confirmed their place at the top of the table at the halfway stage for the third time in their history. They were midway through the 2023-24 campaign and, incredibly, still remained unbeaten. And yet, while some might have considered that important, this weekend felt even more significant.
On both previous occasions that Leverkusen had previously been top of the Bundesliga at the midway point, they fell away and finished second, doing so in 2002 and 2009. In 2002, they were also runners-up in the DFB-Pokal and the Champions League. Their reputation as Germany’s nearly men really is justified.
They required a 94th-minute winner to overcome mid-table Augsburg in their first game after the winter break, with that skin-of-their-teeth win coming a day after Bayern Munich had brushed Hoffenheim aside, winning 3-0. It meant Leverkusen were top of the table after 17 of 34 games, but it hadn’t felt entirely convincing, and the jubilant celebrations that met Exequiel Palacios’ late winner reflected a relief at not having dropped points. Yes, they were still top, but a reality in which Bayern, four points behind Leverkusen with a game in hand, ate up the points difference still seemed like the most likely eventuality.
But after this weekend’s results, there appears to be more reason to think that this really could be Leverkusen’s year.
Facing a tricky trip to RB Leipzig, Alonso’s men rode their luck for long periods and spent much of the first period camped deep inside their half. They created very little before the break – generating just 0.25 expected goals (xG) – and went behind to Xavi Simons’ fantastic early opener. They dug in, though, and made it to half-time one goal down and still in the game.
Alonso’s side came out for the second half firing, and Nathan Tella levelled the game after ghosting in at the back post to tap in Álex Grimaldo’s low cross. Leverkusen pushed for a second, but were hit on the break when Loïs Openda put Leipzig back in front.
But this Leverkusen team never give up and they scored two set-piece goals – the second in the 91st minute from Piero Hincapié – to earn a genuinely momentous victory against one of the Bundesliga’s Champions League hopefuls. Wild celebrations at the final whistle felt like much more than relief this time.
Alone, it was a hugely consequential result. But when, the next day, Bayern followed it up by falling to a shock defeat at home to struggling Werder Bremen, Leverkusen’s last-gasp win at Leipzig became genuinely critical in the title race.
The weekend’s results were so significant, in fact, that for the first time this season, the all-knowing Opta supercomputer says Bayern are no longer favourites for the title. Leverkusen win the Bundesliga title in 57.8% of the supercomputer’s latest round of season simulations, compared to 42.1% for Bayern. Bayern’s title chances had not previously dropped below 50% all season.
Of course, there’s a great deal of time left and a lot of football to be played, and – we’re sorry to bring you this news – the supercomputer can’t actually predict the future.
But the fact that an objective model would now deem the winners of the last 11 Bundesliga titles to be outsiders – less likely to win the league than the team who can’t buy a winners’ medal – is unquestionably significant.
So, can Bayer Leverkusen really win a first ever Bundesliga title this year?
Well, any team that goes through 18 games undefeated in one of Europe’s major leagues has to be a very good side, and there is clearly more than just a good run of form at play here. Alonso has built a fantastic team, and many of his signings have been extremely astute.
Granit Xhaka (€25m), Victor Boniface (€20m), Jonas Hofmann (€10m) and Grimaldo (free) all arrived in the summer and look like bargains considering how important they’ve been this season. Boniface is the only one of them who hasn’t played in all of Leverkusen’s league games, and he has only missed the last two through injury.
Under Alonso, who had so much success as a player in that iconic Spain team, Leverkusen unsurprisingly play a possession-heavy, high-pressing brand of football. They’ve had more possession (61.5%) than every other Bundesliga team this season, making them the first team to rank higher than Bayern for possession in any Bundesliga season since Werder did 16 years ago in 2007-08.
Leverkusen dominate the ball right across the pitch, only seeing significantly less of it (45% or lower) than their opponents in the central part the opposition’s penalty area, as the below graphic shows.
They have put together more open-play sequences of 10 or more passes (405) than any other team, with the average length of their sequences (4.96 passes per sequence) longer than everyone else as well.
There is end product to their passing, too, with Leverkusen enjoying more sequences of 10+ passes that end in a shot or touch in the opposition’s penalty area (94) than any other team. No other Bundesliga team can better their seven goals from such sequences, either (Bayern also seven).
Without the ball, they have won back possession within 40 metres of their opponents’ goal at least 20 times more than any other team (191), and they also rank first for high turnovers leading to a shot (36). With four goals directly resulting from high turnovers, they rank second to VfB Stuttgart.
Their goals have been spread throughout the team as well, with five players having reached five goals for the season already; no other Bundesliga team has more than three. Those five players have also all registered six or more assists, too; only 10 Bundesliga players have at least five goals and six assists this season, meaning Leverkusen account for half of those players alone.
Meanwhile, at the other end, they have the best defence in the league, with just 14 goals conceded in 18 games, and a remarkably low eight goals shipped in open play.
It does appear as though there is something sustainable here; far more than the nature of their two most recent, last-gasp wins suggests. It appears there is more than mere gut feeling to our supercomputer’s predictions.
A couple of key absentees might help to explain why Leverkusen hadn’t been at their best since the winter break.
They have been without top scorer Boniface, who has missed out on representing Nigeria at the Africa Cup of Nations due to injury. Leverkusen also had more players called up to the tournament than any other Bundesliga team, with Edmond Tapsoba, Odilon Kossounou and Amine Adli all competing in Ivory Coast.
It was always going to take some time to adjust to playing without Boniface in particular, while Tapsoba’s absence will naturally affect how fluently they build up, as well as how well they defend. Playing without two key players has also accentuated the extremes in their reliance on leaving it late and scoring from set-pieces.
Much of Leverkusen’s success this season has been built on their strong performances after the break. Based on the scores in the second halves of games this season, Leverkusen have 10 more points than any other team. That might reflect their tendency to start more slowly than, say, Bayern, who will regularly be two goals up inside 25 minutes and not need to ‘win’ the second half, but it also highlights an ability to go the distance, as well as a togetherness, belief and depth in the squad. The two recent injury-time winners are simply a byproduct of the team taking a little longer than usual to click; they are their only 90th-minute winners all season.
Meanwhile, their 11 goals from set-pieces is the joint most in the Bundesliga alongside Heidenheim, and they could become an even more important route to goal in the coming weeks. With their first team disrupted for a few more games at least with Tapsoba’s Burkina Faso heading for the knockout rounds at AFCON 2023 and Boniface set to miss most of the rest of the season, set-piece goals will remain crucial.
Any team needs a fair bit of luck to win a title, and a team like Leverkusen need even more to upset the Bundesliga status quo and disrupt Bayern’s monopoly. Our expected points model, which uses expected goals numbers to try and work out how each match ‘should’ have ended based on the quality of chances each team had, suggests Leverkusen should actually be third in the table.
But more scrappy and sometimes undeserved wins will be required if Leverkusen are to win the title, and they shouldn’t take too much notice of this kind of table.
In Xhaka, they have a player who found out last season just how difficult it is to sustain a title challenge against a behemoth like Bayern, as part of an Arsenal team who stumbled in the Premier League’s final weeks and lost the title race with Manchester City.
There are a few similarities between Arsenal’s title challenge of 2022-23 and Leverkusen’s this season, so Alonso will hope his midfielder can pass on any lessons he learned to his new teammates.
Now favourites to win the title, this Leverkusen squad can start believing they can win their first Bundesliga title this summer. Do that, and they will banish the ‘Neverkusen’ moniker forever.
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