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Bayer Leverkusen win the title: Xabi Alonso’s achievement ranks among the great seasons in European football

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The Bundesliga season turned into a procession but not for the team that had won the previous 11 titles. Bayer Leverkusen have blown away the competition to win the trophy for the first time in the club’s history – and without losing a single game.

Keep this up for the remaining five fixtures and Leverkusen will break Bayern’s record of a decade ago for the most points ever accumulated in a Bundesliga season. It illustrates that even Bayern at their very best could not compete with this.

It is an extraordinary accomplishment, a testament to a team in tune with one another, a masterclass on and off the pitch. Remarkable recruitment and quality coaching have combined to provide the platform for these players to ascend to greatness.

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Here’s how Xabi Alonso has forged a practically perfect team at Bayer Leverkusen

Alex Grimaldo must rank among the finest free transfer signings ever made. The early-season goals of Victor Boniface propelled them and everyone followed. There is the leadership of Granit Xhaka and the glorious gifts of the precocious Florian Wirtz.

But at the centre of this story is Xabi Alonso.

To explain how all this happened – and how improbable it is that it has happened – it is worth considering where Leverkusen were when Alonso was appointed in October of last season. This was a team that was one place off the bottom of the Bundesliga table.

Bundesliga table as it stood when Xabi Alonso arrived at Bayer Leverkusen
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Bundesliga table as it stood when Xabi Alonso arrived at Bayer Leverkusen

Speaking to sporting director Simon Rolfes in his office at the BayArena not long afterwards, he painted a picture of the mood at the time. “The starting point was a team without trust, players without trust. It was a difficult situation. A really difficult situation for Xabi.”

Eighteen months on and Leverkusen are the best team in Germany. Given that, 43 games into the campaign, they remain unbeaten in all competitions, it is no longer outlandish to suggest that they could well be the best team in European football right now.

Charismatic coach

Alonso had pedigree as a player and shown some evidence of his commitment to building a coaching career but appointing him to his first top-flight job was still a gamble. Rolfes was betting on the man and his broader background, an eclectic mix of influences.

Part of the all-conquering Spain side, and having played under Pep Guardiola at Bayern, he is understandably committed to playing a possession game. A trophy winner under Rafael Benitez and Jose Mourinho, he knows how to make a team hard to beat too.

Throw in a Champions League win under Carlo Ancelotti, that master of man-management, and he has seen every approach going.

Xabi Alonso has had an astonishing season with Bayer Leverkusen
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Xabi Alonso has been an inspirational figure at Bayer Leverkusen

Putting it together is another matter but as former Leverkusen striker Ulf Kirsten explains, Alonso is unusual in that he has the aura of a great player without the attitude that he already knows it all. Such knowledge with a willingness to learn is a heady cocktail.

“You get that feeling that he is just different to other coaches. I can’t really explain it, it is just the way he looks. When I look at other coaches, he is a lot more humble. He gives off a completely different personality to other coaches who also won as players.”

Finding his own style

Alonso inherited a young team with pace to counter-attack but wanted to fuse that with a more patient approach. Last season, in lifting the team up to sixth, he was able to do that in a relatively understated way. This season, Leverkusen are a team transformed.

The possession numbers have gone from 51.8 per cent per game to 63.4 per cent – the biggest rise of any team in Europe’s major leagues. But it is anything but passive. Leverkusen can still cut through teams on the counter-attack, moving forward at speed.

“It is not boring, it is not long-winded, it is full of control but also efficient, and they put the pressure on going forward,” says Kirsten.

“They are always looking for the penetrating pass. They are secure in possession, they want to control the ball, but they are always looking to penetrate out wide, where someone is often running in behind. It is an amazing way to play and it brings success.”

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Bayer Leverkusen beat Werder Bremen 5-0 to win a first Bundesliga title in style

Perfect recruitment

The turnaround had already begun but the summer was crucial. It was not just that Leverkusen bought brilliantly, although they did, it was that Alonso was able to identify the exact characteristics that he needed to take this team to the next level.

Speaking to Lothar Matthaus earlier this season, he recognised this. “Before, they were working with only the young generation. Now Xabi has thought, I don’t need the young generation player, I want to win a title, and for this I need experience.”

Matthaus added: “I think the Leverkusen people who signed the players had been listening to Xabi and made the perfect transfer window. The summer preparation was the key for him to change the team, change the mentality, with these experienced players.”

Xhaka, now 31, has been a revelation in midfield. Jonas Hofmann, also 31, was another sensible signing. But some of the other signings were visionary. Boniface, plucked from Belgium, swiftly scored seven goals in his first five Bundesliga appearances.

Grimaldo has been the most outrageous of the lot. Snaffled away from Benfica, the 28-year-old left-back has been reinvented as a creative wizard and goal-getter – only Boniface has scored more. “And to think he was a free transfer,” says Kirsten.

“You have to give the scouting department or whoever discovered him, you have to take your hat off to them. To sign a player like that for free, with his quality, and he will probably be sold for 50, 60, 70 million now. It is crazy.”


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Depth has been key

Grimaldo has been a fixture, starting every Bundesliga game, but others have come in and out. Nothing has derailed the charge. Boniface did not start a game for four months between December and April but Patrik Schick stepped up and the wins kept coming.

Jonathan Tah has had a superb season at the back but Leverkusen have not even conceded a goal in the three Bundesliga matches that he has missed. Success in the cup competitions, for which Alonso has often rotated, highlights the depth of this squad.

“It is not just 12 or 13, it is really the whole squad,” says Kirsten. “When someone is injured or suspended or with the national team they are replaced seamlessly, and that is a rare thing to have in a team. It is a team built out of 25 players, who all play the same way.”

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Granit Xhaka praised head coach Xabi Alonso after their Bundesliga title win

Mentality monsters

Having players who can come in off the bench has been a big factor in Leverkusen winning points late in games. Alonso’s side have accumulated eight of their points by changing the score after the 75-minute mark. Bayern have only picked up one.

The most dramatic examples of this have come in Europe, however. Two down at home to Qarabag in March, Schick scored twice in stoppage time to win that one. Against West Ham, two more late goals broke their resistance. The players’ belief is palpable.

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Watch Bayer Leverkusen’s incredible comeback against Hoffenheim in March

“The thing that stands out the most is their mentality, when they go behind or when they do not have great spells in a game, they have always been able to turn it around and that is an amazing quality to have,” says Kirsten.

“The opponents know that too. Against Leverkusen, or in Leverkusen, you are never sure of a result, they can always score one or two in the 90th minute to earn a draw or even a win, and that is a great quality that the team has.”

And when they do score first? Leverkusen have won all 23 Bundesliga games in which they have scored the first goal. Their concentration is impressive. They concede the fewest late goals too, letting in only three after the 75-minute mark to Bayern’s nine.

Neverkusen no more

If this were Real Madrid pulling off these feats, it would be explained away as part of the culture, the innate self-belief that comes with the club’s history as Europe’s most successful side. But Alonso has achieved it at a club that was noted for not winning.

The anglicised Neverkusen moniker, forever linked to 2002 when Leverkusen lost out on a trio of trophies, including the Champions League, had come to define them. Alonso has made a mockery of that by outlasting a brittle Bayern to win this title in style.

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Xabi Alonso ending the speculation by committing his future to Bayer Leverkusen

It will be celebrated wildly but thanks to Alonso’s decision to commit his future to the club, despite interest from Liverpool among others, it does not feel like it needs to be the end. The underlying numbers show this was no fluke. There is an opportunity to build.

But that is a conversation for another day. What Alonso has already accomplished deserves to stand alone as one of the great seasons in European history. An extraordinary achievement for Bayer Leverkusen. An extraordinary achievement for any club.

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