Football Features

Are Bayer Leverkusen Europe’s most exciting team right now?

By CJ Smith

Are Bayer Leverkusen Europe's most exciting team right now?

Published: 15:00, 23 December 2023

Bayer Leverkusen are on a mission to end Bayern Munich’s reign of terror in the Bundesliga.

Die Werkself currently sit at the summit of the German top flight, unbeaten and with 42 points to their name after 16 matches. They have scored a whopping 46 goals along the way, with league-bests of 12 conceded and seven clean sheets. Already, they’ve earned themselves the distinction of becoming the first-ever German team to go unbeaten in the first 25 games of a campaign (all comps), while they’ve never had as many points at this stage as they do now.

Manager Xabi Alonso has fully taken charge of Leverkusen after a transition year where he led the team from second-bottom to sixth place. This season, Leverkusen’s possession share has increased by almost 8% compared to the 2022/23 season, from 52.1% to 60.7%. Additionally, their average accurate passes per match has gone up from 406.1 to 596.1.

Alonso has stated that they were not a possession team last year, but rather a transition and counter team. He has worked hard to convince the players to change their approach to the game. This has made him a better coach, and he wanted to update and evolve their game.

Leverkusen is now playing arguably the most exciting football in Europe, and everyone is rooting for them to topple Bayern. But how is Alonso doing it? Who are the key figures? And most importantly, can the team, who are dubbed ‘Neverkusen’ because they have finished runner-up in the Bundesliga on five occasions without actually winning it, finally go all the way?

How do Leverkusen line up?

It may have surprised many given Alonso’s role in great Real Madrid and Spanish national teams of the past, but much of his success so far has come from a well-defined 3-4-2-1 system. Everybody is clear on their jobs, with Grant Xhaka and Exequiel Palacios acting as a shield for a three-man defence while turning into pin-point distributors when possession is turned over.

Further forward, the immensely talented Florian Wirtz lines up alongside Jonas Hoffmann as dual 10s behind Victor Boniface, meaning wing-backs Alex Grimaldo and Jeremie Frimpong are given licence to push forward, both making runs into the box and providing width for what is an otherwise narrow Leverkusen set-up.

Only Bayern Munich (61.1%) have averaged more possession than Leverkusen (60.7%) this season. But so far, Leverkusen’s has a greater purpose. Alonso’s side has played a league-high 886 progressive passes and 748 passes into the final third.

In short, Leverkusen is supreme at keeping the ball and looks to go forward more than anyone else in the Bundesliga.

Unsurprisingly given their dominance so far, there are plenty of parallels to be drawn between Leverkusen and Bayern Munich in terms of the xG, possession and final-third activity stats they post. But what is more striking is the similarity in style — even in different shapes — to Arsenal, who are managed by another former Spanish midfielder who is a disciple of Pep Guardiola: Mikel Arteta.

There are some minor differences in how the two teams generate chances, with Leverkusen still hitting teams quickly on the break when the chance arises, while Arsenal will attempt more crosses and cut-backs inside the box. But by and large, both sides dominate the ball in similar areas of the pitch.

The most attack-minded full-backs in Europe?

Arguably the most eye-catching aspect of Alonso’s Leverkusen this season has been the attacking role of their wing-backs. Even by the standards of the modern game, Frimpong and Grimaldo take things to a whole new level.

Frimpong has already registered five goals and six assists, while Grimaldo is second only to Boniface (10) with seven goals, setting up a further five. Of the top 20 most effective creator-to-goalscorer duos in the Bundesliga so far this season, seven of them are from Leverkusen, with Frimpong involved in two of them (Boniface to Frimpong and Frimpong to Wirtz).

Grimaldo, meanwhile, is the top-scoring defender in Europe’s ‘big five’ leagues, two clear of his nearest rival (which is Frimpong, of course).

As you’ll no doubt conclude, the shape of Alonso’s team has allowed his wing-backs to attack to the point where they can barely even be called defenders at all.

But even here, there is a nuance to how Alonso uses his wing-backs. In essence, Frimpong takes up a role as an auxiliary winger, with his average position as high as Hoffmann, Wirtz and Boniface. Grimaldo, meanwhile, is a little more balanced with his average position closer to the halfway line alongside Xhaka and Palacios.

This allows Frimpong to be a deadly presence in the box, with three of his five goals coming in the six-yard area and all five coming inside the 18. The Netherlands international’s pace gives him the edge when making late runs into the box and with Odilon Kossounou pushing into the right-back role behind him when he goes forward, Frimpong has little to worry about when it comes to chasing back when possession is lost.

On the other side, Grimaldo has more defensive responsibilities, as shown by him winning possession in the middle and defensive thirds combined on 80 occasions this season, compared to just 45 for Frimpong. Still, Grimaldo’s primary functions in this Leverkusen team are in possession. The Spaniard is much more involved in helping Leverkusen retain the ball, picking his moments to burst forward rather than doing so at will.

“He’s simply an incredible footballer, technically great and very intelligent,” Leverkusen managing director of sport Simon Rolfes has said. “Part of the reason why we dominate games to the extent we do at the moment is to do with him reading situations very quickly and coming forward to create overloads.”

Grimaldo is also lethal from distance, scoring twice from direct free-kicks this season — his effort early in the campaign against Bayern Munich even elicited an appreciative wave of the hand from Leroy Sane — and only once past the penalty spot.

How do Leverkusen build attacks and how does their midfield work?

Although their wing-backs are the flash Ferraris of this team, it’s no surprise to see that 64% of Leverkusen’s attacks start from central areas. Having a block of three centre-backs and two holding midfielders allows Alonso’s side to dominate the ball from deep, but Xhaka’s press resistance — only ranking fifth for the number of times he’s been dispossessed (14) despite having almost 300 more touches of the ball than any other teammate — coupled with Palacios being the joint-most fouled player in the league (37) shows just how effective they are at retaining possession.

Once the ball is progressed, Leverkusen’s shape looks more like a 3-3-4, most often with Grimaldo helping Xhaka and Palacios progress the ball forward and Frimpong joining Wirtz, Hoffmann and Boniface, though as mentioned, the wing-backs can interchange their roles.

And when the ball is in the attacking third, that is when Florian Wirtz comes into his own. The 20-year-old is arguably the most exciting young playmaker in Europe right now and is attracting admiring glances from many top clubs.

And rightly so. Wirtz has completed more passes into the final third (334) than any other Bundesliga player this season — with Xhaka and Palacios second and third, respectively — while he’s created the most chances from open play per 90 among players with 500+ minutes (2.69), has completed the second-most dribbles in the league (46) and has seven assists. He’s second only to Leroy Sane in each of the latter two metrics.

Wirtz has also won possession in the attacking third on 21 occasions so far this season, more than any other player. And that is a key indicator of how Leverkusen use their forward-thinking, free-flowing nature as a defensive weapon as well.

As you’d expect from a possession-heavy team, Leverkusen’s defensive actions are low. They’ve attempted the least tackles (295) in the Bundesliga and have made the lowest number of fouls (128). However, over those 295 tackles, 40 of them have been in the attacking third which is second only to Eintracht Frankfurt (43). They also have the highest percentage of tackles in the offensive third at 19.9%, with the next-highest being Bayern (16.36%).

Alonso’s men have faced just 9.3 shots per game so far this Bundesliga season, second only to Bayern (8.5). With those two topping the possession pile, it’s easy to see how simply denying your opponent time on the ball can serve as the best form of defence.

It would be a crime if we didn’t give Xhaka one more mention here. After a topsy-turvy Arsenal career, a move back to the Bundesliga felt like a chance to rejuvenate himself ahead of the final stretch of his career and to say he’s made the most of it would be a serious understatement.

No player in the Bundesliga has completed more progressive passes (176) than the Switzerland international this season, while Xhaka has sprayed passes to all areas of the pitch, regularly showing the playmaking prowess we only saw in glimpses at the Emirates. The result is a pass map that looks like an etch sketch, but that brilliantly demonstrates the on-field coverage of his passing.

Both he and Palacios have been the understated beating heart of this Leverkusen team this season not just in possession, but also in winning it back — the latter currently topping out among his teammates for tackles (54) with Xhaka in third (28), while Palacios is also top for interceptions (24).

Victor Boniface: Orchestrating the counter

Bayer Leverkusen has 11 different goalscorers this Bundesliga season, which is the most in the league. The man at the top of their pile, however, is Victor Boniface. Only Harry Kane (17), Serhou Guirassy (17) and Lois Openda (11) have more and his total is even more impressive when you consider it’s already a career-high in league play, beating his previous best of nine in 37 matches for Union-SG in Belgium last season.

We’ve already mentioned how accomplished Leverkusen are at putting together measured attacks using their possession. However, Alonso also has his side well-drilled in setting traps for the opposition and punching hard on the counter. Die Werkself have posted league-highs this season for take-ons leading to a shot (51) and shots from fast breaks (23). Boniface is their top performer in each metric with 20 and eight, respectively.

Incredibly, Boniface has won five consecutive Bundesliga Rookie of the Month awards, taking the crown in every single month since he joined Leverkusen.

“He helps the team with his game. He wants to enjoy the game. But not just for himself. He is not just a classic striker, not just a bomber – he is complete,” Alonso said of the Nigerian striker earlier this season.

What could go wrong for Leverkusen?

One thing that could potentially derail Leverkusen at this point is an injury crisis or fatigue. Their typical starting XI are the only players in the squad to log more than 330 minutes in the Bundesliga so far. True, they will benefit from the winter break in Germany, but if Leverkusen continues to go deep in cup competitions, their resilience will be tested.

Alonso will also be wary of the fact that his side has overperformed their Expected Goals by 7.23 this season, which is at least 0.85 more than any other team. He’ll be keen to make sure they have other answers if and when the likes of Boniface, Wirtz and Frimpong have a period of misfiring.

There’s a long way to go for Leverkusen to cast aside that ‘Neverkusen’ tag, but they’re certainly going the right way about it.

Alonso’s men will now head off for their winter break after thrashing Bochum 4-0 on Wednesday and while they have difficult games against the likes of RB Leipzig and Borussia Monchengladbach when they return, all signs are pointing to that mouthwatering clash with Bayern Munich on February 10th.

If Leverkusen are still unbeaten the morning after that match, then fans really will start dreaming of that first-ever Bundesliga title.