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Why it is better than Bavaria

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Why it is better than Bavaria

Under coach Xabi Alonso, Leverkusen seems invincible. It can win the title as early as Sunday. It owes part of its success to Granit Xhaka.

A congenial duo: Xabi Alonso (left) and his strategist Granit Xhaka.

Imago

The coach Xabi Alonso

When Xabi Alonso joined Leverkusen in October 2022, he had taken over a pretty desolate team from his predecessor Gerardo Seoane. What format he would have as a coach was uncertain at the time. The impressions he left in Madrid as coach of Real’s juniors and in San Sebastián as coach of the second team were quite serious. There were also those voices that predicted a bright future for him as a coach early on, shortly after he ended his playing career.

The step into the Bundesliga wasn’t a big risk: Alonso was convinced of the team’s potential, and the commitment fit into the coach’s career plan quite smoothly. A coach with his skills could only convince in a positive way in such a situation – and in this way make a name for himself that is interesting for the biggest clubs in the world.

Xabi Alonso is a difficult figure to grasp: the smart Basque is friendly to everyone, he is more involved on the sidelines than almost any other colleague, but he is also surrounded by an aura of non-committalness. He recently said that he hadn’t planned to celebrate the championship so early. But he had apparently already planned it.

They will be able to keep him in Leverkusen for at least another year. When he announced this decision – “after careful consideration” – some experts were very surprised. However, it fits perfectly into Alonso’s career plan: Anyone who once wanted to play under Pep Guardiola at the end of their career because he had caused them major problems as a coach of opposing teams takes every opportunity to gain experience. And Xabi Alonso knows: Playing with this team in the Champions League is certainly more attractive than coming to turbulent Munich or succeeding Jürgen Klopp in Liverpool.

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The mentality of the team

Anyone who talks about coach Xabi Alonso cannot avoid talking about the football his team plays. One could certainly discuss whether Leverkusen’s title win was also due to the weakness of the competition. But this is pointless. Every successful opponent benefits from the weakness of their opponents, Leverkusen has been playing at such a consistently high level this season that even Bayern would have had to eclipse the best season in the club’s history to catch up with Leverkusen. The team is not only undefeated in the Bundesliga, but also in the Cup and the Europa League. Leverkusen’s game is more special than any other in the Bundesliga – and perhaps there is no other team in Europe that can compete with the attributes that set Leverkusen apart.

No other team has scored as many decisive goals towards the end of the game as Leverkusen – most recently in the Europa League against West Ham. The fact that this happens with an almost predictable regularity has to do with trust in your own method: only those who are confident in themselves can have patience. But what is most irritating is the intensity with which this team confronts its opponents. Maintaining such a rhythm with a comparatively high beat rate for at least 90 minutes is a spectacle in itself. And in order for this to succeed, many excellent footballers like the young Florian Wirtz are equally involved in the team’s attack and defense efforts. Leverkusen’s performances under Xabi Alonso are a complete emancipation from the image of the Leverkusen beautiful players of days gone by, who lack the punch at the crucial moment. They have it today. And they take action when the opponent is tired.

The club and the company

There is no other relationship in the Bundesliga that is more symbiotic than the relationship between the Bayer Group and the factory club. Not even VfL Wolfsburg is as closely linked to the VW Group as Leverkusen is with Bayer, although Wolfsburg were able to celebrate a championship in 2009. Leverkusen has remained loyal to the club since it was founded in 1904 – even in dark days. The funding for the football project has been so generous in previous years that Leverkusen was able to compete with FC Bayern Munich at times.

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During these years, Leverkusen gained a reputation for playing attractive football – an image that the financier certainly liked. But he would have preferred it if the opportunities to win the title had been used much earlier, for example in 2000 or 2002, when the team lost the title at the end of the season. And so for a long time it seemed as if the club, which had honestly earned its nickname “Vizekusen”, benefited more from the image of the global corporation than the other way round. But now the pharmaceutical manufacturer is in a crisis that has been going on for years – the positive news is now being delivered by the team that calls itself the “Werkself”.

The magician Florian Wirtz

Sometimes it’s not even the decisive scenes on the pitch that reveal a lot about a footballer. When Bayern hosted Leverkusen in the first half of the season, Florian Wirtz clashed with Bayern international Leon Goretzka, a man with an extraordinarily wide cross. The much smaller Wirtz really enjoyed the jostling with his established colleague, who was somewhat taken aback by the aggressiveness of his opponent. Wirtz was 19 years old at the time. He had no respect for big names.

He is now one of the most admired players on the continent. A magician in the offensive game, with top-class speed dribbling, with millimeter-precise passes, with a goal-scoring ability and an unerring eye for the better-positioned teammate. The German national coach Julian Nagelsmann now also trusts him as a national player. Fans and experts agree that German football hasn’t seen a greater talent for ages; not even Mario Götze was given such superlatives.

His quality does not just lie in his magisterial offensive actions. In coach Xabi Alonso’s system, he is a tireless worker. Anyone who talks about “total football” will find him the ideal representative. The kilometers he logs are a credit to many a defensive midfielder, and his strength in tackling can make some central defenders jealous.

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Everything he does on the field has a purpose, is purposeful, without frills. He recently took his first two penalties for his team. He converted both – without the vain attempt to lob the goalkeeper into the middle of the goal, without vain steps. Wirtz placed the ball dry as dust next to the post. Everything about this player is serious.

There Leader Granit Xhaka

Leverkusen’s success without Xabi Alonso? Impossible. And without Granit Xhaka? Hard to imagine at least. Xhaka is his coach’s executive organ on the field. Anyone who would like to particularly praise the player could say that Xabi Alonso has found in Xhaka the player he once was on the field. When Xhaka is asked about it, he becomes embarrassed. And this fact alone shows that the Swiss has undergone remarkable maturation.

Not only is he the leader of this team, he is so exemplary in his role that you think the old, impulsive, sometimes self-harming Xhaka has disappeared. Xhaka is still quite an aggressive player. However, he has learned to discipline himself. He has steered his temperament into acceptable channels and has only received four yellow cards so far. Sports director Simon Rolfes considers himself lucky to have found a player who can give a talented team the guidance it needs.

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