The rise of Bayer Leverkusen: ‘It makes you laugh at how good we are’

LEVERKUSEN, Germany — Thirteen points up on their nearest pursuers, Bayern Munich, with seven games to go, Bundesliga leaders Bayer Leverkusen face their “most important game of the season” on Saturday against … Union Berlin, 12th in the table.

All week long, following the two late goals against Hoffenheim on Saturday that transformed a 1-0 deficit in the 88th minute into his club’s 23rd league victory of the season, Xabi Alonso has been pitching that curious idea to Leverkusen’s players. He tells them that this game is the one in which they absolutely must get a result.

Alonso, who is in his first full season managing any club’s first team, said the same about Hoffenheim last week. He said it about Koln, who are languishing in the relegation zone, and about Bayern, who have won the past 11 Bundesliga titles in succession. In fact, he says it every week. The subtext is clear: Be ready to play like this is the game that will decide the title. And by game day each week, winger Amine Adli says, “we have the feeling that we are not going to lose. We are prepared. We have confidence.”

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It seems to be working. Leverkusen haven’t lost a game all season in any competition — the only team in Europe’s Big Five leagues, in fact, to do so. While leading the Bundesliga, they are simultaneously making a run in the Europa League and have reached the final of the DFB-Pokal, the German Cup. “Watching us sometimes,” striker Nathan Tella says, “it makes you laugh at how good we are.”

Because of that, it’s easy to anoint Leverkusen as German champions even if the flowers are only just starting to bloom along the banks of the Rhine. Thomas Kessler, Koln’s manager, says that Bayer 04 must win not just one title this season but at least two of the three. Not that they can, but that they must. Even Thomas Tuchel, Bayern’s manager, conceded the title following his club’s loss to Borussia Dortmund on Saturday. “This is clear,” he said. “Naturally, I have no hope anymore.” Alonso won’t hear of it. “We want to go step by step,” he says.

Leverkusen supporters will tell you that Alonso isn’t wrong. The most successful club that hasn’t won the Bundesliga, Leverkusen will accomplish nothing until it does. Since first getting promoted in 1979, they have finished second five times, collapsing during several seasons in particularly painful fashion. They are baseball’s old Chicago Cubs or Boston Red Sox, but without the romance of a curse. In the most egregious example, Leverkusen was three points ahead of Bayern entering the season’s final day in 2000. They needed a draw against SpVgg Unterhaching, an esoteric Bavarian club known primarily for bobsledding. They lost the match — and the title on goal difference.

“We are very, very shy of putting the word ‘championship’ in our mouths,” Meinolf Sprink, Leverkusen’s former sporting director and managing director, says now. “We have failed during the last 25 years too often. I know very well how it feels to finish second, or to have the lead and lose in the final. For the club, this is an open wound.”

– Stream LIVE: Union Berlin vs. Bayer Leverkusen, Saturday, 9:20 a.m. ET, ESPN+

Even for Bayern, the perennial champions, the 13-point deficit looks insurmountable. They have won the Bundesliga 33 times, an impressive number when set against the record in any league, in any sport. When you know that the Bundesliga only began in 1963, it becomes almost unfathomable. That means that Bayern have won 33 times and all the other clubs combined have won 27.

Bayern have won every year since 2011. That includes last season, when they moved into first place for good in the final minute of regulation time on the final day. Borussia Dortmund had a two-point lead entering their game against mid-table Mainz. “They were supposed to be on their way to vacation, and Dortmund was on their way to celebration,” Sprink says. Somehow, Dortmund and Mainz drew. Inevitably, Jamal Musiala scored in the 89th minute for Bayern to beat Koln. And Bayern’s streak lived on.

Now the wait, and the weight, are on the shoulders of Alonso, who has emerged as one of the most intriguing young managers in world football.

And for Bayer Leverkusen, that also presents a problem.

Alonso, 42, has a history of winning. In his only previous managerial job, from 2019 to 2022, he got Real Sociedad‘s B team promoted from the third division to the second. As a player, he won a World Cup and two European Championships with Spain.

In 2005, he was on the Liverpool side that emerged from obscurity to take the Champions League in the Miracle of Istanbul, then won the FA Cup in 2006. At Real Madrid, he won La Liga three times and another Champions League. And from 2015 to 2017, he helped Bayern to three of their Bundesliga titles.

Two of those clubs, Liverpool and Bayern, need to replace managers by next season; Liverpool’s Jurgen Klopp is taking a sabbatical, and Tuchel has been told he won’t be back at Bayern. Despite his flimsy managerial résumé, Alonso had been mentioned prominently in connection with both jobs. (He was also apparently in the conversation at Barcelona, where Xavi Hernandez is abdicating the throne.)

All of the speculation ended, temporarily, when he announced last week that he would stay in Leverkusen for the 2024-25 season, but almost nobody believes that he will be there after that. That’s why Simon Rolfes, Leverkusen’s managing director of sport, seems to agree that the time to win the Bundesliga is now. “Nobody knows about tomorrow,” he says. “It’s always good if you have a chance now, you should take it.”

At the time that Rolfes hired Alonso to replace Gerardo Seoane in October, 2022, Leverkusen had won once in eight games and were anticipating a fight for survival. Alonso swiftly guided them to safety by winning five games in a row that November, but already he was pushing for more. The inflection point came the following February, in the return match of a Europa League playoff at Monaco. After the two games ended at 5-5, the teams took penalties and Leverkusen won. Never mind that they were eventually eliminated by Roma 1-0 in the two-leg semifinal, adding another small bit of heartbreak to the Leverkusen canon.

“Monaco, especially the way we won, triggered something,” says Lukas Hradecky, the goalkeeper and captain. “From then on, we were a different team. Full of confidence and strength.” Since then, Bayer 04 have played 57 games and lost three — the most dominant record in Europe.

Last year’s awful start meant that they could climb no higher than sixth in the Bundesliga table. The current squad, led by the dynamic 20-year-old star Florian Wirtz and augmented by summer additions such as Arsenal‘s Granit Xhaka, is an improved version. Tella, who signed from Southampton after a loan spell at Burnley, felt the possibilities as early as the season opener, a 3-2 victory against Leipzig. “I’ve never been in a team that had possession the way we had possession in that game,” he says. “We could always find a pass to make. I couldn’t tell how good we could become, but I knew right away that this team was special.”

Because Alonso is Spanish, and Leverkusen plays a patient game of short passes and frequent pressing that results in an average possession time of nearly twice that of their opponents, it’s tempting to see them as a variation of Pep Guardiola’s clubs, or those of PSG (and former Spain and Barcelona) manager Luis Enrique. But there’s a vital difference. Leverkusen have allowed just 17 goals in the Bundesliga all season; next best are Bayern’s 33. (In Europe’s top five leagues, only Inter Milan is stingier.) Their defensive tactics flow and shift, depending on the opposition and the phase of the game, a complex choreography created by Alonso and his staff each week. “It’s planned that way,” says Jonathan Tah, who has been a center-back at Leverkusen since 2015. “Nothing that you see happens ‘just like that.’ It’s all planned out.”

To balance his inexperience as a coach, Alonso can deploy his credibility of being one of the best players of his generation. He’ll frequently step on the pitch during a training session to demonstrate how he wants something done. He uses that as part of his motivation, exhorting his charges sometimes more like a team captain — which he was at Real Sociedad at the start of his career, but nowhere else — rather than the usual measured distance of a manager. But he’s also willing to criticize when necessary. “He knows exactly what the team needs, and the way he communicates with us is something special,” Tah says. “He always knows what to say in the right moment.”



Why Xabi Alonso is out of the running to be the next Liverpool manager

Mark Ogden explains why Xabi Alonso is no longer in the running to become the next Liverpool manager.

At Leipzig in January, the first game of the season’s second half, Leverkusen started uncharacteristically passive. “They put a lot of pressure on us,” Tah says. “We were suffering because we were not used to not being dominant.” Down 1-0 at the break, Alonso urged his team to play how they had been playing all year, constantly moving on offense and defense, probing for opportunities. If that meant they lost, well, that was fine. “That changed our minds,” Tah says. Leverkusen equalized two minutes into the second half, equalized again in the 63rd minute, then won in the final minutes — a performance, a commentator noted at the time, worthy of Bayern Munich.

Their two games against Bayern characterize their season. In the first, to the surprise of almost nobody, Leverkusen fell behind. But during the course of the preceding week, Alonso had convinced them that they were Bayern’s equals. “The coach told us, we are playing very good football, we are very strong in the moment, and we should in no way be afraid of them,” says Adli, a Moroccan international. As a result, being down a goal meant no more than it would have against Hoffenheim. “And after 25 minutes, the game changed completely,” Adli says. “We took control.”

That game in September, which ended at 2-2, verified that Leverkusen could compete with anyone. Last month’s rematch made a more compelling point: that maybe nobody else can compete with Leverkusen. They scored in the 18th minute, again just after halftime, and added an exclamation point in extra time. The 3-0 scoreline may have been the most significant in Leverkusen’s history.

Afterward, Alonso was already looking ahead. “He’s relentless,” says Tella. “He doesn’t stop. And that brings out the best of us. We all look at ourselves and say, ‘He has the standard to be the top. Why shouldn’t we have that standard?'”

Is there another football club whose players all live in other cities? Leverkusen’s first-teamers go home to Cologne, Dusseldorf, or somewhere between. There’s a reason for that. Leaving BayArena, downtown Leverkusen always seems around the next corner or just a few streets away. Eventually, you realize it doesn’t exist.

Leverkusen is an amalgamation of four suburbs constructed by and around Bayer AG, the pharmaceutical firm that invented aspirin, but also first commercialized heroin, at the end of the 19th Century. The city was the company, and the company was the club, beginning in 1907 when football was introduced as a recreation for employees. The place has evolved since then; what was once Bayer’s chemical campus is now filled by a group of smaller firms. But Bayer’s relationship with football remains the same. Germany’s other clubs must follow the “50+1 rule” of ownership, which mandates that club members — ordinary fans, mostly — own half the shares plus at least one more, so they maintain control. Bayer 04 has been grandfathered in with Volkswagen-owned Wolfsburg. The parent company sets a budget and the team abides.

The club have always operated by finding and developing young talent — Son Heung-min, Toni Kroos, Kai Havertz — and then using it to fund the next generation. Established players were always likely to be drawn to established winners, and to more compelling places. So it was a sign of progress in July when Xhaka, the Swiss international who was coming off Arsenal’s heated Premier League title race with Manchester City, expressed a desire to play for Alonso and become part of what Leverkusen was building at BayArena. Then he signed with the club before a market for his services had even been established. “He believed in our project,” Rolfes says. “Five years ago, for sure, that wouldn’t have happened.”

Bayer 04 have long been derided as an inauthentic “plastic club,” a wholly owned subsidiary of a major international corporation. But these days, both players and executives report, their peers around the league tell them they hope the club will hang on and win. Fernando Carro, the club’s chief executive, estimates that as many as 90% of Germany’s football fans feel the same. “I would say half is because they don’t want Bayern Munich and half is because they like Leverkusen,” he said. “But half is a lot.”

Carro oversees the entire operation, but his expertise is business. He arrived six years ago from Bertelsmann, the German media giant, installed Rolfes, and went to work. He understood that Leverkusen is surrounded by more famous clubs in this football-heavy area of northern Westphalia: Borussia Dortmund, Borussia Monchengladbach, Schalke 04, Fortuna Dusseldorf, FC Koln. Within the region, Leverkusen has been an afterthought.

But Carro knows that every football club now has more fans around the world than at home. Social media is a strategic priority — in followers, he notes, the club now ranks third in Germany behind Bayern Munich and Dortmund. So has international outreach.

Four years ago, Carro had a meeting in New York with Charlie Stillitano of Relevent, which stages the International Champions Cup and other exhibition events involving international clubs in the U.S. It lasted about two minutes. “They never thought of Leverkusen,” Carro says. With its accomplishments this season, the club have changed that dynamic. “I have a feeling that we have become interesting to them,” Carro says. If Leverkusen win the title, they’re planning a possible U.S. trip in July, depending on their other competitions. And while affiliations among German fans often last a lifetime, the emerging TikTok generation has spread its loyalties around the world, following favorite players from Barcelona to PSG, Manchester United to Real Madrid. “It used to be if your father was a Koln or Fortuna supporter, you were too,” says Sprink. “This equation doesn’t work any longer, which is an opportunity for us. But we have to convert them.”

It’s happening. Over the past few years, the number of fans at Leverkusen games who cross the river from Cologne has grown incrementally. For the first time ever, Bayer 04 gear is fashionable at primary and secondary schools there. “With this year, the hype is getting higher because we are making something incredible in the moment,” says Adli, who arrived from Toulouse in 2021. “People can think that, yeah, the city is built around the Bayer company. But since I came, I can see that we have big fans. What is happening here, it’s the same as if it was happening in Leipzig or Koln.”

This season, for the first time, the club have reached the limit on how many season tickets they sell, given that they need to allot 3,000 seats each game for opposition fans and a few thousand more for single-game purchases. “From the time I came here, my goal was always that we would have a waiting list,” says Carro.

He smiles. “Now we have a waiting list.”

On the day of the Rhine Derby against Koln in early March, an unbeaten Bayer 04 Leverkusen side ran on the field. It was 11 in the morning. That game was in Duisburg, north of Dusseldorf. These were the U17s, who are — somehow — even more dominant than Leverkusen’s first team. They haven’t lost since October 2022.

The side was playing without its brightest stars, Ken Izekor and Francis-Ikechukwu Onyeka. Both are 16, but they divide their time between the U17s and U19s. It didn’t matter. A 4-0 win left five games to go to complete the schedule unbeaten. The following week, they beat Waltrop 8-0.

In recent years, Leverkusen has been able to attract top regional players to its academy, starting with Aachen’s Kai Havertz more than a decade ago, to Wirtz (who left Koln as a 16-year-old and is Alonso’s most valuable player), to Izekor (who also comes from Aachen). Perhaps more than even the first team, these under-17s exemplify the sustainability of what Rolfes has constructed. “It’s all that talent, but also the mentality,” says Jordi Rieckhof, the goalkeeping coach. “It’s way they think about the sport that is so important.”

That confluence of talent and a coherent system is why the loss of Alonso would not be a mortal blow to the club. Rolfes notes that, unlike managers like Guardiola and Antonio Conte, Alonso only brought a single assistant coach with him to the club. “And Xabi hasn’t done anything in scouting, for example. The long-term development of the club is my task — the scouting department, to the academy, to having the right coaching staff. That was all in place when he arrived. And when all those puzzle pieces come together, they make a nice picture.”

Rolfes maintains that his long-term goal is not to win the Bundesliga title in any particular season, but to be in position to compete for it year after year. If Leverkusen can do that, he knows titles will eventually come. He did exactly what was necessary for the club during last summer’s transfer window, both the signings of veterans and young players and the transfer of their top scorer in 2022-23, Moussa Diaby, to Aston Villa. “To secure the process and then invest in other players,” he says. “Only in that way can we reach another level.”

Several hours after the game in Duisburg, Leverkusen’s first team showed the level they have reached during an emotional derby an hour to the south in Cologne. With crowd control on high alert — food trucks were kept shuttered for the afternoon, and no pre-match mingling between the supporters was permitted — Koln approached the match as the one that would make their season. Staying in the 1. Bundesliga would certainly be nice, but spoiling Leverkusen’s unbeaten run would be even better.

The first 15 minutes were a spirited exhibition of German football. Then Jan Thielmann put a foot between Xhaka’s two and clapped him on the back, which got him sent off. After that, play degenerated into a series of squabbles. With Leverkusen up 1-0 at the break, Alonso urged his team to play “more rationally,” with the goal of taking emotion out of the game. Leverkusen ended with 73% possession and a 2-0 win.

Afterward, Alonso said that Leverkusen supporters, and even his players, should celebrate a little for winning the derby, but only a little. Already, he was looking ahead. Leverkusen had Wolfsburg the following Sunday — the most important game of the season.