As Borussia Mönchengladbach stumbled against Real Madrid on the final day of the Champions League group stages, I wondered to myself if Bayer Leverkusen would have wrapped up qualification by then. Yes, Leverkusen, the perennial bridesmaid, yes, Neverkusen.
Bayer Leverkusen sits atop the Bundesliga currently, despite having lost their two most important players, Kai Havertz and Kevin Volland, in the transfer window. I would argue they are playing better than they played last season, regardless. There is a swagger about Leverkusen; they know how to win games now, even when they are not playing particularly well. It just so happens that, on most days, they do play ridiculously well.
You would think that as league leaders, Leverkusen would choke in the derby against Köln. You would think, when Lars Bender was injured in the warmup, and a first start of the season was handed to Mitchell Weiser, the back line would be a tad shaky. It just did not happen. They won, and they won by a score of 0-4 and Mitch, our Mitch, scored a volley to remember, reminiscent of Benjamin Pavard to an extent, while Moussa Diaby, that kind fella who lent his valuable time to BFW, took on the ball from close to the halfway line and scored a beauty for a second. Patrick Schick and Florian Wirtz rounded up the scoring. This is not to say, however, that the season started in the same manner for Bayer 04.
Leverkusen was absolutely awful on the first match-day against Wolfsburg, that game finishing 0-0. They followed that result with draws against Stuttgart and Leipzig, and finally, won against Mainz on Match-day 4. With the exception of a drab draw against Hertha Berlin, a match in which they just couldn’t find their rhythm, Leverkusen has won the remainder of their Bundesliga matches.
Arguably, the most impressive victory was against Gladbach; twice behind to a certain Lars Stindl, they came back to win 4-3. The question is: is this sheer luck or does Leverkusen have something about them to build a title run on?
I will pick the latter; here is why:
Leverkusen was not very good in any of the following games, but got results in all of them
Leverkusen 3 – 1 Augsburg: Augsburg clawed the game back to 1-1 when Leverkusen was up by a goal and looked the better side. A tired Leverkusen found a second and then sealed it with a late third.
Hapoel Beer-Sheva 2 – 4 Leverkusen: Down 2-1 with half an hour gone in an abysmal defensive showing, they found their way back and won 2-4.
Leverkusen 4 – 1 Hapoel Beer-Sheva: They were 2-1 up and a bizarre error from the colorful Tin Jedvaj led to a Hapoel goal. As Hapoel looked to equalize, Kerem Demirbay scored a stunning free-kick and sealed the deal. Leverkusen would go on to add a fourth.
Leverkusen 0-0 Hertha – Both sides were awful and there was a combined total of four shots on target in this one. Yet, Leverkusen did not lose; that mattered because Berlin was the side which took away Champions League football from them last season by defeating them on the penultimate match-day.
There are solid performers and creative players across the pitch
Think of Julian Baumgartlinger, the most defensive of the three in midfield in a 4-3-3. Think of Florian Wirtz, whose passing ability reminds me of Thiago sometimes. Think of Lars Bender commanding the back-line. Think of Leon Bailey, finally coming into his own and performing like his talent deserves. Think of Lucas Alario, finally scoring the goals he was supposed to score last season. Think of Lukas Hradecky (minus Bielefeld) in goal. Think of Nadiem Amiri, also coming into his own after the departure of Havertz, also with an excellent eye for a pass. They have it all. And Diaby, I feel, will get better with time; he extended his contract recently as well.
They have a set philosophy
This is a big one; we all know Peter Bosz loves total football – but it didn’t work so well for him at Dortmund. It is working for him at Leverkusen. They are beautiful to watch on any given day, despite the occasional self-made defensive headache, particularly from set pieces.
They have a small, but high-quality squad
Daley Sinkgraven or Wendell for example can play left-back. Aleksandar Dragovic can slot into defense to help out if extra physicality is required instead of Jonathan Tah or Edmond Tapsoba. Weiser, who is quite talented, can’t usually get any game time. Kerem Demirbay and Karim Bellarabi are both very talented players who can slot into midfield and who are part of the old guard now. Patrick Schick can replace Lucas Alario up front or vice-versa.
Why, you ask, is Leverkusen a contender rather than a pretender? A real contender would have to have results against the other top sides like Leipzig. Well, they are the last team to beat Bayern at the Allianz Arena, 1-2. They held Leipzig to an early season draw (1-1) in a game they should have perhaps won. They beat their direct rivals for fourth from last season, Gladbach 4-3. All they now need to do is do well against Dortmund and against Bayern.
Come the end of the season, I might be proven incorrect; Bayern is made of much sterner stuff as proven by the fact that they have gone behind six games in a row in the league and haven’t lost a single one. Leverkusen has been deemed contenders in previous seasons only to fall away later in the season. However, because of all the reasons stated above, I think this is the year they finally do it – if not in Germany, then in Europe.