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How Bayer Leverkusen went unbeaten in the Bundesliga

May 18, 2024

Bayer Leverkusen sealed a maiden Bundesliga title with several games to spare, and have now become the first side to go unbeaten for a whole season in the German top flight. So how did Xabi Alonso's team do it?

Bayer Leverkusen players and staff link arms to celebrate a win
Bayer Leverkusen are on the longest unbeaten run in German football historyImage: Anke Waelischmiller/Sven Simon/picture alliance

Appointment of Xabi Alonso

Though the stunning unbeaten campaign of 2023-24 — which may yet be capped by Europa League and German Cup triumphs  — has captured global attention, Bayer Leverkusen's charge to a first Bundesliga title has its origins in a miserable start to the previous campaign. Gerardo Seoane, who had overseen a third-placed finish the season before, was gone by October 2022, having won just five points from the first eight games.

The subsequent appointment of Xabi Alonso, who had never coached a senior side before, was something of a risk, with Leverkusen in real danger of following other German heavyweights such as Schalke, Hamburg and Hertha Berlin into the second division.

"This shouldn't be viewed as an experiment for Leverkusen. It's not about experience: It's about quality," sporting director Simon Rolfes said on Alonso's appointment. "There's always an element of risk involved, but you always have to improve. I'm absolutely convinced it will work out."

It's fair to say it did. After mixed results in his first month, Alonso's style started to come through. A system based on control of possession, width from wingbacks and a high press saw Leverkusen pick up 46 points from their last 24 games, qualify for the Europa League and confirm the cerebral former Real Madrid, Liverpool and Bayern Munich midfielder as a coach to watch.


The sale of Moussa Diaby to Premier League side Aston Villa for €55 million (about $58 million) meant Rolfes had an opportunity to help Alonso build a squad in his image for this season. Nigeria striker Victor Boniface (€20.5 million) and experienced midfielders Jonas Hofmann (€10 million) and Granit Xhaka (€15 million) have been critical to Leverkusen's run.

Boniface got them off to a flyer, scoring six in his first five games before injury, while Xhaka has added steel and presence to a midfield that lacked both. Hofmann, always a canny operator, has featured in 32 Bundesliga games and links Leverkusen's midfield and attack.

But there's little doubting the best-value arrival, with Alex Grimaldo's free transfer from Benfica almost certainly the No. 1 deal that any German club made this term. Grimaldo has scored 10 and assisted 14 goals in the league. The Barcelona youth product, in tandem with Dutchman Jeremie Frimpong, has offered width, set pieces and penetration that has proved impossible to handle for the rest of the league.

"I think that's one of my strengths in knowing where I can cause damage, knowing where the spaces are," Grimaldo told the Bundesliga in December. "With the freedom that Xabi has given me with the block we've got, it means I know how to attack the space and have the chances to score."

Improvement of key players

It's not just the new boys. Frimpong, German internationals Jonathan Tah and Robert Andrich, Argentine central midfielder Exequiel Palacios and several others have all found a consistency they lacked under previous coaches.

Florian Wirtz is another case in point. Long regarded as one of Germany's brightest hopes, Wirtz was still recovering from a cruciate ligament injury that dashed his 2022 World Cup hopes when Alonso arrived. While his performances under Seaone had been good, the 20-year-old has moved up another notch now he's fully fit and firing under Alonso, scoring a treble as Leverkusen brushed aside Werder Bremen with a 5-0 win to seal the title in mid-April, with five games to spare.

"The control, the play between the lines, in small spaces, this is something natural, and something I can't teach him," the Spanish boss said.

Jonathan Tah, Florian Wirtz and Xabi Alonso applaud fans
Germany internationals Jonathan Tah and Florian Wirtz are among those who have kicked on under AlonsoImage: Rolf Vennenbernd/dpa/picture alliance

Wirtz was one of several Leverkusen players who featured in every league game until the title was sealed, demonstrating the consistency of selection and good fortune with injuries that also marked the season. His 11 goals and 12 assists are both career highs, and he is also now Germany's fastest ever men's international goal scorer. Europe's big clubs are interested, but Alonso's decision to stay put in Leverkusen might just influence his young charge.

Beating Bayern Munich

That decision meant Bayern Munich, as well as Liverpool, were denied their primary coaching target. But it isn't the first time Alonso has thwarted the Bavarians this season. An injury-time penalty from Palacios rescued a point in Munich in September, but it was a thoroughly convincing 3-0 home win in February that, in the eyes of many, turned Leverkusen from a team troubling Bayern to one who would dethrone them after 11 consecutive titles.

Xabi Alonso coaching from the sidelines
Alonso played for Bayern Munich, but has had the better of them as a coachImage: Hirnschal/osnapix/IMAGO

That Josip Stanisic, on loan from Bayern, opened the scoring was a reflection of Bayern's confused recruitment and, perhaps, arrogance. On the day, Bayern were toothless, with just one shot on goal, and Leverkusen picked them off with ease. It felt like a changing of the guard and was hailed as a tactical master class from Alonso.

Late show, on repeat

In the end, Leverkusen's relentless run and Bayern's uncharacteristic collapse has meant the title has been secured with little drama. That's rarely been the case with Leverkusen in the past, with the nickname "Neverkusen" (or "Vizekusen" in German) a commonly thrown reference to losses of nerve in the past.

This season, that's been flipped on its head by a number of injury-time salvage jobs. The Werkself have scored a staggering 29 goals in 34 league games after the 81st minute. They've made a remarkable habit of turning losses into draws, draws into wins or even, as happened against Hoffenheim and Europa League opponents Qarabag in March, defeats into wins in injury time.

They are Neverkusen no more. 

This article was originally published on April 14, 2024, and updated on May 18 to reflect Leverkusen's triumph in the Bundesliga.

Edited by: Mark Meadows