Bundesliga titles are never won in September. But the belief that they might be can certainly start building at this time of year.
RB Leipzig appear extremely strong. Union Berlin will be resilient again. But Bayer Leverkusen really look like challengers.
Having begun the season with three wins out of three, they travelled to face champions Bayern Munich on Friday night with the intention of keeping that unbeaten run going. A 2-2 draw, in which they equalised twice, achieved that but it also endorsed Xabi Alonso’s side as a threat to Bayern’s chances of winning a 12th straight title.
Leverkusen were stylish at the Allianz Arena, and superior to Bayern for long periods.
As it has evolved, Alonso’s football has become thrilling and quick, while still retaining its resilience. On this occasion, it also had to be flexible, with a pivoting approach that suggested Alonso, less than a year into life as a first-team manager, already has the tactical acumen for this kind of occasion.
Initially, Leverkusen’s high press was frequently bypassed by Bayern and they came under heavy pressure, even before Harry Kane scored the opening goal after just seven minutes.
That was a familiar sequence, because how often has it been exactly like that in the past? The great wave of momentum, the early goal, and then the Can-Can playing from the stadium’s speakers again and again, thundering relentlessly into the night. Leverkusen looked like they were about to become another talked-up challenger to lose their nerve and suffer one of those evenings in Munich.
In response to that early unsettling flurry, Alonso altered his team’s pressing approach and restored their equilibrium. He encouraged them to stand off and not engage as Bayern played the ball forward, and also shifted them into something close to a 4-4-2 shape when out of possession.
It was a sleight of hand which produced startling effects almost immediately.
Leverkusen kept their numbers behind the ball and held Bayern’s threat at arm’s length for the rest of the first half. When they retrieved possession, they were cutting and precise in transition and, but for a few errant decisions, might have scored two or three times.
The fluidity of their play was extremely impressive. So too was its systemic nature. Leverkusen have individuals too, excellent ones, but it was really the cohesion and chemistry that ran through the side that made their performance so compelling.
When they pushed the ball forward – often with passes that new signing Granit Xhaka cut cutely up the pitch and into seams of space for Florian Wirtz or Jonas Hofmann, another summer arrival – it was invariably into positions that troubled Bayern.
Those counter-attacks would turn and twist defenders, and their ball movement often exploited the yawning gaps between home coach Thomas Tuchel’s back line and his much-maligned midfield. There were often overlaps and numerical advantages in the last third. A final pass was usually on, even if it was not always made. At times, the Bayern defenders looked incredulous at how many attacking players they were surrounded by and having to track.
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Wirtz played extremely well. So did Victor Boniface, another newcomer. Both were prominent and each might have won the game with more composure. Alex Grimaldo, also a summer buy, and Odilon Kossounnou also had their best games of the season. But more to the point, they all performed well as part of a team which functioned far more cohesively than the one they were facing.
Leverkusen and Alonso arrived in Bavaria with a plan and carried it out. Both of their goals came from set pieces – the first a Grimaldo free kick that knuckled wickedly into the top corner, the second an Exequiel Palacios penalty in second-half stoppage time – but this was a structured, planned raid rather than any sort of smash and grab.
Perhaps that is what separates them from last season’s Borussia Dortmund. Or at least makes Leverkusen a more credible threat to what is a stronger Bayern this year.
That 2022-23 Dortmund side relied on their individuals – Julian Brandt, Jude Bellingham – and received little help from their system.
They were as far from a Jurgen Klopp team as it was possible to get.
Instead, the Liverpool manager’s former employers were a ‘moments’ team and when it mattered, their flaws were laid bare. Most famously at home against Mainz on the final day of the season, but also during a dreadful first half at the Allianz Arena in April, when Bayern scored three times in the first 23 minutes, or a bizarre 3-3 draw away to Stuttgart a few weeks later. It was entertaining and they were an obvious neutrals’ favourite, but it was often chaos – for better, and for worse.
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By contrast, performances like the one given by Leverkusen on Friday night typically come from sides with a clearer tactical identity.
Under Alonso, the development since last season has been dramatic. Leverkusen’s attacking play is more stable; they do not surrender chances by over-committing when going forward. Their ball retention is much improved and more purposeful; they are better at finding weakness, but also at simply keeping the ball and drawing an opponent towards them.
Those improvements were all evident against Bayern. They were all effective too.
But more than technical and tactical quality, it takes poise and personality to play like they did last night, and Leverkusen owe those qualities to their summer recruitment. That was focused on addressing some of the side’s technical shortcomings and the need to toughen up their dressing room and engender a talented but inexperienced group with wisdom and wiliness.
Xhaka, Hofmann and Grimaldo were all signed to not just improve the team, but to fortify it. And all three were excellent against Bayern. More importantly, all three were visible at moments of adversity.
Literally so, because Grimaldo scored the first equaliser, Hofmann won the penalty for the second, and Xhaka had more touches of the ball (97) than any other visiting player. But figuratively too, because their willingness to keep playing not only helped to short-circuit Bayern’s brief surges of momentum, but it also lit the way for their team-mates.
Dortmund did not have that either. Not when it mattered.
Leverkusen evidently do.
The personality of the side looks absolutely right and that is another reason to think they are equipped for what lies ahead.
They are at the start of the journey rather than approaching its end and 2-2 draws in September have never proved anything. But the nature of the point they took on Friday was deeply encouraging. That they should really have won all three was enough to tease an interruption to this unprecedented era of Bayern dominance.
(Top photo: Harry Langer/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)