LEVERKUSEN, Germany — Having just trounced Union Berlin 4-0 at home, Granit Xhaka and the Bayer Leverkusen players remain laser focused on each and every game this season one by one.
“I’m very happy at the moment with how things are going, but we’ve still won nothing,” Xhaka said after the 4-0 win over Union Berlin just before the November international break. “It’s very early to speak about something big. Let’s work like this, let’s be humble, and let’s see what happens at the end of the season.”
Yet beyond the intangible borders of the squad’s own bubble, there’s a bubbling excitement, hope, and buzz that the small yet passionate community on the outskirts of Cologne, Germany can’t keep a lid on much longer.
Is this the year Bayer 04 win their first trophy since 1993 and third trophy ever? Is this the season they shed the many years of “Neverkusen” shame and rub shiny silver metal into the noses of their persistent bullies?
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Die Werkself sit top of the Bundesliga table heading into the November international break, nearly a third of the way into the domestic campaign. They are one of just three clubs in Europe’s top five leagues who remain unbeaten this year, with an incredible 16 wins, one draw, and zero defeats through all competitions thus far.
With former Liverpool, Real Madrid, and Bayern Munich legend Xabi Alonso at the helm, Leverkusen have been not just unbeatable, but virtually flawless at every turn. They have scored the second-most goals in Europe behind Bayern Munich, and have completed the fourth-most passes in the attacking half as Xabi chokes the life out of opponents with his suffocating up-tempo possession.
Fans may be cautious given the club’s painful historical habit of coming up short when the finish line is in sight, but the notion that Leverkusen could end up with one or more trophies this season is not only plausible but likely.
The authoritative victory over Union Berlin was the perfect encapsulation of how dangerous Bayer Leverkusen have become in such a short time under Xabi Alonso.
Everyone at the club, from sporting director Simon Rolfes on down to academy coordinator Slawomir Czarniecki speak about the team’s ball possession philosophy. Under just 12 months with Alonso at the helm, Leverkusen have grown into a ball-playing juggernaut, keeping 71 percent possession against Union Berlin while out-passing the visitors to BayArena 451-115 in the opposition half, which was an even more stark 248-28 differential at halftime.
Emblematic of this approach is new midfielder Granit Xhaka, whose 129 passes into the attacking third ranks first across Europe’s top five leagues. The former Arsenal man touched the ball 158 times across the 90 minutes against Union Berlin, completing 144/150 passes and losing possession a paltry eight times.
And yet, for all their possession and devastating buildup, their four goals came from: a long-range stunner by wing-back Alex Grimaldo, two set-piece finishes by centre-backs, and a vicious late-game counterattack against a fatally high line.
Grimaldo’s four goals from outside the penalty area are the most of anyone in the top five leagues, while the pacey and intelligent Jeremie Frimpong is quickly becoming one of the most coveted young players in the world.
There is seemingly nothing this Leverkusen team can’t do at a high level — the results have been devastating and comprehensive. Their 34 goals across the first 11 league matches give them the most of any Big 5 European team, two more than defending treble winners Manchester City who have played two games. Yet all that has not come at the sacrifice of defensive solidity, conceding just 10 goals in the Bundesliga (second-fewest to Bayern Munich’s nine) and 14 overall across all competitions.
At their best, they are a joy to watch as opponents try and fail to cover every single possible threat. And in their only “slip” so far, they went toe-to-toe with 10-time defending Bundesliga champions Bayern, playing to a thrilling 2-2 draw away at Allianz Arena in which they conceded in the 86th minute only to pull back level six minutes into added time.
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Bayer Leverkusen staff and supporters understand the reason that derisive opposing fans enjoy prodding them with the mocking nickname “Neverkusen.”
The nickname was born out of the brutally painful 2001/02 season in which Bayer 04 became the second club ever to win the second place treble — they finished second in the Bundesliga table thanks to a late-season collapse, lost the DFB-Pokal final to Schalke, and fell in the Champions League final 2-1 to Real Madrid.
They’ve finished runners-up in the Bundesliga table the most times of any club never to win the title, ending the season second on five separate occasions.
Leverkusen have just two trophies in their club’s existence, and even those trophies featured near-misses. They won the 1988 UEFA Cup (now known as the Europa League) final despite a 3-0 first-leg defeat to Espanyol on the road, winning the second leg 3-0 and emerging victorious on a penalty shootout in which goalkeeper Rudi Vollborn became famous as the first individual to make use of distracting motions during a penalty shootout at that level.
They then won the 1993 DFB-Pokal final, beating Hertha Berlin II, the only time in history a reserve squad reached the competition’s final and just the third time ever a third-tier side made it that far.
These are not facts the club or its supporters shy away from, yet they are desperate for someone to exorcise these demons, and it certainly feels like this year could be that season, but their fans are desperate. After all, that exciting yet excruciating 2001/02 season saw them progress until December 1 without a defeat, a run that included a famous 2-1 win over Barcelona in Champions League group stage play which surely provided plenty of hope at the time.
Yet it’s hard not to watch this team toss quality opponents to the side week after week and think there’s a real chance of coming away from this year with some type of tangible reward.
The Die Werkself fans are used to the “Neverkusen” pain. They have been programmed to doubt the signs of success, punished for their hope in the past.
Meanwhile, the players and staff are, through their years of experience in professional sport, trained to ignore future possibilities in favour of a more nearsighted focus. Thus, the excitement of what could come at the end of this season has not quite caught on at BayArena.
“The challenge is not against Bayern, it’s against what we can do and how far we can reach and how far we can deserve to be in that position,” Alonso said of a potential title fight, refusing to look at potential challengers but instead focusing within. “So if we are here in this position in April, for sure I will tell you, I will not say ‘no no we will see’ but now it’s still too early.”
Should Leverkusen draw ever closer to the precipice of silverware, the club would explode with both energy and relief.
“For sure at the end it’s, it’s special, it’s special for sure,” Bayer Leverkusen sporting director Rolfes told The Sporting News. “We can play a successful season without trophies, but if you get one, you know, that’s at the end, the goal for everybody.
“We are improving in so many areas, not only in the sport areas, but also in communication and other areas to create an ambitious, modern, innovative football club. This way we will go, but on the way, we try also to get some silverware.”
For Bayer Leverkusen, the priorities are different to their rivals. While European success would be nice, the real potential prize is the Bundesliga title. Their laundry list of narrow misses have made the club hungry to prove they can top the league and compete with the might of Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund.
A league title would also present a unique chance to dispel derisive narratives, namely the notion within Germany that Bayer 04, as a conjuration of the pharmaceutical giant Bayer, are a club without personality or culture. While European success would garner more attention, it would do less than a purely domestic achievement to erase that pervasive aura that pesters the fanbase like a parasite.
The club’s nickname, “Die Werkself,” is meant to combat this notion, as it tugs at the industrial roots of the city and paints the supporter base with a working class mentality. But the best way to deflect such derogatory remarks are with results, and the same goes for attracting better players in the club’s long-term strategy.
“Players, they are not stupid,” Alonso said. “They know football, they know how to identify the good players as soon as they are in a training, they know, ‘oh he’s good,’ and when they see a team, they say, ‘oh, this team is good.’ It’s not a, a goal that we want, but it’s a consequence of what we do and that’s for sure helpful for the future.”
The same goes for the supporters. Bayer Leverkusen fans aren’t stupid — they’ve been here before and fallen short enough times to earn a nickname for it. But this time also feels different. While silverware may be off in the distance, the club could be turning a corner regardless, and that’s enough hope for right now. As Alonso says, the rest can wait until April.