Reflections on Bayer Leverkusen’s Bundesliga title win, ending Bayern Munich’s dominance


Xabi Alonso, Head Coach of Bayer Leverkusen, celebrates with a replica trophy alongside players after their team's victory and winning the Bundesliga title for the first time in their history after the Bundesliga match between Bayer 04 Leverkusen and SV Werder Bremen at BayArena on April 14, 2024 in Leverkusen, Germany. 

A Bayern Munich loanee was having a solid season in the Bundesliga after not having enough playing time at his club and it seemed like this club, who had never won the title, would go on to become Bundesliga champions under a famous ex-player who had won the title a number of times in his playing days and had coached in Spain before. 

A new record had been set for the longest unbeaten ran from the start of a season in the Bundesliga, too.

Toni Kroos and Bayer Leverkusen were lighting up the Bundesliga under Jupp Heynckes and it seemed like they were destined for the championship in 2010. 

They had gone 24 matches unbeaten. But as was so often the case with Bayer Leverkusen, when Nürnberg asked questions on Matchday 25, they didn’t have the nerve to answer them. That 3-2 loss was the start of a string of bad results that saw Bayern overtake them and win the title in the 2009-10 season.

“Neverkusen” would forever be “Neverkusen” it seemed. And yet, today, miraculously, Bayer Leverkusen are Bundesliga Champions….in April! They never let anyone set their eyes on the Meisterschale, not even the Rekordmeister once they defeated the Bavarians 3-0. 

As Bayern made one terrible and costly decision after another, Leverkusen played a brand of football that brought joy to the league, football with a recognizable philosophy and a coach in Xabi Alonso who made every singly player feel important, improving each of them as well in his nearly two seasons in charge.

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While the bigger story is the title and the manner in which Leverkusen has done it, there are smaller stories within that larger story that are worth speaking about. 

Let’s start with Jonas Hofmann, a player Leverkusen purchased for the small fee (relatively speaking) of 10 million euros, who was one of the best players in the league last season and consistently over the past few years for a Borussia Mönchengladbach side that yo-yoed between top four and almost-relegation battles. He had been a figurehead of storied Gladbach but not too many saw another transfer in the cards for him. 

Leverkusen, however, saw that his talent combined with his experience could help a young side and they were right. Jonas Hofmann was one of the best players on a day in which Leverkusen looked nervy in the first half. At the end of that match, against Werder Bremen, he was rewarded with a Bundesliga title.

Then, there is Granit Xhaka, another former Gladbach man, much beloved in his time there; he was once Arsenal captain and then wasn’t due to a famous temper that resulted in multiple sending offs in his career. 

He was the picture of calmness until his substitution against Werder Bremen and scored the goal that ultimately broke Werder Bremen. He made the choice to leave Arsenal although Arsenal might have been willing to keep him, after being part of a title challenge that collapsed towards the end. He is now a Bundesliga champion.

How can we not speak about Alejandro Grimaldo, a free transfer from Benfica? Grimaldo’s left foot can do just about anything. Overall, he is a brilliant player who added to the much needed experience in a young side.

Then, there is Jonathan Tah. Hansi Flick’s Bayern were at 1-1 late against Bayer Leverkusen in the midst of winter in the 2020/21 season when Robert Lewandowski picked his pocket and scored the winner. Tah, always prone to a Nico Schlotterbeck (Dayot Upamecano?) moment or two of craziness has now become one of the most reliable defenders Germany has.

And of course, there is Robert Andrich, who was playing in the 2.Bundesliga with Heidenheim as recently as 2019 has marshalled the midfield and become a German champion in the process.

There’s so many more including the very special Florian Wirtz. Wirtz was on everyone’s radar until he tore his ACL in March 2022. He went on to miss almost a year of action and somehow, returned an even better player. He plied his youth football at Köln but then joined the youth team of Bayer Leverkusen. 

One of Bayer’s very own, the fact that his hattrick sealed the title for his club made the win even more special. Like Wirtz, both Patrik Schick and Victor Boniface, two vital parts of Leverkusen’s season faced injuries and came back to help the team with important goals.

And then, there is a certain loanee, Josip Stanišić. Considered surplus to requirements for a team that did not really know what to do with itself under the tutelage of a stubborn head coach, he made the loan move to Leverkusen and became a better player in the process.

Long gone are the days now when Leon Bailey and Moussa Diaby both showed promise for Leverkusen but faltered in key moments. They are both now showing plenty of promise at Aston Villa and are both good players in their own right. Player recruitment comes down to input from the coach of course but ultimately to the director of sport. 

The person who holds that position for Leverkusen is Simon Rolfes, a former Bayer captain who played in midfield for the club for a decade. He was a tough defensive midfielder capable of elegant play and has put this squad together. He understood the need for experience in a young side and this victory is as much his as it is anyone else’s.

The biggest story for Leverkusen, at least in the English media, was Xabi Alonso’s future — the coach, in his first full season as a senior manager, decided that the place for him would continue to be Leverkusen. 

Die Werkself was in the relegation zone when Alonso took over in October 2022 and soon after, lost to Eintracht Frankfurt 5-1 (sound familiar?) to make things worse. There were no panic buys in the winter, Alonso shored up the defense and the club finished sixth. A former Bayern Munich man ensured that the Bundesliga would have new winners and stuck to his philosophy.

As for those over in Munich occupying leading positions, there are lessons to be learned from Leverkusen’s triumph. When a sporting director and a coach work in tandem, even Neverkusen (a term perhaps never to be used after today in mockery) can turn things around. 

A coach is given a squad and can work with that squad without making incessant demands. A coach can keep his entire squad happy even when there are moments when certain players are not playing. Xabi Alonso would perhaps have liked to keep Nadiem Amiri but the midfielder left for Mainz for more playing time for example.

Maybe, just maybe, everyone at Bayern can find a way to be on the same page again and Max Eberl can select a coach who he can work well with to improve on what has been a disheartening season for Bayern Munich.

As for Bayer Leverkusen, the scenes before the final whistle was blown as fans raced onto the pitch was a testament of what they had just done. They are worthy winners. May they continue flying on the pitch and producing football worthy of the phrase “the beautiful game.”

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