Bayer Leverkusen vs. Bayern Munich matchup shows how much control can matter in Germany's chaotic Bundesliga



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Take a tour around most major European stadiums and the highlight will invariably prove to be that one room. You know the one. It’s the room with the glittering gold and radiant silverware, the one that seems filled to burst with the innumerable trophies garnered over decades of excellence. Visit Bayer Leverkusen’s BayArena and blink at the wrong moment, however, and you might miss 119 years of honors.

Afterall, a great ceremonial hall would look faintly ridiculous if all there were to populate it was the 1988 UEFA Cup (admittedly a trophy of such beauty that it would enhance even the Palace of Versailles) and the 1993 DFB Pokal. The sum silverware of Bayer Leverkusen’s history takes pride of place at their stadium’s entrance, but it is not unreasonable to suggest that this club would dearly love it if they felt compelled to carve out some square footage for a trophy room of their own.

If ever there were a day to break the Neverkusen tag, Saturday gives Xabi Alonso’s side, unbeaten in their last 30 matches, their best opportunity to put space between themselves and the Rekordmeister from Bavaria. Bayern Munich haven’t quite reached their full bolder from Raiders of the Last Ark irresistibility, but if recent years are anything to go on, it is a matter of time before they do. Leverkusen’s current two point lead at the top of the Bundesliga might not be enough to hold off an opponent averaging three goals a game this season. Five, however, might just be.

“It’s a big game, against a big opponent,” said Alonso in his pre-match press conference. “We need a very good performance, and to be perfect, to win the game. It will be very, very difficult, but we want to give it our all because we are in a good moment. We want to give everything we have.”

If their underlying metrics were anything to go on, Bayern should be the ones with the lead at the top of the Bundesliga right now. German club football is not what it was — such is the devotion to counterpressing at some teams that matches can often have the appearance of 20 outfield players haring around to nowhere in particular, possession of the football more inadvertent byproduct than means to an end — but running up an expected goal (xG) difference of nearly two per game is stunning whatever the opposition. It is also a lot better than Leverkusen’s, but while any win still equates to three points, the value of one xG difference per game and two is not hugely pronounced. Still, Thomas Tuchel’s side are blitzing the field on the spreadsheets, just the way he likes it.

They have found the perfect striker for their manager in Harry Kane, simultaneously one of the world’s best outlets and a truly elite finisher. He is surrounded by attacking talent and almost immediately struck up the most instinctive of understandings with Leroy Sane. Now that Min-Jae Kim is back from Asia Cup duties, the Bayern defense looks more stable, and although Leon Goretzka and Joshua Kimmich are hardly the most robust of shields for it, when this side is on its game it keeps the ball well enough to insure itself against counters.

Kimmich’s presence is one of several bits of good news to come Tuchel’s way from the Saberner Strasse treatment room over the last few days. Kim returned from Qatar earlier than expected after South Korea’s shock exit at the hands of Jordan, a game the center back missed through suspension. Dayot Upamecano could also be fit enough to join him, while Manuel Neuer looks to have eased doubts over a knee injury. The ongoing absence of Alphonso Davies will be keenly felt given the explosive pace that Jeremie Frimpong can deploy down the Bayern left but that aside this is an intimidating side.

Meanwhile, further west, the injury list might be smaller but the absentees will be keenly felt. Victor Boniface’s adductor injury continues to sideline him with a return not expected until April. His replacement, Patrik Schick, has not scored so far in 2024, and although he can pick up some of the creative burden that Boniface shouldered, he is not the same shooting threat. The absence of Exequiel Palacios is equally significant. He is the duel monster who offers security to the back three while providing an almighty possession platform next to Granit Xhaka.

That ability to hoard the ball is what makes these two stand out from the rest of the Bundesliga. Tuchel has long been a master of defensive possession and he might see a few of the hallmarks of the system he deployed at Chelsea when Leverkusen line up on Saturday evening. “They have a deep five in build-up very close to each other,” he said. “If we attack high, we need to attack very tightly together. But they’re also one of the best teams against a deep defence. It’s a classic 3-4-2-1.”

A classic system not all that dissimilar to the one with which Tuchel built a Champions League winner in London. Certainly there are significant differences — much more of Leverkusen’s ball progression comes from their wing backs, especially Frimpong, rather than through central areas — but both coaches have found it to be a formation that offers control with and without possession. When opponents steal the ball, Alonso’s side are as adept at dropping into a back seven as they are at counterpressing to regain the ball. The likes of Palacios, Xhaka and Alejandro Grimaldo win the ball back before the back three are even threatened, all three are then more than capable of feeding quick ball to Jonas Hoffman and Florian Wirtz, back to the level that made him perhaps the best young creator in the world, before the ACL tear that kept him out of the World Cup.

Wirtz is the man who conducts the attack, but the headline grabbers this season have been those outside him and Hoffman. Frimpong might nominally be a right wing back but he may as well be labelled a forward, averaging more touches in the penalty area this season than anyone in the Bundesliga bar Boniface. It is notable that when the Dutch international doesn’t play, his place is taken by former Southampton and Arsenal prospect Nathan Tella, who actually is a forward.

Grimaldo is altogether more curious. The first man through the door in Alonso’s first summer transfer window he may be, but the Spaniard has more of a fluid than foundational role. He might drift infield in one passage of the play, the next dragging the defense as wide as possible. His seven goals might have come from some almighty xG overperformance (his 40 shots are worth 2.66 xG) but the five he has scored from open play have seen Grimaldo find the space to take a touch or at least set himself to bend in a wicked shot that goalkeepers wouldn’t believe is worth 0.05 xG. 

Stylistically Leverkusen might have something of Chelsea to them, but in narrative terms, Alonso’s first full season at the top level bears far more of the hallmarks of his former running mate on San Sebastian’s Playa de la Concha, Mikel Arteta. It isn’t just the presence of a Granit Xhaka who is exceeding all reasonable expectations. Alonso has made great effort to build atmosphere at a ground not known as one of Germany’s most intimidating away days, a message he reinforced on Friday. “The connection with our fans is the most important thing for us,” he said. “Tomorrow, we want to celebrate together with our fans after the game.”

That sense of propulsive unity is one of many factors that might explain another Arsenal 2022-23-ish trait to Leverkusen, a remarkable propensity for late goals. Die Werkself lead opposition 16-3 in the last 15 minutes of games, 13-3 in the last 10. There are myriad tactical explanations for this. If you let the ball do the running that most of the Bundesliga is so keen to do itself, then your fresh legs will pay dividends. When Alonso’s men are trailing in the final 30 minutes of games — a rare occurrence, it should be noted — they play with greater average width than anyone else in the division. Stretching the play as wide as Leverkusen can opens up even more gaps in tired defenses, the sort into which one of the center backs has burst in recent weeks.

Perhaps, however, there is something more primal to Leverkusen’s success. The more late goals this team delivers, the more they convince themselves that another will come next time. That belief is all well and good until it smacks into the bigger, bolder, richer team who know just what it takes to win at this level. As Manchester City were for Arsenal last season, so Bayern could be for Leverkusen. For all that managers will talk about a 34 or 38 game season being what decides the title race, if the Gunners had just nicked three points off Pep Guardiola it would have been them crowned champions of England.

Similarly if Leverkusen can simply avoid defeat on Saturday, let alone win the game, then they can turn this into a competition to see who can do the best against the Bundesliga’s other 16 sides. Given their tactical qualities and the belief that would only be further stoked by avoiding defeat, Alonso’s side might then have enough to add one of the greatest prizes of all to the Bay Arena foyer.

How to watch and odds

  • Date: Saturday, Feb. 10 | Time: 12:30 p.m. ET
  • Location: BayArena — Leverkusen, Germany
  • Live Stream: ESPN+
  • Odds: Leverkusen +150; Draw +290; Bayern +138 





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