On Saturday evening, the BayArena watched on in awe as the German record champions Bayern Munich were humiliated by Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen. The 3-0 victory for Die Werkself highlighted just how large the gulf in class has become between the two sides since the Spaniard took over in the previous campaign.
However, prior to kick-off, this was not a consensus shared amongst German football fans. Heading into the Topspiel, it was Der Rekordmeister who were the favourites to come out on top and leapfrog Leverkusen at the top of the table.
Despite Die Wekself approaching this top-of-the-table clash unbeaten in all competitions this season, there was still doubt that they could win the big one. After all, they failed to take their chances against Bayern earlier on in the season, and draws against Borussia Dortmund and Stuttgart suggested that they have been unable to prove themselves when facing the best.
Regardless, Saturday evening was a spectacle in how to play football and further proof as to why Leverkusen will be crowned Bundesliga champions at the end of the campaign. But how did Leverkusen become better than Bayern?
The signing of Granit Xhaka
As previously reported by Get German Football News, the change in Leverkusen’s attitude, desire, and belief can be attributed to the signing of Granit Xhaka from Arsenal. The Swiss international has transferred his mentality to every other Leverkusen player, ultimately transforming the way in which Die Werkself go about their business.
However, one cannot forget how pivotal he is on the pitch as well. Xhaka is perfectly able to replicate what Alonso wants his side to lay on the pitch, with hunger, determination, and speed when in possession.
The quick thinking and perfect execution of Xhaka with the ball at his feet makes up for the lack of pace on and off the ball. He is the main man in Leverkusen’s midfield, dictating the direction and speed of the Werkself’s attack.
As per FBref, no player in the Bundesliga has attempted or completed more passes than Xhaka this season, with the Swiss also claiming the most progressive passes and passes into the final third this season. And what makes this even more commendable is that it is not even close between him and those below him, with 500 more completed passes than Stuttgart’s Waldemar Anton and 86 more passes into the final third than Bochum’s Kevin Stöger.
For Leverkusen, having Xhaka is like having Alonso in the midfield, and without him, they would quite simply fail to be as dominant as they are. Nevertheless, it is not just down to the Swiss.
The Xabi Alonso effect
Obviously, Alonso is the main culprit in changing the fortunes of Leverkusen. By understanding the qualities he needs in certain areas, the Spaniard has proven to be a rather smooth operator in the transfer market.
Not many would have considered Xhaka to have the qualities of playing a staring role for Europe’s most dominant side after his spell at Arsenal, but Alonso could see the qualities the Swiss has, and more importantly, he knew how to limit his deficiencies from shining through. In Grimaldo, Alonso was also able to lure in a player that would complement the ability of Jeremie Frimpong, allowing the Werkself to become dangerous on both flanks.
However, it is also the Spaniard’s tactical work that cannot be overlooked. Against Bayer, he changed to a back four for only the second time this season, catching Bayern off guard.
“Tactically, the way we approached the game was very clever. They came with a five-man chain and probably wanted to put us man-to-man. That did not work. A good move from Xabi,” commented Lukas Hradecky to Sport Bild after the game. For Leverkusen, there are now five points separating them and Bayern at the top of the table, and it is a difference that could mean a lot.
They do not look like slipping up anytime soon, and it is clear to see how they outshine Bayern in every department. Without a defeat in all competitions this season, they are the real deal, and a first Meisterschale appears to be heading their way.
GGFN | Will Shopland