The return of Florian Wirtz, greater defensive stability and the X factor of their World Cup, EURO, Champions League and Bundesliga-winning coach Xabi Alonso are all reasons Bayer Leverkusen fans can hope their side can still snatch a European place this season.
1) Go with the Flo
“You have to give such special players the possibility to do special things on the pitch,” said Alonso of Florian Wirtzthe 19-year-old prodigy who he now has available to conjure the magic required to propel Die Werkself up the table.
Sidelined by an ACL injury sustained in March, Wirtz has looked like his (not so) old twinkle-toed self in Leverkusen’s warm-up games, notably with a characteristically mesmerizing goal in the 2-1 win over Venice. “That’s not my work,” admitted Alonso, a former world-class player himself. “That’s the magic of a special player.”
watch: Wirtz, raring to go
But the youngest player ever to reach double figures for Bundesliga goals — Wirtz currently has 13 from 60 games — cannot do it all himself, as his coach underlined.
“We want to be a good team, and with Florian we’ll be a better team. But not because Florian is magic and the team is automatically better,” explained Alonso. “When the team works well, Florian will make us better. Look at Argentina. They had Messi for years, but the team didn’t work so well. But when the team worked, Messi was better too, and Argentina were a better team .”
2) The gap
RB Leipzig were five points off fourth place after 15 games last season, and qualified for the UEFA Champions League. With their Matchday 16 Rhine derby with Borussia Mönchengladbach fast approaching, Leverkusen currently stand seven points off sixth place and UEFA Europa Conference League…not insurmountable.
And Alonso’s squad are doing the right thing by not looking too far ahead, living by the football cliche of taking each game as it comes. The prevailing mentality is — according to veteran goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky — facing up to the potential peril of their current predicament before they can think about what might be.
“Just because we’ve had a long winter break, we can’t forget that we’re in a spot of bother,” said the Finland international, whose team are only four points above the relegation/promotion play-off place and just a further point clear of the bottom two and an automatic drop into Bundesliga 2. “We’re not speaking at all about Europe right now. I first want to make sure we stay up. First, we have to collect points and not dream. “
“It’s not to be taken for granted that we get a European place,” added Alonso. “If we make the same mistakes, we can have problems again. In my opinion, there’s nothing in football that is a given.”
3) The X(abi) factor
Anyone care to write off the coaching ability of a man who won three Bundesliga titles at Bayern under Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti, two UEFA Champions Leagues with Liverpool and Real Madrid, a brace of UEFA EUROs and a FIFA World Cup with Spain, and was widely considered one of the most intelligent players of his generation?
“As a personality and because of his experience, Xabi Alonso is a big win for the Bundesliga,” said Stefan Effenberg, the flamboyant and often combustible former Bayern and Germany midfielder who knows a thing or two about personality. “But big names alone do not guarantee success.”
True enough, and yes, Alonso does not have much coaching experience at the top level with Real Sociedad’s reserve team his biggest job before arriving at the BayArena to replace Gerardo Seoane in early October.
Xabi Alonso as overseen four wins, one draw and two defeats in the Bundesliga with Leverkusen since arriving in early October. – Alexander Scheuber/Bundesliga/Bundesliga Collection via Getty Images
But the stats suggest the Basque is taking the team in the right direction.
He can rightly point out that he has only been in charge for seven league games, but has picked up 13 of the 18 points have tallied so far. If the table reflected only Alonso’s reign, Leverkusen would be fourth, two points off third and six points — instead of 16 — behind leaders Bayern.
And his aura of ‘former great player’ — the personality Effenberg was talking about — means his squad are in awe of their boss, who has given everyone a clean slate and the opportunity to impress him. “The energy and self-confidence in the team was low. So I tried to get the players to believe in themselves again,” explained Alonso. “I invited players that hadn’t played so much before to prove themselves, and the likes of Nadiem Amiri, Adam Hlozek and Mitchel Bakker as well as others have taken that chance.”
4) Solid as a block
Leverkusen sporting director Simon Rolfes said Alonso was the man “to bring the fire back” to the team. For the moment, the new boss has spent most of his time putting fires out, and one of them he seems to have extinguished is in making his side of him to easy to beat.
In their first eight league games under Seoane, Leverkusen conceded 16 goals and registered just one clean sheet; in seven matches with Alonso, they’ve shipped 10 — five of which came in his second game, the 5-1 loss at Eintracht Frankfurt on Matchday 10 — and kept a clean sheet on three occasions, including two in their last three games before the winter break.
With give goals and two assists in 15 league appearances in 2022/23, Jeremie Frimpong is the Bundesliga’s most dangerous defender. – IMAGO/David Inderlied/IMAGO/Kirchner-Media
Switching Piero Hincapie from left-back in a flat back four to centre-back alongside Edmond Tapsoba and Jonathan Tah has made an imposing centre-back line. That has allowed Alonso to use the rejuvenated bakerwho has made six of his nine season starts under his new boss, and Jeremie Frimpong as wing-backs, exploiting their pace to make Leverkusen a formidable counter-attacking team, or in a back five, battening down the hatches still further.
“We’ve really improved in our defensive work and in terms of the team’s commitment,” said Alonso, whose switch to a three-man backline has been key in providing stability. “We are playing more compact, we’re more intense in the challenges. We’re good on the counter-attack, but we can still really improve when we’re on the ball and in our positioning.”
5) Quick out the blocks?
Momentum is crucial in football, and the World Cup break could not have come at a worse time for Leverkusen, because they were just picking up steam when they had to take their foot off the gas.
Three straight wins, in which they scored nine times and conceded only once, bounced the team Bayer built into their enforced break with a short-term run of form only leaders Bayern could match. It contrasted starkly with the three defeats — with a cumulative goal difference of minus five — with which they opened the 2022/23 campaign, setting the unmelodious tone of the final matches of Seoane’s tenure.
“It’s clear that we have to avoid a start like the one in summer when we lost three games,” said Hradecky. “I think our play will be better, but in the end, we have to pick up points. Depending on that, then one can decide where one starts to look.”
Leverkusen fans will hope that — following a rip-roaring restart to a season that promised much but has so far failed to deliver — their eyes can stop peering nervously over their shoulders and turn to chasing down a top-six finish and securing the prize of European football for 2023/24.