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  • Writer's pictureBruin Sports Analytics

What Made Bayer Leverkusen So Successful This Season?

By: Divik Chotani, Shawn Reznikov, Siddharth Singh

Source: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

Bayer Leverkusen thrived this season, as their goals for and against in their league season rivaled the champions of the Premier League (Manchester City), Serie A (Inter Milan), and La Liga (Real Madrid).

It is noticeable that there are drastic changes between the previous season and the current season, which is when Xabi Alonso took over. The number of expected goals increased by almost 1 goal, and the expected goals scored against Leverkusen dropped by half a goal per 90 minutes. Furthermore, it is clear to see that Bayer Leverkusen had more goals scored per 90 minutes than expected. This goes to show how this team was able to demonstrate their offensive efficiency and clinical finishing throughout the entire Bundesliga season. 

The graphs below illustrate the expected and actual goals scored by Bayer Leverkusen, as well as the goals conceded, in comparison to other top teams in the top five European leagues.

As such, we can say that Xabi Alonso as manager has contributed to his team’s success by not only creating more goal-scoring chances and solidifying their defense but also ensuring that more of his team’s shots were accurate and resulted in a goal.

One change that has contributed heavily to Bayer Leverkusen’s success is their formation. Xabi Alonso’s conversion to a 3-4-2-1 formation, which was played consistently throughout the season, allows the center of the field to be packed in, leaving no space for the opponents while applying constant pressure. Additionally, Leverkusen’s attacking zones, whether it be through a certain side of the field or the middle, have been relatively equal, showing that Alonso’s team does not rely on one side, or more importantly, one player to make the play leading to a goal.

The change in the types of passes and carries by the Bayer Leverkusen team has also been substantial.

The data shows that there is an extreme change in the number of passes, as well as possession as a whole, between this and the previous season for Bayer Leverkusen. Their touches in the attacking third approximately doubled, and their average live-ball pass count per 90 minutes increased by 200. These numbers rivaled that of Manchester City, a team that is known for its dominance on the field through possession and minimizing counter-attacks. Xabi Alonso seemingly transformed his team from one that was unable to keep the ball for long to one that thrived off of holding the ball, especially in their attacking third of their opponent. Bayer Leverkusen’s change in style of play was an important factor in this season that helped increase their goal count and decrease the amount of goals scored against them compared to previous seasons. 

Bayer Leverkusen’s nearly undefeated season can be attributed significantly to their ability to score late goals. They have frequently managed to turn around seemingly lost matches by scoring in the final minutes. For example, in a Europa League semi-final against Roma FC, they equalized with the last kick of the ball after being two goals down for 82 minutes and losing for 96 of the 97 minutes played.

The charts below show the performance of the top 4 teams from the top 5 leagues after the 80th minute of the game. Leverkusen, as shown, is extremely strong in these periods, showing their ability to climb back from losing positions to draw and equal positions to win.

The two graphics above show how dominant Leverkusen becomes in the final minutes of the game, so much so that fans have started to call this dark magic. As the data shows, only Liverpool comes close to Leverkusen in terms of scoring late in the game, but no team comes close to winning and especially drawing games late in the game. Whatever the reason, it’s clear that Bayer Leverkusen plays a style of football that manages to exhaust teams over the majority of the game with their high-intensity passing and pressing, and even though that could lead to them conceding goals, it also means that towards the end of the game, Leverkusen has an extra sharpness to them that they take advantage of to almost never lose.

There have been specific players that caused a difference in Leverkusen's style of play: the players that massively improved from last season and the new players that Xabi Alonso brought into the club. First, let’s look at players with greater than 500 minutes played in the 23’ and 24’ seasons. 

Next, let's compare Progressive Carries and Progressive Passes amongst the players in the 24’ season:

We can see that Granit Xhaka and Florian Wirtz have a significantly higher total than the rest. These two players embody the influence of Xabi Alonso when he became manager, improving current players, like young talent Florian Wirtz and Jeremie Frimpong, and bringing in experienced game controllers like Granit Xhaka and Alex Grimaldo.

The graph above shows the substantial difference between the sum of goals minus expected goals for the past two seasons. This graph illustrates the colossal, unexpected peak achieved by Leverkusen this season with Xabi Alonso. 

Overall, Xabi Alonso brought Bayer Leverkusen to the standards of world-class teams like Manchester City, Inter Milan, Real Madrid, etc. He also influenced formation and tactics in a way that made the players score more goals than anyone expected at the start of the season, possibly even themselves. Xabi taught the players to never give up and keep fighting till the final whistle, scoring equalizing and winning goals late in the game. Xabi brought in players who can provide experience, like Granit Xhaka, but also massively upscaled the players already on the team. Xabi ticked all the boxes to construct a successful and title-winning team that went unbeaten for 51 games (361 days), making it the longest unbeaten streak in Europe since the end of WWII. 



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