Bayer Leverkusen Brings Bayern’s 11-Year Reign To An End

Outside of the Premier League, the title races in all the other major European men’s leagues have been runaway affairs. In Spain (Real Madrid sits atop the table with an eight-point cushion and only seven matches left in the season), France (Paris Saint-Germain is up 10 points with 10 matches to go), and Italy (Inter Milan is up 15 with six remaining), all that’s left, barring a miracle/debacle, is playing out the string while the expected title favorites mathematically cinch their new trophies.

It’s maybe no surprise that the Bundesliga is the first top-five league to have already crowned a champion, as was made official on Sunday. This kind of feat has become commonplace in Germany, especially over the past decade, during which time Bayern Munich won 11 straight titles, often doing so with several matches to spare. Sunday, however, finally brought an end to the Bavarians’ 11-year hegemony, as an ascendant Bayer Leverkusen clinched its first Bundesliga title in style, walloping Werder Bremen 5-0 at home to go 16 points clear of Bayern with five matches left.

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It was a fitting climax for what could end up being the first undefeated Bundesliga season in history; Leverkusen has won 25 of its 29 games, drawing the other four. In fact, Leverkusen has not lost a single one of its 43 games across all competitions this season. That leaves Leverkusen with a chance to not just run the table entirely, but also finish with an undefeated treble (though, notably, not the treble, since the continental competition in question here is the Europa League).

How did this happen? Germany is often considered the most top-heavy of the big leagues in Europe, especially during Bayern’s uninterrupted run of domestic dominance that dates back to the 2012-13 season. Only Borussia Dortmund has managed to finish even within single digits of Bayern in that stretch, coming closest to a streak-breaker last season, equaling Bayern on 71 points at the end of the season but falling short on goal difference. Regardless, the Bundesliga has been Bayern’s playground for so long that Leverkusen’s accomplishment is nothing short of stunning.

If Leverkusen’s successes were to begin with any one person, it would be Xabi Alonso. The former Liverpool and Real Madrid midfielder took over as Leverkusen manager in October of 2022, with the team in deep shit at the bottom of the table, and guided them to a sixth-place finish domestically and a respectable run to the Europa League semis. But those impressive though moderate successes in what wasn’t a full season couldn’t have prepared anyone for what was to come.

Alonso’s 3-4-2-1 formation, and a focus on possession and patient attacking, unlocked both the firepower and the consistency that Leverkusen has never quite shown. Leverkusen’s 73 goals in the Bundesliga are a club record through 29 games, and it of course has never avoided defeat in this many games in a row prior to this season. No one in German soccer history has. That Alonso not only led this club to this title but also pledged his future, at least for one more season, to the new champions—despite interest from Bayern itself, as well as Liverpool—is the cherry on top of as good and impactful a tenure as a first-time top flight manager can have.

Naturally, the players had more than a little something to do with the team’s success, and it won’t surprise anyone if some of Leverkusen’s stars go on to bigger, if not necessarily better, things. The attacking duo of 20-year-old Florian Wirtz and 23-year-old Victor Boniface each scored 11 goals, adding 10 and eight assists, respectively. Jeremie Frimpong, Leverkusen’s indefatigable right wingback, announced himself as one of the hottest prospects in Europe with an eight-goal, seven-assist season marauding down the flanks of Alonso’s formation. New signings Álex Grimaldo and Granit Xhaka—yep, that one—were slam dunks, with the former close to a double-double season from left wingback (nine goals, 12 assists) and the latter holding down the center of the midfield and, shockingly, avoiding a single red card this season.

Though it took until Sunday to officially clinch the title, Leverkusen showed two months ago just how serious it was about bringing an end the Bayern decade. That is to say, the now-champions didn’t capitulate at the foot of Bayern’s omnipotence, as the club took four of six points from the reigning juggernaut this season, most impressively with a thorough 3-0 demolition on Feb. 10 that put the league solidly in Leverkusen’s hands.

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It’s a hell of an accomplishment to beat Bayern at its own game, but to do it in this fashion, with so little drama but so much catharsis? That hasn’t happened since Borussia Dortmund won back-to-back titles at the start of last decade. That it was Leverkusen to so definitively stamp out the Bayern reign is perhaps the most surprising part of all.

Prior to the delirium of Sunday afternoon, Leverkusen’s simultaneously most famous and most infamous season came in the 2001-02 campaign, with the team known as “Neverkusen.” In that season, the club managed a brutal anti-treble: it finished second in the Bundesliga (one point behind Borussia Dortmund), lost the DFB-Pokal final 4-2 to Schalke, and lost the Champions League final 2-1 to Real Madrid. It would be nine years before Leverkusen finished second again, in the 2010-11 season, and another 13 after that before it finally claimed the title on Sunday. Perhaps it was the cleansing of the painful memory of Neverkusen, or just the chaotic jubilation that comes from a first title, but the fans at the BayArena certainly celebrated in a manner befitting such a dominant champion:

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There will be five more matches in which Leverkusen will line up as the champions, competing for little else other than the immortality of an unbeaten season. (Sure, that’s a lot, but I’d bet Alonso swaps focus to the Europa League campaign, as well as preparing for the DFB-Pokal final on May 25.) By never letting up throughout the whole season, Leverkusen has earned the right to let its foot off the pedal if it so chooses, and it has done that early enough that the celebrations can continue for a whole month. Every remaining Leverkusen match in the Bundesliga will serve as a victory parade, and it’s hard to say that anyone in Europe’s top five leagues deserves this more. Alonso got this side playing gorgeous, unbeatable soccer, and he was rewarded with a historic title in his first full season in charge. Whatever happens from here on out, no one, not Bayern Munich or the ghosts of failures past, can take that away from Bayer Leverkusen.

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