Xabi Alonso

The business end of the football season is the time when the prizes are handed out to deserving winners, and there will arguably be no bigger winners in Europe’s top five leagues in 2023/24. 

Bayer Leverkusen have been crowned champions of the German top flight after a commanding 5-0 victory at home to Werder Bremen confirmed their historic triumph. 

Needing all three points on Sunday afternoon, Leverkusen took the lead through a Victor Boniface penalty in the first half before Granit Xhaka and Florian Wirtz scored two brilliant long-range goals to start the party at the BayArena.

This title triumph is even sweeter with an unbeaten record of 25 wins and four draws in their league games while they still hold the longest unbeaten streak by a club in the Bundesliga with 43 matches and counting.

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Die Werkself remain the only team across Europe’s 54 top divisions yet to lose a competitive game this term. 

As title wins go, Bayer have done so in style as their first Bundesliga win comes with five games to spare to put an end to a painful record of five second-place finishes. Leverkusen finished as runners-up four times in six seasons between 1996/97 and 2001/02 and earned the ‘Neverkusen’ nickname which became part of the club’s culture.

The Black and Reds hold a 16-point lead over reigning champions Bayern Munich whose 11-year Bundesliga winning streak has been broken in such swashbuckling fashion. 

The brains behind the champs

Xabi Alonso has undoubtedly made a huge difference for Bayer having overseen an extraordinary turnaround since taking charge of a 17th-place side in October 2022. They ended the 2022/23 campaign in sixth position and have done the unthinkable in Alonso’s first full season as head coach of a senior team. 

The Spaniard is now just the sixth person to win the Bundesliga as both a player and a coach, after Hansi Flick, Niko Kovač, Thomas Schaaf, Matthias Sammer and Franz Beckenbauer. He was an intelligent and technically sound midfield general in his playing days but the quality seen as a manager already speaks volumes of his potential. 

While Bayern Munich were uncharacteristically the big spenders over the summer transfer window with the signing of Harry Kane. Leverkusen’s excellent work in the market made up for it despite the departure of last season’s top scorer, Moussa Diaby.

In came Granit Xhaka from Arsenal with a wealth of experience, Jonas Hofmann with a proven track record in the Bundesliga, Alejandro Grimaldo on a free transfer from Benfica (the bargain deal of the season) and Victor Boniface with the all-round attacking qualities after top-scoring in the Europa League last season.

Leverkusen spent €90 million in total on the transfer of new players but the sale of Diaby to Aston Villa considerably brought down their net loss.

Bayer Leverkusen

Now equipped with a team of his choosing, Alonso refined the system to a high-possession side and made them capable of playing in different ways given the talents at their disposal. The 3-4-2-1 system has seen a solid backline become the best in Germany, with the width provided by the wing-backs.

Indeed, Alejandro Grimaldo in conjunction with Jeremie Frimpong have formed the most productive wing-back pairing in world football with 40 goal involvements between them. They flank a box midfield formed by the two number 10s combining ahead of the double pivot of Xhaka and Exequiel Palacios.

Up front, Boniface has provided a bullish presence mixed with exceptional dribbling skills and a refined finishing touch. The result of this is a scintillating attack that has blown away opposition defences all season. 

Heroes and moments 

Florian Wirtz has been a stand-out performer in one of the number 10 positions with his incredible vision, creativity and technical brilliance. The German is a gifted pass master who completes a high volume of risky, defence-splitting passes which is very essential to Alonso’s team. 

Florian Wirtz

The 20-year-old is arguably the best No.10 in Europe right now having scored 17 goals and provided 18, the most assists in the top five leagues. It is fitting that he netted his first career hat-trick on the day that their title win was confirmed and it has been a long road for Wirtz after suffering an Anterior Cruciate Ligament damage in 2022.

Wirtz has returned to even better heights and he is deservedly the creative leader of this incredible team. 

Elsewhere, Alonso has been able to manage his team through some very tasking moments with absences and rotation in cup games. One thing that has remained constant though, is winning.

It is notable that Leverkusen have a never-say-die attitude this season which has seen them accumulate eight points by scoring after the 75th minute.

Even with the Africa Cup of Nations denying them the services of Odilon Kossounou, Edmond Tapsoba and Amine Adli including a lengthy injury to Boniface, Alonso showed he has a whole squad of 25 rather than a team of 11 to 14 favourites.  

Patrik Schick stepped up in Boniface’s absence while the club also reacted with the loan signing of Borja Iglesias from Real Betis. 

More to come

With the Bundesliga title now achieved, a DFB-Pokal final with second-tier FC Kaiserslautern awaits next month while Leverkusen have one leg in the Europa League semifinal following a 2-0 win over West Ham in their quarter-final first leg.

They are gunning for a treble and there can be no denying their credentials as Alonso has shown a tactical awareness that makes his team difficult to play against as well as efficient when going forward. 

Playing a part in the all-conquering Spain side and playing under Pep Guardiola at Bayern prepared Alonso for a possession game, winning with Rafael Benitez and Jose Mourinho also made him part of teams that were hard to beat, while a spell under Carlo Ancelotti also exposed him to the master of man-management.

Xabi Alonso can adopt any approach in his team and having confirmed he will remain at Die Schwarzroten next season, this is only the beginning. 

Another world-class footballer has made the difficult transition into a quality football manager, a student of the game who possesses a fantastic football brain. How Alonso turned around the story of the Bundesliga title and Bayer Leverkusen will make for folk tales in decades to come. 


Bolu Alabi-Hundeyin

Chief Editor of the Football Castle, Bolu Alabi-Hundeyin is a football junkie and writer of the beautiful game.


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