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Could Bayer Leverkusen Make the Bundesliga a Three-Horse Race?

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A vastly improved Leverkusen squad looks to contend for the Bundesliga title

Bayer Leverkusen v FC Ingolstadt - Bundesliga Photo by Christof Koepsel/Bongarts/Getty Images

The 2016/17 Bundesliga season has yet to begin and analysts are already talking about the “two horse race” for the title. Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund are already being considered front-runners to compete for the Bundesliga title.

However, most pundits seem to ignore Bayer Leverkusen. Last year’s third place finishers are back and looked to have improved from last season. With a mixture of up-and-coming talent along old-familiars melding together, Leverkusen could make the Bundesliga into a three-horse race.

TRANSFER SUMMARY:

Leverkusen were certain to be losing one big name from last season’s third-place team. But the slew of talent brought into the BayArena for this season leaves the club vastly improved and extremely dynamic.

NOTABLE TRANSFERS IN (fees per Transfermarkt):

  • Kevin Volland - TSG Hoffenheim (€20 Million)
  • Julian Baumgartlinger - FSV Mainz (€4 Million)
  • Danny da Costa - FC Ingolstadt (€500,000)
  • Ramazan Ozcan - FC Ingolstadt (undisclosed)
  • Various U-19 Promotions

NOTABLE TRANSFERS OUT (fees per Transfermarkt):

  • Christoph Kramer - Borussia Monchengladbach (€15 Million)
  • Sebastian Boenisch - Unattached (Contract Expired)

MY THOUGHTS:

The one really big loss for Leverkusen this summer was midfielder Christoph Kramer. There was no real trouble finding a cost-effective replacement for Kramer as Julian Baumgartlinger was brought aboard from Mainz. With the addition of Kevin Volland to an attack that features Karim Bellarabi and Chicharito, Leverkusen is looking very threatening this season.

You may remember Kevin Volland for scoring the fastest goal in Bundesliga history against Bayern Munich last season. The previous fastest goal? Bellarabi against Dortmund in August 2014. So for our purposes, we’ll just show you Volland’s.

OTHER NOTES:

Despite an already strengthened lineup, Leverkusen continue to shop around, looking for even more reinforcements ahead of the new season. One name particularly familiar to Dortmund fans is Aleksandar Dragovic. Dortmund was in on the Austrian defender earlier this summer but dropped interest after signing Marc Bartra.

Leverkusen continues to inch closer towards signing Dragovic, but have yet to strike a deal with Dragovic’s current club, Dynamo Kyiv. Meanwhile, Omer Toprak stayed put this summer despite heavy speculation the Leverkusen vice-captain would be finding a new club. If the club does strike a deal for Dragovic, the Leverkusen defense will be even more formidable.

PREDICTION: 2nd Place.

Will Bayern be able to duplicate their Guardiola-like success under Carlo Ancelotti? It might not happen in the first season or two. Instead, we could see a Bundesliga title that is decided within the final weeks and a log-jammed top three that could be decided by as little as two points. Whatever happens, it will be exciting!


Q & A

With the season approaching fast, we reached out to Eric Bruehl from the Neverkusen Podcast (@neverkusenpod on Twitter) to tell us just how Bayer Leverkusen will look come opening day.

Q: Tactically, how will Leverkusen lineup this season?

A: In all likelihood, Roger Schmidt will shift between a 4-4-1-1 and a more traditional 4-2-3-1, depending on whom he uses in the advanced midfield role. That said, it won’t be a surprise to see the team switch formations within a game depending on the need for a more or less aggressive approach.

The starting personnel is more difficult to guess, especially in the midfield. Bernd Leno is obviously the starter in goal (and arguably our best player), while the starters in the back four are likely to be Jonathan Tah, Omer Toprak, Wendell, and Roberto Hilbert (until he gets hurt and Tin Jedvaj or Benjamin Henrichs take over).

Schmidt has an unbelievably difficult choice to make at the DM positions. Charles Aranguiz’s class cannot be ignored, and he seems destined to play a lot of minutes in that 6er position. He will combine really well with the creative Kevin Kampl, who showed last season and is showing in the preseason that he is the player best suited to start Roger Schmidt’s pacey, one-touch attack. That still leaves players like captain Lars Bender, Julian Baumgartlinger, youngster Vladlen Yurchenko, Andre Ramalho, and even Hakan Calhanoglu available, which is going to be a luxury over three competitions.

There’s potential for a similar logjam in the offensive midfield, where players like Julian Brandt, Levin Oztunali, Hakan, and Admir Mehmedi will be fighting for playing time on the left wing and in the center of the pitch.

New (and expensive!) acquisition, Kevin Volland, will likely play slightly behind Javier Hernandez, and if the preseason is any indication, Volland is going to fit into this attack seamlessly.

Stefan Kiessling has complained for chronic pain in his hip and back, and we won’t see him get a lot of minutes at the beginning of the season until he is entirely free of pain. Having brought back Joel Pohjanpalo from Fortuna Duesseldorf now looks like an important move, as he shares a lot of qualities with Kies.

I can say pretty confidently that fans haven’t been this excited about the depth of the team since the early 2000s.

Q: What is Leverkusen's primary strength this season? Primary weakness?

The team will depend on this harassment of the opposition to steal balls at midfield and in the opponent’s defensive end and then immediately switching gears to go forward with quick one-touch passes through the center.

Leverkusen’s strong defense shouldn’t be ignored, either. Besides an almost world-class keeper in Leno, Omer Toprak and Jonathan Tah are two of the top five central defenders in the Bundesliga and, in the case of Tah especially, are only getting better. A defensive midfield of international-class players means that the only real question marks are at the positions of left- and right-back.

If Wendell rediscovers his form of two years ago, which caused a team like Real Madrid to begin sniffing around his person, the left side of the defense will be in good shape. He has the skills and speed to move forward between defense and attack, although he looked incredibly exposed at times last season.

The right-back position is still somewhat up for grabs with favorites Hilbert and Jedvaj vying for that final spot. Jedvaj showed some promise early on at this position, and Hilbert was consistent when he played last season, but their injury history suggests Bayer have a plan C in place as well – and that may be the returning Danny Da Costa once he’s fit.

It’s worth noting that in Schmidt’s high pressing system, the defensive backs are expected to come up the field very high, allowing the wingers like Bellarabi or Brandt to move into the center of the pitch to set themselves up in dangerous positions there. While this can be hugely effective on offense, a careless loss of the ball to a team that can play over the top quickly will lead to difficult-to-contain counter-attacks that could leave the Bayer defense extremely exposed. Finding that balance will be key to a successful season.

Oh, and if we can avoid being the team with the most shots off the woodwork for the fourth year in a row, we should be able to increase our point total significantly. Sometimes it looks like a cross-bar challenge when we play.

Q: Offense: With a dynamic front four in attack, how will teams struggle to contain Leverkusen's high-powered attack?

A: How will other teams struggle to contain them? Mightily, I would think. Already in the preseason against teams like Fiorentina and Porto, the Leverkusen attack has looked very difficult to contain.

The addition of Kevin Volland, whom Bayer have been after for a couple of years now, seems to have been a masterstroke. He brings a certain robustness and versatility that make him playable almost anywhere up front, and even when he isn’t scoring or assisting, his runs have opened up a lot of space for Chicharito and the midfielders to attack the goal.

Speaking of which, the continued success of Hernandez is going to be key for Bayer Leverkusen, who won’t be able to afford passing up good goal opportunities. They’ve been wasteful in the past, and if they really want to achieve something this year they will need to capitalize on their opportunities more consistently. I’m cautiously optimistic that two players (maybe three!) will score in double digits this season.

Q: Defense: Is there a growing concern that the defense is not deep enough to A) deal with the packed fixture schedule? and B) handle a big blow if Toprak and Leno were to leave the club?

A: I don’t think there’s a big concern about depth in the defense. If we can avoid the ridiculous injury bug that hit us last year, we should be pretty well set at most positions (left-back depth is a bit of a concern).

Neither Leno nor Toprak are going anywhere this season, and both have capable backups in case of injury. Leno is supported by “Rambo” Ozcan, a proven keeper, and young talent Niklas Lomb, while an injury to Toprak would likely be compensated through the use of Kyriakos Papadopoulos or Jedvaj. Andre Ramalho is also an option at CB.

Q: Prediction time! Will Leverkusen truthfully be able to contend for the Bundesliga title this season?

A: As always, the clubs stated goals are to make it to Berlin in the DFB Pokal, into the knock-out rounds of the Champions League, and to qualify for Europe (the CL) at the end of the season. That said, there’s not been this much optimism around the club in a long time. A lot of fans feel that if Bayer is ever going to make another serious title run, then this is the season to do it.

In addition to a stronger team than last year, Bayer can look at the competition and hope for a little help from some of their closest competitors. Bayern Munich are certainly still the favorites, but if they suffer from a summer hangover early on, it will be on Leverkusen to take advantage and try to put some distance between themselves at the beginning of the season.

Dortmund have done well in the transfer window, but the loss of their three stars is going to be difficult to compensate no matter how promising the youngsters they brought in look. Gladbach will be at or near the top four challenging for a CL position as well, and it would be foolish to look past them. Schalke will be Schalke (will be Leverkusen) so they won’t challenge for the top spot, and Wolfsburg is pretty much in crisis mode.

All this to say, if Leverkusen stay healthy and improve their goal-scoring and consistency, then they will be a consideration for a top two finish. Expectations are quietly high this season, and early exits in either the DFB Pokal or the CL will be viewed as significant failures.

A Bundesliga title? I know better than to lean too far out the window trying to make that prediction, but, admittedly, the optimism is very high.