FEATURE | Bayer Leverkusen – Building for a Bundesliga title

With the Bundesliga set to resume this coming weekend, Bayer Leverkusen return to action with a battle ahead for Champions League qualification under boss Peter Bosz. Sat fifth in the German top-flight table, in the semi-final of the DFB-Pokal and looking likely to reach the quarter-finals of the Europa League at the expense of Rangers, Leverkusen have once again enjoyed a solid season and could still finish with silverware for the first time since the 1992/93 season.

The clubs sustained success over the past couple of years is not based on luck though, instead Leverkusen have developed a system at BayArena that has all the elements to bring home the club’s first Bundesliga title in the coming years.

It seems a three-pronged approach is in use at the North Rhine-Westphalia club. Youth development, mass investment in younger players for the first-team squad and the use of experienced players in key areas of manager Peter Bosz’s starting XI.

We start with the club’s youth academy. Whilst Bayer are seemingly in transition to becoming one of the richer teams in the Bundesliga mostly thanks to their frequent European campaigns, the club still rely on putting huge emphasis on both the scouting and youth development of talent in the west of Germany. With a lengthy list of former Bundesliga stars coming through the ranks at Leverkusen, it is perhaps in the last few years where the club has unearthed its brightest gem. Touted as the crown prince of German football by pundits and fans alike, Kai Havertz has become Leverkusen’s focal point over the past two seasons.

The 20-year-old attacking midfielder is seen as one of the best in the world despite his young age and already boasts a list of accolades for the club. Recently becoming the youngest ever Bundesliga player to score 30 goals, the German attacker has already featured in over 100 matches for Die Werkself. His rapid development is down to the hard-working staff at Leverkusen’s academy at Kurtekotten. In the club’s own words, the academy ‘provides a perfect training environment’ and it is easy to see why when you look into the finer details.

Leverkusen have learnt from some of the best academies in the world by studying them in-depth. Former scout, and later manager, Jonas Boldt explained in 2018 how the club ‘does its homework’ by delving into the finer details of other academies worldwide that have contrasting ideologies in order to best nature their own talent in Germany. It’s said that the club now employs nearly 30 coaches over a wide range of different disciplines at its academy in order to prepare and pave a way for young talent to reach the club’s matchday squad. The rise of players like Havertz are testament to the club’s world-class youth development programmes.

Winger Leon Bailey put focus on the club’s youth development as a main reason as to why he stayed with the club after signing his contract extension back in 2018. “I think this place works highly professionally, from pro even down to the youngest squads, but the biggest thing is that it also shares a common thought of courageous football with a feeling of family.”

The club’s recruitment in young and talented players has also been extremely strong over recent years. Starting with Arturo Vidal and Dani Carvajal in 2007 and 2012 respectively, Jonas Boldt has been at the forefront of a sensible transfer policy adopted by Die Werkself. The list is endless at Leverkusen in terms of the club’s investment in young players from abroad, the signing of Paulinho for €18.5 million from Brazilian club Vasco da Gama perhaps the most ambitious to date. During the last two transfer windows, Bayer have really begun to re-invest incoming transfer fees in younger talent.

Starting in the summer of 2019, the club invested over €20 million in Moussa Diaby from PSG and Nadiem Amiri from fellow Bundesliga side Hoffenheim. Both have already gone on to make a big impact on Leverkusen’s season with 58 appearances in all competitions between them. Diaby, now 20, has impressed fans with his fast, tricky wing-play which has resulted in five goals and six assists so far this term.

This January transfer window further saw Leverkusen heavily invest in more future talent that has already gone on to make a big impact in the club’s starting eleven. Exequiel Palacios, purchased for €17 million from Argentinian side River Plate has yet to make much of an impact with only four appearances to his name but his pedigree is mammoth. With four appearances for the senior Argentina team under his belt, Leverkusen beat off larger clubs in pursuit of the young box-to-box midfielder who is seen as a long-term star for Die Werkself

But it’s Leverkusen’s other big-money January signing that has really performed phenomenally after his move from Portuguese side Vitoria Guimaraes. Central-defender Edmond Tapsoba, despite only making nine appearances to date for Bayer, has shone brightly since his €18 million move to the lower Rhine Valley. Making his debut in Leverkusen’s roller-coaster 4-3 comeback win against Borussia Dortmund in February, Tapsoba has already adapted well to life at Leverkusen. His blend of pace, poise and all-round defending led to a surprise inclusion in Raphael Honigstein’s Bundesliga team of the year for the Athletic. Honigstein claiming in the process that the young Burkino Faso international may well be Premier League bound before too long.

It’s these recent signings that obviously offer long-term hope for Leverkusen but could also push Die Werkself over the finish line in their pursuit of much-needed silverware during the conclusion of this season. Boss Peter Bosz has seemingly become an expert of late in integrating his sides younger players into his wider squad and with Leverkusen still fighting on three separate fronts, the depth of his first-team squad is understandably key.

But it isn’t just Leverkusen’s youth prospects that are important to the sides on-field success. Bosz and his staff understand the crucial need for experience along Bayer’s spine to chase down the dominant juggernaut that is Bayern Munich. The hope is that this experience, coupled with the club’s younger talent, could prove to be the recipe over the coming seasons to deliver a Bundesliga title to BayArena.

Lukas Hradecky, 30, has played well between the sticks this term whilst twin brothers Sven and Lars Bender are still playing regularly for the club, the later now captain and playing 24 times at right-back this season. Jonathan Tah, despite still being only 24 himself, cuts an intimidating figure at centre-back and has once again enjoyed another solid ever-present season with Die Werkself, taking his total Bundesliga appearances to 146. Full-backs Wendell and Mitchell Weiser, both now 26, round off a back-line that has as much experience in German top-flight football as it has promise for the future.

In midfield, stalwart Charles Aranguiz has recently signed a contract extension until 2023 which could prove to be Peter Bosz’s best move to date in charge of Leverkusen. The Chilean had been extensively courted by reigning champions Bayern. Whilst recent addition Kerem Demirbay has fitted perfectly into Leverkusen’s side since his summer move from Hoffenheim and has helped to cement Bayer’s title of ‘best-of-the-rest’ in the Bundesliga.

Going forward, 27-year-old striker Lucas Alario has enjoyed another productive season in front of goal, bagging 10 in 28 appearances across all competitions whilst winger Karim Bellarabi, 30, has largely impressed in his 32 appearances for the club.

Unfortunately for Bayer, there is still a real chance that star forward Kevin Volland could leave the club on a free transfer this summer with his contract running to an end, but Leverkusen officials are hopeful of sealing an extension. With 11 goals and 9 assists in 31 appearances this season, the loss of Volland would be a body-blow for Bayer especially if the German forward moved to a Bundesliga rival. Peter Bosz and his team will see the striker’s potential contract renewal as a key piece of business if Leverkusen are to challenge for the Bundesliga title as early as next season.

Die Werkself fans will be hopeful that this three-pronged plan of development, youthful transfers and much-needed playing squad experience adopted by the club will result in the capture of their first silverware since 1992. And, with it now looking increasingly unlikely Kai Havertz will depart BayArena this summer due to the recent COVID-19 outbreak and the financial restraints Europe’s bigger clubs will be facing in the near future; Bayer Leverkusen will no doubt be planning for a real tilt at winning their first Bundesliga title next season.

Nathan Evans.

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