How Bayer Leverkusen ended Bayern Munich's Bundesliga dominance

  • Bayer Leverkusen are Bundesliga champions for the first time
  • Bayern Munich's dominance over after 11 consecutive titles
  • Xabi Alonso on the cusp of overseeing record-breaking season
Xabi Alonso has taken Bayer Leverkusen to the top
Xabi Alonso has taken Bayer Leverkusen to the top / Lars Baron/GettyImages

For the first time in their history, Bayer Leverkusen are Bundesliga champions.

This is the club that was once branded ‘Neverkusen’ thanks to four second-place finishes in the space of six seasons between 1996 and 2002, the latter year also seeing them lose the Champions League final against Real Madrid in a famous contest at Hampden Park.

It is an incredibly proud moment for Leverkusen, the club and the city, and testament to the work done by the sporting department and head coach Xabi Alonso.

Significant, too, is what it means for German football as a whole. No club other than Bayern Munich had been crowned Bundesliga champions since 2012 in an unprecedented reign of dominance. That streak of successive national titles is now over at 11, with hope of ushering in a newly competitive era after more than a decade of monopolisation.

Bayern’s dreadful campaign has arguably not even been a contributory factor, with Leverkusen laying down one of the greatest-ever Bundesliga campaigns. The cracks in the Munich machine were starting to show in 2022, claiming last year’s title with only 71 points, Germany’s lowest winning tally since 2009/10. But no one was there to take advantage.

Leverkusen dramatically changed that in 2023/24, leaving a sorry Bayern in their wake to wrap up the league with five games still left to play. They have already substantially exceeded Bayern’s 2022/23 tally and are within touching distance of the Bundesliga’s all-time points record – currently 91 set in 2012/13. That record will fall if Leverkusen win just four of their remaining fixtures.

90min takes a look at just how they did it…

Xabi Alonso

Xabi Alonso
Xabi Alonso is Europe's best emerging coach / Alexander Hassenstein/GettyImages

The transformative effect that Alonso has had since his appointment in October 2022 has been nothing short of incredible. Leverkusen were in the relegation zone when he arrived, having taken only four points from their opening eight games of the season, but marked Alonso's first game with a statement 4-0 victory over Schalke and went on to put two significant winning runs together – the first straddling the World Cup break and the second across March and April – to climb to sixth.

That in itself was impressive enough. But Alonso has since kicked Leverkusen onto the next level in what has been his first full season as a senior head coach.

The immediate change when Alonso started work was a switch in formation, moving from the 4-2-3-1 preferred by predecessor Gerardo Seoane to a system utilising a back three and attacking wing-backs. Fluidity further up the pitch has seen tweaks between two 'number tens' operating behind a single central striker, or a sole 'number ten' just beneath two strikers.

Having become the leading young coach in world football, the 41-year-old's decision to pledge his future beyond this season to Leverkusen was a massive boost as they prepare to return to the Champions League in 2024/25. But his bosses don't expect him to stay forever, with chief executive Fernando Carro admitting there is "no doubt" Alonso will take charge of Real Madrid one day. Liverpool or Bayern Munich would also be on the cards in Carro's mind.

Defensive strength

Jonathan Tah
Jonathan Tah has helped make Leverkusen rock solid / Maja Hitij/GettyImages

A back-three system done well will always make it more difficult for an opposing teams to score and it’s no coincidence that Leverkusen have only conceded 19 times across their first 29 games. The next best defensive record belongs to RB Leipzig, who have allowed 33 goals against them.

Leverkusen haven't often made use of a scrappy 1-0 win, recording only two such score-lines in the Bundesliga, but clean sheets – of which there have been 15 – naturally make wins easier to come by because it takes the burden away from scoring goals, not there has been a problem there anyway.

Jonathan Tah has been the mainstay of the back three, starting 26 Bundesliga games, but the others have been relatively fluid. Piero Hincapie, Edmond Tapsoba, Odilon Kossounou and Josip Stanisic have rotated between the two other places, starting between 11 and 18 times in the league.


Exequiel Palacios
Leverkusen were close to losing against Bayern early in the season / Lars Baron/GettyImages

Hand in hand with hard to score against is hard to beat, and Leverkusen are just five games away from recording an undefeated Bundesliga season, having yet to lose so far in 2023/24.

On the rare occasions that record has been under threat, doggedness has got Alonso's team through. A 94th-minute penalty from Exequiel Palacios snatched a 2-2 draw with Bayern back in September, while Victor Boniface equalised towards the end when trailing to Borussia Dortmund in December.


Leverkusen's wing-backs have been crucial
Leverkusen's wing-backs have been crucial / Markus Gilliar/GettyImages

Most crucial to any back three formation are the wing-backs who flank the central defenders. That is any such system has the potential to break down because they have to serve as both defensive-minded full-backs and attack-minded wingers in one.

Leverkusen's have thrived. Jeremie Frimpong and Alejandro Grimaldo have contributed defensively, all the while both being among the squad's top scorers and most creative players. Frimpong has racked up 16 goal involvements across his 27 Bundesliga appearances, while Grimaldo has 22 in 29.

Without the pair of them, this season wouldn't have been nearly as successful as it has been.

Impactful signings

Granit Xhaka has started every league game
Granit Xhaka has started every league game / Rene Nijhuis/MB Media/GettyImages

Once of Barcelona's La Masia, Grimaldo is in his first year in Germany after his contract with Benfica expired last season. To have the kind of impact he has is huge, but the 28-year-old is not alone in arriving in Leverkusen and hitting the ground running.

The club spent handsomely last summer to build off Alonso's initial success but have seen a rapid return on that investment when it comes to performances and results. Victor Boniface's €20m transfer from Union Saint-Gilloise looks like tremendous value in light of his 11 goals and nine assists in 18 Bundesliga games – it would have been even more but for a three-month injury absence. Granit Xhaka has started every league match since joining from Arsenal, while Jonas Hofmann has become key, with Nathan Tella and the aforementioned Stanisic, on loan from Bayern, valuable squad players.

Alonso was able to get vastly more out of the Leverkusen squad last season than his predecessor, but smart recruitment over the summer took an already talented group to new heights.

Bayern H2H

Amine Adli
Leverkusen have bested Bayern in head-to-head encounters / Mika Volkmann/GettyImages

You wonder how different this season might have been had Bayern held on to beat Leverkusen when they met in Munich just four games in. Leverkusen put together eight straight wins off the back of grabbing a point at the death, and while Bayern weren't unduly affected by dropping two points, they did stumble a few months down the line, Leverkusen's momentum gladly carried them ahead.

When they met again at the BayArena in February, Alonso's team had taken 52 points from a possible 60 at that stage of the season and were feeling fully invincible and able to beat anyone, to the point where an already vulnerable Bayern were put to the sword with a 3-0 score-line. That result prompted Bayern's collapse, winning only four of their eight Bundesliga games since.