Can Leverkusen challenge Bayern and BvB in 2016/2017?

Bayer 04 Leverkusen have been in fantastic form ever since falling out of the Europa League last month. Six straight wins have seen the club jump up as many as five places in the Bundesliga and they now sit strong in third place with three games left to play. A win over fourth place and surprise package Hertha Berlin, whom Leverkusen lead by five points, this weekend will automatically qualify Leverkusen for the Champions League group stages next season, which they would partake in for the fourth year running.

It would be an impressive feat on Bayer’s part, given the fact that it’s been a very tough year for them throughout with many long-term injuries hampering their squad.  The ability to put out a strong team week in, week out with players such as Omer Toprak, Tin Jedvaj, Kyriakos Papadopoulos, Roberto Hilbert, Sebastian Boenisch, Lars Bender, Charles Aranguiz, Kevin Kampl, Stefan Kießling, Javier (Chicharito) Hernandez and Robbie Kruse struggling with injuries at various times and being unavailable on gameday.  This situation left Leverkusen at a deficit particularly in defense and midfield for much of the campaign.

Schmidt in charge
Schmidt in charge

The Die Werkself may finish third regardless would be a testament to the impressive depth that they’ve created in the squad as well as Roger Schmidt’s smart albeit sometimes flawed, management of the group of players at his disposal. Despite all the problems they’ve had to deal with all season, Leverkusen may end the Bundesliga campaign as the third best team in Germany behind Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund and quite possibly with sixty points or more.  Important also is the fact that the injuries that have hindered the club have also had the positive effect of allowing playing time to youngsters Frey, Yurchenko and Henrichs, providing them valuable big-time experience.

So if they could achieve that with an injury-ravaged squad throughout the entire year, what could they achieve at full strength?

It’s an interesting question to ponder over, at the very least. Leverkusen have become a formidable attacking side that’s usually fun to watch since Schmidt took over back in the summer of 2014.  Although they have their leaky periods, they have matured and bettered defensively over time as well, as evidenced by their eighteen clean sheets in all competitions this season and the 3rd least goals allowed in the Bundesliga in 2015/2016.

They’ve also formulated a squad mixed with plenty of exciting talent on both ends of the pitch and several experienced figures who are leading the team and helping the transitional phase for the younger members of the group to mature into quality players and realize their potential at the club. It’s a blend that any club in the world would love to have and it’s one that does beg that question of whether Leverkusen are ready to take on the challenge of going for a Bundesliga title, something they’ve never won in their history.

The last time they put up a real fight to win the league was in the 2010/11 season when they still had the likes of Arturo Vidal, Michael Ballack, Renato Augusto, and Simon Rolfes in their ranks. Additionally,  players on that Leverkusen squad such as Rene Adler, Tranquillo Barnetta, Sidney Sam, and Patrick Helmes were all among the better performers in the league at the time. That edition of Die Werkself were led by the legendary manager Jupp Heynckes as they finished second behind Jurgen Klopp’s young, vibrant Dortmund.

Leverkusen have also lost key players like Gonzalo Castro, Son Heung-Min, Emre Can, Andre Schurrle, and Daniel Carvajal in the years since, but they’ve managed to rebuild well under Schmidt and form a team that’s capable of finishing high in the league and playing Champions League football regularly. But that’s not their limit, that’s not their ceiling as this year has shown. This is a team that can go far, farther than they’re at right now, but the only question that remains seems to be: how soon?

Judging by what they’ve achieved up until now this year with almost always half their squad out on the treatment table, it seems that it could be very soon should they encounter lady luck more often when it comes to injuries next season. They’ll also need to do well to keep ahold of their most prized assets which won’t be easy considering the inevitable interest their brightest young players have attracted, but if they want to challenge for trophies, this is the reality they’ll have to compete with to even have a chance of doing so.

On top of all that, it’ll be important to ensure that they cover any holes in the squad in the summer with smart purchases, much like they have done under Schmidt to assemble this roster in the first place, and add the missing pieces to complete a potentially title-challenging side for next year.

There’s not a whole lot that needs to be done in that regard though. At goalkeeper, they have one of the finest young custodians in world football in Bernd Leno, although rumors swirl about his departure to England and the possiblity of Ron-Robert Zieler from Hannover replacing him. In defense they have talented players like JonathanTah, Jedvaj, Papadopoulos, Wendell, and Andre Ramalho, while teenager Benjamin Henrichs has taken advantage of playing opportunities this year to show that he should be strongly considered in the mix. The midfield has a good blend of experience, with Bender, Aranguiz, Christoph Kramer, and Kampl, and youth, with Hakan Calhanoglu still only 22, as is Vladlen Yurchenko, while Marlon Frey is only 20.

Brandt: Promise fulfilled
Brandt: Promise fulfilled

Out wide, there are players like Germany national team member Karim Bellarabi, Switzerland international Admir Mehmedi, and Julian Brandt, the prodigy who is totally living up to expectations. Up front they have one of the current best strikers in Germany in Hernandez who’s netted twenty-six in all competitions this season since arriving from Manchester United, as well as Werkself icon Stefan Kießling who still has goals in him, and has extended his contract recently.  Schmidt’s belief in Hernandez and his desire to bring the Mexican international to Leverkusen, envisioning what he could achieve with the club, is certainly one of the most important narratives of this Bundesliga season.

So on paper, there seems to be few needs and little to address in regards to the make-up of this squad. It’s also worth mentioning that they have talents like goalkeeper Niklas Lomb, 21, who has kept fourteen clean sheets at Preussen Munster, 20-year old attacking midfielder Levin Oztunali who features frequently at Werder Bremen, and 22-year old South Korean Ryu Seung-Woo now at Arminia Bielefeld, all loanees who could be recalled in the summer.

In regards to making signings when the transfer window opens in June, there doesn’t look to be much necessary to splash money on. The starting lineup looks very impressive with everyone fit and the depth in most of the positions leave them well covered. If anything really needs to be done, perhaps they could add another striker up top with Kiessling starting to age and maybe a full-back who could be an improvement on Roberto Hilbert and Sebastian Boenisch. But even then, those are just to make their bench stronger. The starting lineup is as deep as anyone could reasonably hope for, and as long as they’re all fit and remain with the club through the summer transfer window, that’s the most important thing.

But challenging for the title in Germany takes a whole lot more than just having a good, talented squad. Leverkusen still have more work to do as a group to mature their game tactically as well as becoming more consistent on a regular basis if they are to even attempt to keep up with Dortmund and especially Bayern over the course of an entire season.  Trailing Bayern by 27 points and Borussia Dortmund by 20 near the end of the season indicates that there is still a huge gulf between those two sides and Leverkusen.

Die Werkself cannot go on bad runs that sees their finishing go flat, concede several goals and not win games for several rounds, like they have endured at times over the last two years. Their form at the BayArena must improve also because, while eighteen wins in thirty-two home league games under Schmidt isn’t bad, it isn’t title-winning form either.

Even if everything falls into place for Leverkusen though, they’ll need luck as well. While they could possibly close the gap on Dortmund, especially if BVB lose key players like central defender Mats Hummels in the summer, it will be very difficult to do gain on Bayern and it’s important to stay realistic about that at all times. Bayern have dominated German football for four straight years now, have averaged over eighty-points a season in that time frame, and are heavily expected to continue to rule over the Bundesliga for the foreseeable future under next manager Carlo Ancelotti.

It’s going to take a lot of work for Leverkusen to get into a position where they can realistically win the title and finally break their duck, but they have the talent and experience to do so as well as the right examples to follow having seen what Dortmund accomplished in 2011 and what little Leicester City are doing in England this year.  The addition of Chicharito, with his big-club experience (Chivas, Manchester United, Real Madrid) and zest for the game (not to mention the goals he’s provided), has not only created a huge wave of Leverkusen fans in Mexico and the Americas but has tangibly boosted the squad’s sense of confidence and possibility. In addition, Karim Bellarabi, who’s been in such fine form recently, pledged his allegiance to the club by refusing to activate his release clause despite interest from EPL and Serie A clubs.  Schmidt’s club seems much less-Neverkusenish than in the past.

They have a huge gap to bridge between themselves and Bayern/Dortmund, and now they’ll need to work hard and hope to get some luck — and you never know where it may take them.

Chicharito in Orlando (photo Liam Newberry)
Chicharito in Orlando (photo Liam Newberry)
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Edin Halilovic

Edin is a Bosnian currently residing in the United States whose interest in the Bundesliga and German football in general has been increasing heavily in recent years. Follow him @edinh_96