On 2 February, Bayer Leverkusen beat Bayern Munich 3-1, coming from behind to put a dent in the Bavarian giants’ title push, as their young stars shone and they proved they are still a force to be reckoned with in German football. Six days later they dismantled Mainz away from home, winning 5-1 to keep their own hopes of Champions League football next season very much alive.
However, in between these two superb victories came a shock 2-1 defeat at the hands of German second-tier side Heidenheim in the DFB-Pokal, which in all likelihood has condemned Leverkusen to another season without silverware. It’s this lack of consistency, stability and sustained quality which has ultimately been their downfall for the best part of two decades now.
There’s no doubt Bayer Leverkusen are one of the biggest clubs in Germany, and have been for some time. They have consistently found themselves high up in the Bundesliga for a number of years now; after a mid-table finish in 2008/09, they’ve placed inside the top five in all but one of the nine seasons since, regularly qualifying for the Champions League and being involved in the title race on several occasions.
Despite this, their most recent piece of silverware was in 1993 when they won the DFB-Pokal, beating Hertha Berlin II 1-0 in the final. Club legend and all-time leading goalscorer Ulf Kirsten netted the winner to secure the first and only major domestic trophy in Leverkusen’s 114-year history.
It seems almost inconceivable that one of Germany’s strongest sides have been so starved of material success for the last 25 years, and throughout their entire existence. Even with Bayern Munich’s dominance of German football, several sides have broken the mould and picked up some domestic silverware in recent times. Since the turn of the century, Borussia Dortmund multiple league titles, while Wolfsburg, Stuttgart and Werder Bremen have also all won the Bundesliga since Leverkusen last lifted a trophy.
They have come close more than once in that time, however. A Mesut Özil goal condemned Leverkusen to a narrow defeat in the final of the 2008/09 DFB-Pokal against Werder Bremen, and two seasons later they were runners-up in the Bundesliga, finishing seven points off Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund. But these close shaves were nothing compared to the agonising period experienced by the club between 1996 and 2002. Leverkusen finished second in the Bundesliga four times in six seasons, squandering a healthy lead at the top on more than one occasion.
The most devastating of these was the 2001/02 season. An unprecedented treble was a very real possibility for Leverkusen going into the final weeks of proceedings. However, they surrendered a five-point lead at the top of the Bundesliga with just three games to go, finishing second to Dortmund by a single point, before losing in the finals of the DFB-Pokal and Champions League.
A season where so much was achieved, which put a group of players on the verge of immortality, ultimately ended in despair, and they were swiftly dubbed “Bayer Neverkusen” by the English media. There’s a good chance the psychological damage of that campaign has weighed on everyone involved with the club since, impacting on their continued attempts to secure more silverware.
It has to be considered something of an anomaly that Die Werkself have gone so long without winning anything. A big part of this comes from the fact they’ve struggled to hold onto virtually all of the major talents they’ve brought in for more than a couple of years. As a result of this, Leverkusen are one of European football’s great stepping stones.
Shortly after the turn of the century, that excellent side was threatening to turn Bayer Leverkusen into a real European heavyweight. However, the following summer the exceptional spearhead of their team, Michael Ballack, who had also finished as the club’s top scorer with 23 goals in all competitions, was snapped up by Bayern Munich. He was a devastating loss for Leverkusen at the time, made even worse by the fact he went on to be considered one of the best central midfielders of his generation.
Zé Roberto, another key member of that 2001/02 squad, joined the Bavarians too that summer, and both players went on to enjoy a wealth of domestic success at Bayern over the next few years. Lúcio, who was thought of as one of the best defenders in the world and had won the World Cup with Brazil in 2002, also made the switch to Munich two years later. He later won several domestic trophies and went on to be an important part of Inter’s treble-winning season in 2010. In the space of 24 months, most of the spine of that excellent Leverkusen side had been gutted by their Bavarian rivals.
Raiding their closest competitors’ star performers in this way has become the norm for Bayern in recent times – weakening their rivals while strengthening their own squad has contributed strongly to their stranglehold on football in Germany for the past few decades. Despite this, since Lúcio’s move it has not been Bayern who have tempted away Leverkusen’s most valuable players, but sides from all across Europe.
Dimitar Berbatov had also been a part of that 2001/02 squad, but it wasn’t until the following year that he forced his way into the starting line-up on a regular basis. After bagging over 20 goals in the 2004/05 and 2005/06 seasons, and being Leverkusen’s top scorer for three consecutive campaigns, he completed a £12m move to Tottenham.
At first glance this move looks like a no-brainer, but in the summer of 2006, Leverkusen and Tottenham were actually in similar positions. Both sides had qualified for the UEFA Cup the season prior to the Bulgarian’s move, but the pull of English football and an increase in wages were surely important factors.
Berbatov replicated his form upon joining the Premier League, finishing as Spurs’ top scorer in his first two seasons and winning the 2008 League Cup before moving on to Manchester United, where he won the league twice and the golden boot. His trophy haul and achievements following his Leverkusen departure speak for themselves, but only those who witnessed him play at his peak will be able to fully comprehend what an exceptional and unique talent Leverkusen lost.
After Ballack, Zé Roberto and Lúcio had all gone to Bayern within the space of two years, Berbatov’s exit set the trend for exceptional players leaving to fulfil their potential elsewhere in Europe over the following decade.
Next up in that particular category is Arturo Vidal, who spent his development years at the BayArena between 2007 and 2011. He has since won multiple league titles in Italy and with Bayern upon his return to German football, managing a domestic double once in each country, and was a Copa América winner in 2015. He looks set to conquer Spain now as a part of Barcelona’s squad and has established himself as one of the most versatile and well-rounded midfield engines in Europe.
Across 2009 and 2010, Toni Kroos enjoyed a fruitful 18-month loan spell at Leverkusen, before returning to Bayern to win the only treble in German football history. He then went on to add the 2014 World Cup and three consecutive Champions Leagues to his astonishing résumé and is one of the most decorated players in world football. Perhaps it’s harsh to include a loanee in the list but he remains another world-class star to have passed through the BayArena.
A young André Schürrle caught the eye for two seasons at Leverkusen after joining from Mainz, registering 14 goals and 10 assists in his second season. Admittedly he has not enjoyed the success at club level he possibly should have – in terms of holding down a starting place or really establishing himself at one club for any length of time – however, he’s another World Cup winner who got away, an electrifying talent on his day and someone who looked set to be one of Leverkusen’s star players for years to come before joining Chelsea in 2013.
In the summer that saw Schürrle depart, Leverkusen also lost Dani Carvajal, with Real Madrid exercising a buyback clause to bring the Spaniard home to the Bernabéu after just one season in Germany – that’s how much he had impressed by the age of 21. Due to that clause, Carvajal’s Leverkusen career was always presumably leading a charmed life, but had the German side found a way to retain his services, he would most likely have become their regular right-back for the next decade, something he now looks set to do at Real.
Despite his obvious talent, Carvajal went to Leverkusen as something of a Bernabéu reject, yet to reveal his true potential. A similar situation faced Emre Can when he was allowed to leave by Bayern Munich in 2013. He impressed would-be suitors enough in his only season at Leverkusen as a versatile and flexible player to pique Liverpool’s interest almost immediately, moving to Merseyside the following summer.
Still only 25, Can improved with every season at Anfield and reached three cup finals, before a high-profile switch to Juventus, where he will inevitably add to the trophy haul he accrued in his early days at Bayern. The German is another example of a player now fulfilling his huge potential amongst Europe’s elite – potential which he had first demonstrated in glimpses at Leverkusen.
A year later, Leverkusen lost another excellent young talent and one who has pushed his way into the world-class bracket during the last 18 months. At 23, Son Heung-min moved to Tottenham after two hugely impressive seasons in Germany, in which he scored 29 goals from a wide position and received a Ballon d’Or nomination. In the English capital Son has moved to another level, becoming one of the best performers in the Premier League. There’s little doubt that if the Korean had stayed with Leverkusen they could’ve had one of the best players in the Bundesliga on their hands right now.
Hakan Çalhanoğlu and Arkadiusz Milik are also worthy of a mention at this point. Çalhanoğlu joined AC Milan as part of their overhaul in the summer of 2017, just as he was beginning to show real promise in Germany, while Milik actually only made a handful of appearances for Leverkusen before a 2015 move to Ajax, where he was prolific, and now boasts an impressive goal return for Napoli too.
This was a rare occasion on which the German club didn’t realise the talent they had on their books, allowing him to leave because he was surplus to requirement as opposed to the player being poached by one of European football’s elite sides. Neither of the two now plying their trade in Italy have necessarily hit the greatest heights but Milik has been hampered by injuries recently and is undoubtedly an exceptional goalscorer when fit. Çalhanoğlu may not be a world beater yet but is still just 25 and clearly blessed with outstanding technical ability.
Last but not least is Domagoj Vida. Perhaps not quite of the same calibre as the other players listed here, but he is nevertheless a recent World Cup finalist, linked with the likes of Liverpool and Roma in the summer and over the course of this season. Leverkusen allowed him to leave for a little over a million pounds in 2011 having paid Croatian side NK Osijek around double that figure the previous year.
An interesting thing to note here is that none of the players mentioned thus far came through the academy at Leverkusen. This isn’t a case of superstars being nurtured and formed by a club before a bigger side comes along and cherry picks them, but rather repeated instances of Leverkusen recognising a player’s potential and bringing them in, only to have them whisked away, often within two or three years.
It seems as though virtually every summer for the past decade Leverkusen have lost a serious talent to a bigger fish in the European footballing pond. Whether this is because their standout players have their heads turned and push for an exit or because Leverkusen have actually been willing to sell these players for the money offered, it doesn’t help to routinely lose these big names. Bernd Leno going to Arsenal is just another recent example.
Just imagine the quality of starting XI and squad Bayer Leverkusen could’ve had right now if they’d maintained the services of most or all of the players mentioned above since 2010. With Vidal and Emre Can in the middle and Son and Schürrle wide, their midfield alone could’ve been as good as most in the Bundesliga. But how can any club expect to seriously compete, particularly with a superpower like Bayern Munich, if they aren’t able to hold onto their best assets for more than a couple of years?
Usually these ‘what could have been’ dream teams of ex-players point towards one thing: a selling club. This is certainly true to some extent with Die Werkself. They have produced a comfortable net profit in each of their last two seasons of transfers, including selling over £80m pounds-worth of talent in 2017. The trouble is, as with most supposed selling clubs, you would at least expect them to receive a lot of money, asking teams to pay over the odds. But this doesn’t seem to have been the case with Leverkusen.
Seven of the best players who have come through the BayArena in the last decade, all mentioned above, amount to £115m in sales. This figure really isn’t a reasonable amount to have received for a handful of exceptional individuals, especially for a side wanting to compete for Champions League football every season. It’s a stretch to cover the costs of rebuilding a side which continues to lose its most promising stars. The figure will no doubt look even more insignificant once Leno, Çalhanoğlu and Can reach their potential.
This brings us neatly onto the current crop at Leverkusen, and how they can finally help break the mould which has been set for some time now. At this moment, the future looks as bright as it has for some time thanks to an excellent young group of core players. With Julian Brandt, Jonathan Tah, Kai Havertz, Tin Jedvaj, Paulinho, Leon Bailey and Wendell, Leverkusen have a host of players capable of putting them in contention for trophies once again. This is probably the most exciting squad in German football along with Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich.
This young core was even more impressive prior to the sale of Bernd Leno to Arsenal last summer, and the next couple of years will undoubtedly be crucial for Leverkusen in terms of progress and stability. They will face a real challenge to hold onto all of these potential superstars, with Brandt already being linked with Liverpool and Bayern Munich, while Havertz’s performances this season have put him on the radar of just about every top club in Europe. Keeping these players together could be key to Leverkusen ending their long wait for silverware.
One other very important member of this squad packed with potential is Lucas Alario – the Argentine forward has failed to really get going since becoming Leverkusen’s record signing in 2017, but coming off the bench to score and clinch that famous victory over Bayern will have done his confidence a lot of good. With goals to his name, he may be beginning to settle in and justify his £20m price tag.
A lot of people have had some sympathy with Borussia Dortmund in recent years, with Bayern routinely taking their best players wherever possible. Robert Lewandowski, Mario Götze and Mats Hummels have all made the switch, while the Bavarians have also tried numerous times to bring in Marco Reus. But at least Dortmund have enjoyed titles and a Champions League final in the past decade, and right now are perched at the top of the Bundesliga table once again.
Bayer Leverkusen, on the other hand, have been left to bounce between the Champions League and the Europa League over the same period, and only now are they starting to form the basis of a special squad to move forward with. And there’s every chance that keeping this squad together could end Bayer Leverkusen’s days as the prominent stepping stone of European football.
By Jamie Bell @JamieBell97