Bayer Leverkusen have been a permanent fixture in the Bundesliga since they were first promoted in 1979. Winning one UEFA Cup and DFB Pokal, the Bundesliga title has eluded them despite being runners-up on five occasions. Leverkusen established themselves as a top half club with regular runs in Europe before a disappointing 12th place finish last season.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen Fußball GmbH was founded in 1904 by employees of the German pharmaceutical company Bayer in the industrial North Rhine-Westphalia city of Leverkusen. Die Werkself (The Company XI) play home games at the modest 30,000 capacity BayArena.
Promoted to the Bundesliga for the first time in 1979, Leverkusen spent the 1980s in the top half of the league and won its first major trophy with victory in the 1988 UEFA Cup. Leverkusen won the 1993 DFB Pokal, were almost relegated in 1996 but managed to recover under manager Christoph Daum and earned four second-place finishes from 1997 to 2002.
Leverkusen suffered two particularly heart-breaking seasons in 2000 and 2002 with Bundesliga titles virtually secured. On the final matchday in 2000, Leverkusen only required a draw at SpVgg Unterhaching to win the title, but a 2-0 defeat opened the door for Bayern Munich who became champions.
The disappointment of 2000 would pale in comparison to multiple defeats in 2002 however, which would forever be known as the “Treble Horror”. With a five point lead and three matches remaining, Leverkusen lost twice which allowed Borussia Dortmund to steal the title. Beaten by Schalke in the DFB Pokal final, Die Werkself completed a treble of defeats with a Champions League final loss to Real Madrid.
Leverkusen’s two most important players Michael Ballack and Zé Roberto were sold to archrivals Bayern Munich, but the club eventually recovered to regularly finish in the top half. Jupp Heynckes was appointed manager in 2009, securing a second place finish in 2010/11 but he too jumped ship to Bayern Munich.
Leverkusen survived and became regulars in the higher echelons of the Bundesliga and regularly qualified for the Champions League. Everything came crashing down last season however, a tumultuous season with the club finishing a disappointing 12th place.
Last summer Leverkusen sold Cristoph Kramer to Borussia Mönchengladbach for €15m but the club spent significantly in acquiring Aleksandar Dragović from Dynamo Kyiv (€18m), Kevin Volland from Hoffenheim (€17m) and Julian Baumgartlinger from Mainz (€6m). Roger Schmidt began his third season in charge with high expectations but wouldn’t see out the season.
Leverkusen went unbeaten in their Champions League Group but inconsistency, injuries and suspensions plagued their Bundesliga campaign. Javier Hernandez, Kevin Volland, Karim Bellarabi, Lars Bender and Jonathan Tah all spent significant time out injured but the bizarre suspension to Hakan Calhanoglu was a significant blow.
Leverkusen’s most important and influential player, Calhanoglu missed the entire Rückrunde due to an issue between previous club Karlsruhe and Trabzonspor in 2011. The club purchased 19-year-old Jamaican winger Leon Bailey from Genk in January for €13.5m, but he hardly featured and became involved in a ludicrous confrontation after mocking a boxer on snapchat. Leverkusen’s season just went from bad to worse.
Destroyed by Atlético Madrid 4-2 in the Champions League Round of 16 first leg at the BayArena in February, a 6–2 defeat at Borussia Dortmund two weeks later left Leverkusen in 10th position. Schmidt was sacked, the inexperienced Tayfun Korkut appointed care-taker manager but never popular among fans, the club making the wise decision not to extend his contract after a depressing season.
Heiko Herrlich had a successful playing career that began at Leverkusen before spells at Mönchengladbach and Dortmund. An experienced coach at youth level with Dortmund, the German national side and Bayern Munich, Herrlich most recently led Jahn Regensburg from the fourth division to 2. Bundesliga in the space of 18 months.
Sporting director Rudi Völler described Herrlich’s playing style: “He favours an attractive, aggressive and active way of playing football and thus a style that is very close to our expectations.” Herrlich’s experience working at youth levels was another reason he was hired, Die Werkself currently possessing an abundance of talented youngsters.
A lack of Bundesliga experience is a concern, Herrlich spending six months at VfL Bochum where he was sacked in 2010 following a run of ten games without a win. Understandably upbeat ahead of the upcoming campaign, Herrlich said: “We want to get the best we possibly can from the coming season and get ourselves back in among the leading pack.”
Out: Two central defenders have departed, Kyriakos Papadopolous making his move to Hamburg permanent for €6.5m and Omer Toprak joining Borussia Dortmund for €12m.
Hakan Calhonoglu joined the AC Milan revolution for €22m and Javier Hernandez moved to West Ham for €17.8m. Calhonoglu and Hernandez were influential players and crowd favourites who could prove difficult to replace.
In: With no European football to contend with this season, Die Werkself have signed just two players thus far. Sven Bender joins his brother Lars in Leverkusen after the 28-year-old central defender made a €12.5m move from Borussia Dortmund.
Former youth player Dominik Kohr returns to Leverkusen after making a €2m move from Augsburg, the central midfielder starting and scoring the opening goal in the 3-0 DFB Pokal win against Karlsruher.
Jonathan Tah – Born in Hamburg, Tah spent his formative years at the northern club before Leverkusen signed the young centre-back for €7.5m in 2015. Now 21-years-old, Tah has already developed into a key player in the heart of defence and risen up the Germany ranks with three senior caps for Die Mannschaft.
Strong in the air and a beast on the ground, Tah is a solid tackler and quickly developing a reputation as a ball playing defender who is comfortable bringing the ball out from the back. An intelligent reader of the game, it’s no wonder Liverpool have been strongly linked with a move.
Tah still has a lot to learn, but with an appetite for European competition on domestic and international levels, a move to a European powerhouse might not be far. He will earn Leverkusen a healthy profit when eventually sold, but until that happens Tah is a vital player for Die Werkself.
U21 player to watch:
Kai Havertz – The 18-year-old joined the Leverkusen academy aged 11 and broke into the first team last season, the attacking midfielder becoming the club’s youngest ever debutant and goalscorer. Finishing the season with a brace in the 6-2 win at Hertha BSC, Havertz finished with four goals and five assists in just under 1500 minutes of Bundesliga action.
Havertz is a joy to watch with his confidence, technical ability and vision defying his age. Rudi Völler is clearly excited, saying: “His ability to stroke the ball, to do the simple things in full serenity is outstanding. I call it sensational, but of course he’s just starting. If his development continues at this pace then he will a brilliant addition to our squad.”
Don’t miss a chance to watch Havertz in action this season as he definitely has all the tools to develop into a world class player.
Last season was definitely one to forget for Leverkusen who had to contend with multiple injuries, the Calhanoglu saga and Schmidt’s sacking. After becoming used to regular European campaigns, the road back to Europe will be difficult especially without Calhonoglu and Hernandez.
Rudi Völler has done a fine job as sporting director since 2005, but this could be his sternest test yet, specifically in the striker department. Much of the goal scoring responsibility will fall to Kevin Volland, but the squad does appear thin in that area with Admir Mehmedi, Joel Pohjanpalo and Stefan Kießling behind him.
The attacking midfield is stacked with top class talent, Julian Brandt, Karim Bellarabi, Kai Havertz and Leon Bailey all capable goal scorers, but Herrlich also needs to contend with a shaky defence that conceded 55 goals last season. Leverkusen have an abundance of talented youngsters who are more than capable of securing a return to Europe, but everything appears to depend on how quickly Herrlich can adapt to the Bundesliga.
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