As Bayer Leverkusen returned for pre-season on Monday, Kevin Volland was the man in demand among the club’s supporters. The 22-year-old commanded the club’s record transfer fee, a 20 million euro transfer from Hoffenheim. Volland was precisely the sort of statement that Leverkusen needed to make, if the club garnered ambitions to be Germany’s second force.
Last season, Roger Schmidt’s side finished 18 points off Borussia Dortmund in third-place, whilst securing an automatic return to the UEFA Champions League later this year. Regular qualification for Europe’s premier club competition in recent seasons has been invaluable to the progress achieved at the BayArena. Yet Leverkusen’s quest to join the continent’s best clubs wasn’t without its complications last term.
When Schmidt’s injury-hampered side scrambled late to draw 3-3 at FC Augsburg in March, Leverkusen were down in eighth and considered a genuine outsider to finish in the top-four. Schalke, Borussia Mönchengladbach, Mainz and Hertha Berlin were all higher than the Werkself. But their outstanding sequence of eight wins from the last nine games thrust the club towards third-place and took advantage of the inconsistencies of their rivals.
Ahead of the new Bundesliga season on August 26 – Leverkusen’s first game is a potential cracker at Borussia Mönchengladbach a day later – confidence is infectious around the club. It was a similar feeling last season given the change of coach at Dortmund following a disappointing campaign a year earlier. With the talent and knowledge at Leverkusen’s disposal, the potential is there for the club’s best season in a decade.
A year ago, the club recovered from a shock loss of Son Heung-Min to Tottenham, implementing various succession plans to replace the exit of their most important forward, just a few days before the end of the transfer window. Javier Hernandez and Kevin Kampl arrived and helped turn things around early on, but elimination from the Champions League at the group phase was a serious blow.
That was followed by a sudden drop in league performances, which started to raise questions about Schmidt’s position at the club. Hindsight is auspicious when it comes to assessing the previous season, but injuries to key players at different times during an extremely congested fixture schedule would have been much for any head coach to handle in a league as competitive as the Bundesliga.
Hernandez, one of the late acquisitions in August, bore too much of the scoring responsibility last season. The striker’s proficiency and awareness in the penalty area – he scored 26 in 40 last season – is brilliant. Chicharito is a bonafide superstar and has immediately boosted the club’s marketing value. But a star of his stature, with experience of team cultures at Manchester United and Real Madrid and a relentless pursuit to be the best, rubs off on the rest of his team-mates.
Close season business was conducted earlier than any other Bundesliga side. It reaffirms the fact that Leverkusen boasts one of the best management structures in Germany, with former Germany international Rudi Völler and talent-spotter Jonas Boldt at the helm. Boldt’s ties with Latin America have allowed Leverkusen to attract several high-quality players from the region. Two-time Copa America winner Charles Aranguiz, who missed almost all of last season due to an Achilles problem, was a masterful move, while left-back Wendell has settled well in Germany.
Before Volland was signed this summer, Leverkusen spent four million euros to sign Mainz’s Julian Baumgartlinger, a combative defensive-midfielder whose ball usage will be an upgrade on Christoph Kramer who left recently for Gladbach. Levin Öztunali, a pacey wide-attacker, has returned from loan at Werder Bremen, while right-back Danny da Costa is back following a successful stint at Ingolstadt.
— Bayer 04 Leverkusen (@bayer04_en) July 12, 2016
“This is the best squad we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Bender, who joined the club in 2009. “The squad is much stronger than the last two years. But I can’t promise third. It’ll be a challenge,” added Schmidt.
There are options all over the park, permitting a similarly impactful series of injuries last season. The array of potential combinations will be one of the exciting narratives in the league. Kevin Kampl and Aranguiz, for example, played less than 300 minutes together last term. Julian Brandt, despite his late scoring run which made people take notice of his potential, hasn’t delivered across a full season.
The question mark around Ömer Toprak’s long-term future is slowly evaporating amid interest from Borussia Dortmund. But as the club still looks to bolster central defensive options ahead of the Champions League in September, hopes of signing Austrian central-defender Aleksandar Dragovic from Dynamo Kiev are continually hurt as the goalposts are moved over wage demands.
Nevertheless, the club is happy with the squad. There’s a sense of opportunism from Leverkusen’s point of view with Borussia Dortmund shaping up as something of an unknown quantity next season. The competition for second, third and fourth in the Bundesliga will almost certainly be cut-throat with Gladbach, Schalke and a new management team and Wolfsburg without the distractions of a European campaign.
Leverkusen certainly cannot take their eye off the ball, but Schmidt’s side are positioned better than ever to break the recent duopoly at the top of the table.