On Saturday, the Bundesliga’s top two go head-to-head in a crucial top-of-the-table clash that could go a long way to determine the destination of this season’s Meisterschale, even with 13 fixtures still to go afterwards.
If we hop into our proverbial DeLoreans and travel back in time a decade, no team had ever won four German titles in succession, with Bayern (1972/73/74, 1985/86/87 & 1999/00/01) and Borussia Mönchengladbach (1975/76/77), seeing their streaks ended at three.
Well, fast forward back to present day, Bayern Munich have now picked up the Salatschüssel in 11 consecutive seasons, pipping Borussia Dortmund on a dramatic final day last May.
The year someone else most-recently won the Bundesliga, namely Jürgen Klopp’s Dortmund in 2012, the iPhone 5 was released, Life of Pi and Argo were in cinemas, Zambia were AFCON champions and Lamine Yamal was having a fifth birthday party somewhere in Catalonia.
However, this season, there is a genuine challengers to Bayern’s dominance, none other than Bayer “Neverkusen” as they’re unflatteringly know, largely due to 2002 when they missed out on all three trophies in the space of 11 days.
So, could Bayern’s monopolisation of the Bundesliga title really be coming to an end, and why is it so important for the Bundesliga as a whole that it does?
Bayer Leverkusen: story of the season so far
Xabi Alonso only took over as Bayer Leverkusen head coach on 5 October 2022, overseeing 67 matches to date, but has completely transformed the club’s fortunes in what is his first-ever role in senior management.
When he arrived, die Werkself were second bottom of the Bundesliga, having collected just five points from eight matches under Gerardo Seoane, also ignominiously dumped out the DFB-Pokal by third-tier Elversberg.
With Alonso now at the helm die Schwarzroten surged up the table, ultimately finishing sixth whilst also reaching the Europa League semi-finals, ousted 1-0 on aggregate by José Mourinho’s Roma.
Looking at this season, Bayer have now played 30 matches across three competitions and are still yet to lose, winning 26 of them, smashing the previous top-flight German record of 24 undefeated to start a campaign.
Leverkusen won six out of six in the Europa League while, on Tuesday night, they came from behind twice to oust Stuttgart in the Pokal quarter-finals, with Jonathan Tah’s stoppage time header snatching victory.
Back in the Bundesliga, their tally of 52 points after 20 matches is the third best in the competition’s history, only eclipsed by Bayern 2015/16 (53 points) and, yes... you guessed it, Bayern 2013/14 (56 points).
The only clubs Xabi Alonso’s side have dropped points against so far have featured in multiple European Finals during their history, held to draws by Bayern, Dortmund, Stuttgart and, most recently, Mönchengladbach.
Put succinctly, their unbeaten record in this campaign is literally extraordinary, but it’ll be sorely put to the test at the weekend.
Bayern Munich: story of the season so far
In most other leagues, an unlikely challenger currently accumulating 2.6 points-per-game would be run-away leaders, but not in the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich around.
The champions are currently just two points off the pace, having won 16 of 20 matches so far, their two defeats though catastrophic in different ways, smashed 5-1 by Eintracht Frankfurt in December, before a 1-0 home reverse against Werder Bremen, in which they had 22 shots but could not score.
On top of this, die Roten’s flaws have also been evident in the DFL-Supercup, demolished 3-0 by RB Leipzig, while, far more embarrassingly, they were dumped out the DFB-Pokal by 3.Liga side Saarbrücken in November.
This season though should be of no surprise to anyone.
Last March, almost completely out of nowhere, Julian Nagelsmann was sacked with Bayern top of the table and through to the Champions League quarter-finals, having won eight out of eight in that competition.
Thomas Tuchel immediately replaced him, only to see his team steamrollered by Manchester City soon after, while, despite only winning six of 10 Bundesliga fixtures, this was enough to pip Dortmund to the title on goal difference, largely due to the fact die Schwarzgelben blew it on the final day.
Last season was the beginning of Bayern’s dominance being eroded although after Kim Min-jae and in particular Harry Kane were signed, no one expected there to be anything resembling a title race.
In fairness to Bayern, they’re on course to end the campaign with 85 points, an improved of 14 compared to last season, while the Bundesliga record is 91, set by Jupp Heynckes’s treble winners in 2012/13.
There is also a record that could very much be broken, namely most goals scored by a player in a season.
Robert Lewandowski netted 41 times in 2020/21, breaking Gerd Müller’s record Torjägerkanone haul of 40 that had stood since 1972, but Harry Kane, in his debut Bundesliga campaign, has 24 goals in 20 appearances, currently on course to match Lewandowski’s tally from three seasons ago, with 14 fixtures remaining.
In an ordinary season, this Bayern team would be miles clear at the top with no one batting an eyelid, it’s just the brilliance of Leverkusen keeping them out of first place, making Saturday’s match-up at BayArena so key.
Why the Bundesliga needs Bayer Leverkusen to win the title
The Bundesliga has a lot going for it.
It is home to some of the best atmospheres in Europe, ticket prices are low, many stadiums are iconic and historic, while the 50+1 rule means clubs remain in the hands of supporters and cannot be run into the ground by outsiders.
The league is competitive, with 10 different clubs qualifying for the Champions League since 2017/18, most notably Union Berlin just last season.
For comparison, seven Premier League clubs, seven sides from Serie A and six La Liga teams have finished in the top four of their respective divisions during this time-frame.
Back in Germany, we’ve seen numerous traditional heavyweights relegated during the last decade, with Hertha BSC, Schalke, HSV, Fortuna Düsseldorf, Nürnberg, Hannover and Kaiserslautern all marooned in the Zweite Bundesliga right now.
In their place, smaller clubs like Paderborn, Greuther Fürth and Arminia Bielefeld have enjoyed recent stints in the first division, with Darmstadt, the aforementioned Union Berlin and top-tier debutants Heidenheim competing in the Bundesliga this season.
However, all that there is to be positive about this league is being overshadowed by the fact Bayern Munich end up with the title year after year after year, leading to many unfairly labelling it a dreaded ‘farmers league’.
Not even PSG are as dominant in Ligue 1, with both Monaco and Lille crowned French champions during this 11-year period, and this is having a serious negative impact on TV rights.
Domestic Bundesliga TV rights fell from €4.64 billion to €4.4 billion, with Sky and DAZN splitting the rights previously shared by Sky, Eurosport and public broadcaster ARD.
International right meanwhile has seen a much more drastic fall, with their value plummeting by 20% during the most-recent cycle, down to €200 million.
DFL officials have blamed the Covid-19 pandemic for this, but that doesn’t explain why the value of other league’s TV rights did not fall in the same way, with many experts believing a ‘lack of competition’ in title race terms was the root cause.
In response to this, the DFL has decided to sell future TV rights to a private equity firm in exchange for a cash injection now.
They initially planned to sell 12.5% for 20 years, with this valued at €2 billion, but this was overwhelming voted against by the 36 Bundesliga and 2.Bundesliga clubs.
After months of deliberation and negotiation, the DFL proposed to sell 8% of TV rights for 20 years, with 24 clubs voting in favour, thereby passing the motion via the two-thirds majority required, but it’s hardly a ringing endorsement of the plan, given that it only got through by the barest of margins.
Of the cash injection, forecast to be around €1 billion, 40% will be spent on league-wide “digitalisation and internationalisation”, 45% on infrastructure, while the remaining 15% can be spent how ever clubs choose.
The investment will increase the league’s “international competitiveness,” according to Hans-Joachim Watzke, who is not only Borussia Dortmund’s CEO, but is also a key figure on the Bundesliga’s supervisory board.
All of this is to say, the DFL know they have a great product, but more needs to be done to grow the Bundesliga world-wide.
As tripe and as insignificant as it may seem, a Leverkusen title win would go along way to achieving this, as it would prove, not only to the global public but to clubs themselves, that beating Bayern is possible.
The season does not end until 18 May, but the eyes of the world will be on the BayArena come Saturday evening and, while they can’t say this publicly, those inside Guiollettstraße, DFL HQ in Frankfurt, might just be cheering on the home team.