Bayer Leverkusen have not won a major trophy for almost 30 years, but with a shrewd coach on the touchline and exciting players such as Florian Wirtz, Moussa Diaby and Patrik Schick, among many others, in the squad, they could be on the verge of breaking a taboo by winning the Bundesliga next season.
And while they may have been dubbed ‘Neverkusen’ for their numerous near misses down the years, Die Werkself must be considered as serious title challenges in 2022/23…
Wirtz’s score to settle
Florian Wirtz has already become a household name in European football, which makes it all the more impressive that Leverkusen extended his contract until 2027.
The 19-year-old can therefore be expected to play a lead role in the club’s quest for success , and his motivaion levels will arguably be higher than ever when the new season gets underway.
Watch: the best of Florian Wirtz
Not only will he be buoyed by the long-term contract which underlines Leverkusen’s faith in his talent, but Wirtz has some lost time to make up. A serious knee injury back in March brought a premature end to his season, but he is on track for a return midway through the coming campaign, and Leverkusen’s fans will already be licking their lips at that prospect.
Wirtz, who is the club’s youngest ever debutant at 17 years and 16 days, and has since become the youngest player in Bundesliga history to make 50 appearances, scored seven goals and provided 10 assists in 24 games before picking up his injury, which begs the question: where might Leverkusen have finished up with a fit Wirtz for the full campaign?
Any answer to that would be only hypothetical of course, but the fact remains Leverkusen were strong enough to come third without their young talisman for almost a third of the campaign, and when Wirtz waltzes back into the Bundesliga, the uplift will be dramatic.
With Wirtz, you can certainly count Leverkusen in the title race.
Second season Seoane
Whether it is beginner’s luck or just a one-season wonder, there are countless examples of clubs punching above their weight only to come crashing back down to earth with a bout of second-season syndrome, but something suggests that will not be the case with Gerardo Seoane.
A second season at a new club or in a new league can be traditionally tougher than a first, although Seoane has proven to be the exception that confirms that rule.
After his first season coaching in the Swiss Super League, with Luzern, he joined Young Boy and hit the ground running, leading them to the title not just once, but three years in a row.
That was what caught Leverkusen’s eye in the first place, and he had a similar impact in his first year in the Bundesliga, guiding Leverkusen back into the UEFA Champions League after a season without a seat at European football’s top table.
Seoane now knows his surroundings, understands how the Bundesliga ticks and has the club’s unreserved backing. “We’re extremely happy with Seoane,” said the club’s general manager Fernando Carro to the Rheinische Post. “I hope he stays a long time with us and, together, we can define a successful future for Leverkusen.”
The definition of success in Leverkusen would be to shake off that lingering ‘Neverkusen’ reputation of being nearly-rans, and 2022/23 could well be the season for that to happen.
For another hint, just look at the position Seoane guided Luzern to in his first season in Switzerland’s top flight – third. That is precisely where Die Werkself finished under him last term, and if that is not already an omen…
Bravo ready for take-off
Any player to have been invited into Barcelona’s famous La Masia academy must have something about them, and Iker Bravo is no exception.
His talent was noticed already at the age of five, and he played his way through all of the Catalan club’s youth ranks – scoring with regularity – until a year ago, when his prospects of a first-team breakthrough were not looking as bright as he had hoped.
The lure of the Bundesliga, with its reputation for blooding talented youngsters and giving them an opportunity to shine, was too much for the mature head on 17-year-old shoulders, and Leverkusen landed a hot prospect.
With 11 goals in 14 appearances for Spains’s U17s, Bravo has already done his name justice, and after just three appearances for Leverkusen’s U17s, in which he scored three goals, he was precociously promoted to the U19s, with whom he scored seven times in 14 games last term.
That was already enough to convince Seoane to give him a Bundesliga debut in the 1-1 draw with Hertha Berlin, after he had pulled on the first-team shirt already in the DFB Cup.
“It wasn’t planned for him to make his debut already this year,” said Leverkusen assistant coach Alberto Encinas to Spox. “Now he’s in pre-season training with the first team.” And that can only mean one thing: Bravo is another attacking option for Seoane.
“Iker’s not just a goalscorer,” added Encinas. “He’s obviously got a great finish and moves well in the area, but he can also drop back and play as an additional midfielder. He’s already improved since joining Leverkusen.”
And with Patrik Schick to learn from in training, Bravo can see first-hand what it takes to score 24 goals in a Bundesliga season, and if only a bit of that can rub off on the talented Spaniard, a new terrace hero could be set to emerge.
Czech out Hlozek
Not only Bravo will be benefitting from training alongside Schick, so too will the prolific Czech forward’s compatriot Adam Hlozek – a marquee summer signing for Die Werkself.
Leverkusen beat off the competition of a host of top European clubs to land the 19-year-old on a contract through to 2027, tying him down for the same length of time as Schick and Wirtz, and he promises to take Leverkusen onto another level next season.
After registering 40 goals and 36 assists in 132 games for Sparta Praha – and remember he is still a teenager – Hlozek joins Leverkusen as a full Czech Republic international, with 14 caps, many alongside Schick; the pair’s understanding has already been established at international level, leaving Seoane just to sharpen it at club level.
“Adam’s a player who can create a real goal threat as a second striker from a central position or coming in from the wings,” said Bayer sporting director Simon Rolfes. “His versatility, his power and, above all, his finishing will give our attack more variation.”
Such variation will make Leverkusen less fathomable and widen their attacking horizons next season.
Established wing threat
Speaking of width, Bayer already boast one of the deadliest wingers in the Bundesliga in Moussa Diaby, who was rewarded for an eye-catching third season in the Bundesliga with his first caps for France.
The 22-year-old looks set to be a key feature of a France team bidding to defend their FIFA World Cup title in December, but before then, Leverkusen will be keen to see more of the same from Moussa.
Watch: Diaby’s best Bundesliga moments
He scored 13 goals and provided 12 assists last term as he stepped up to the plate in Wirtz’s absence. A left-winger by nature, Seoane gave him additional freedom last term, and reaped the rewards.
As Diaby roamed from wing to wing, piercing opposition defences and scoring more than any other Leverkusen player, aside from Schick, Seoane got the best ever season out of the former Paris Saint-Germain player, and that all augurs well for even more from him next term.
“He’s got such high shooting ability, dribbles really well and can play his way out into space, but he’s also incredibly mentally strong,” said Seoane. “He’s willing to learn, self-critical and very ambitious, and this combination shows what potential he’s got.”
Unleashing that potential even more next season is yet another reason why Leverkusen have to be considered serious candidates to win the 2022/23 Bundesliga title.
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