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Bayer Leverkusen: The Rebuild
Bayer 04 face a significant rebuild as key talent is set to depart. In this week's newsletter, we explore how Leverkusen can account for these departures & come back even more competitive next season.
Since the appointment of Xabi Alonso in October, ‘Die Werkself’ have steadily recovered their position as one of the strongest forces in German football. The 41-year-old Spaniard developed a well-organized, and high-intensity, style of football that transformed a side slipping into a relegation battle into one which qualified for the Europa League.
However, it isn’t all optimism as we approach the new season’s start. It looks increasingly likely that Bayer 04 will lose two crucial players in Moussa Diaby and Jeremie Frimpong. The pair are amongst the most exciting attacking tandems in world football, and their goal output was crucial throughout the long stretches of the season where Leverkusen could not call upon Patrik Schick and Florian Wirtz.
Losing either, or even both, would be a massive loss for Leverkusen’s attack, yet a silver lining for a sale would be the ability to strengthen the squad in other areas.
Today, The German Football Weekly is joined by Teo Slehofer - aspiring football writer and content creator - to explain how ‘Die Werkself’ can adequately replace their departing talent to strengthen the squad ahead of the upcoming campaign.
‘La Barba Roja’
Before entertaining any transfer targets, we must initially understand the style of football which Alonso has developed in Leverkusen, and what player profiles suit his identity.
Alonso lines his team up in a 3-4-3 formation that principally seeks to dictate the game and flow of possession. Last season, ‘Die Werkself’ held the 5th highest average possession in the Bundesliga (52%), and entertained more of the ball in 15 of the 26 league matches Alonso was in charge of.
However, despite Alonso’s playing career as a dominant on-ball midfielder, possession for possession’s sake is not in the Spaniard’s gameplan. Rather, there are distinct patterns of play that Leverkusen looks to execute with speed and efficiency to get into goalscoring positions.
In the 3-4-3 a defense often consisting of Odilon Kossounou, Jonathan Tah, and Piero Hincapié spread across the pitch to utilize the full width and make Alonso’s side very strong in defense-to-attack transitions.
The three central midfielders - Robert Andrich, Kerem Demirbay, and Exequiel Palacios - had differing roles last season to give the side balance in both defense and attack. Demirbay or Andrich would often provide a conductive role in front of the back line, winning crucial duels, and using their passing range and on-ball efficiency to maintain the flow in possession.
To complement the maturity and efficiency of Demirbay and Andrich, Palacios was tasked with a more expansive and energetic box-to-box role. Winning the World Cup with Argentina in December seemed to spur on the 23-year-old midfielder, playing a stellar campaign that saw him end the year with the most tackles, interceptions, and passes to the final third in the Leverkusen squad.
One of the most important roles in Alonso’s setup was at fullback. Mitchel Bakker and Jeremie Frimpong were often paired together, with the former standing out for his mature defensive positioning, and the latter showing a unique talent for creating and scoring goals.
With 15 goals and assists, Frimpong was a world-class goal threat from the advanced wingback positioning. The Dutch fullback regularly provided danger with surging runs up the pitch, completing the most 1v1 take-ons of any defender in one of Europe’s top 5 leagues last season.
To complement Frimpong’s expansive runs, Moussa Diaby often floated inward to leave space out wide. By coming closer to the center of the pitch, Diaby developed into arguably the most important goal-scorer and chance-creator for Leverkusen last season. The Frenchman recorded a career-high expected goal output (0.37 per 90), and his 1.93 key passes per game were only bettered by Florian Wirtz in the Leverkusen squad.
His counterpart for a big part of the season was Amine Adli. the French striker-turned-winger showed his class as an engaged 1v1 outlet, however, when Florian Wirtz returned, the German playmaker took over.
The center-forward position was the biggest problem in Leverkusen’s attack last campaign. Patrik Schick missed over 30 matches due to various abductor problems, and even when he managed to make it on the pitch, the Czech international lacked the confidence and fitness to set the league alight. Adam Hložek and Sardar Azmoun have their own qualities, but neither could truly pose a consistent goal threat in Schick’s absence.
With Schick’s return to full fitness and form uncertain, it shouldn’t be understated just how crucial Jeremie Frimpong and Moussa Diaby are to Bayer Leverkusen in the final third. Diaby is the club's top scorer, and he and Frimpong generated 17 goals and 15 assists between them in the past Bundesliga campaign. Losing them could spell disaster for Bayer 04.
Unfortunately, it isn’t only these two attacking gems who Leverkusen could fear losing this summer.
In this next section, we dissect the profiles Leverkusen may yet still need to replace as interest circles from some of Europe’s biggest clubs.
‘Onto bigger things’
At only 13 years of age, Paris-born Moussa Diaby started his career at PSG and quickly ascended up the age groups. In 2016, Diaby received the Titi d’Or for the most promising and best talent in the academy, and only two years later, at the age of 19, the young starlet made his first team debut.
However, like most PSG talents, the Frenchman was ushered out in favor of more established stars, ultimately landing in Leverkusen.
In Germany, Diaby’s career has developed by leaps and bounds. He has matured significantly, adding a cut-throat nature in front of goal to amplify his irresistible speed and skill. He has shown his superb quality on the pitch and his beautiful and pure character off it, but it seems like the time has come for the 24-year-old to move on. With a package that is rumored to be around €50 million, Leverkusen would be willing to let Diaby leave the club for a move abroad.
Wing-back on paper but winger at heart, Jeremie Frimpong has been one of the attacking revelations of the 2022/23 season. The Amsterdam-born wing-back played most of his academy football at Manchester City before making the first step into the professional game with Celtic in 2019.
In Glasgow Frimpong showed extreme promise and flashes of brilliance, but only over the last 18 months in Leverkusen have we truly seen him develop into a one-of-a-kind attacking threat. His unique profile won’t suit every brand of football, but there is definitely a club willing to pay the €50 million asking price to secure his services this summer.
Tottenham Hotspur target Edmond Tapsoba seems on his way out of Bayer Leverkusen. The London-based club have reportedly opened the auction with a bid of €40 million, however ‘Die Werkself’ wants at least €50 million for the Burkina Faso defender.
Tapsoba, who started his career in Burkina Faso before moving to Vitória Guimarães in Portugal, has been one of the first names on the team sheet for the last three years. His speed, ease in build-up phases, and consistency make him an excellent recruit for the Premier League outfit.
*At the time of writing Mitchel Bakker (€10 million), Paulinho (€0) and Daley Sinkgraven (€0) have been sold or released by the club.
*At the same time, Bayer Leverkusen have already signed Alex Grimaldo (€0), Jonas Hofmann (€10 million) and Granit Xhaka (€25 million).
With the sale of all three talents generating roughly €125m, there is a huge budget available for Leverkusen to reinvest into the playing squad and mount a competitive push for the Champions League.
Let’s take a look at which positions need to be upgraded, and where this multi-million budget can be best implemented.
Lukas Hradecky has stood strong in Bayer Leverkusen’s goal since the 2015/16 season, however, he isn’t without blame for the 104 goals Leverkusen have conceded across the past two seasons. When looking at his statistics, they display a goalkeeper in decline who should have never been granted a 4-year extension last August.
His post-shot expected goals average of -0.13 per game ranks him in the 25th percentile of all goalkeepers in Europe’s top 5 leagues, while both his saves per game and save percentage, have dropped off since the 21/22 campaign.
It’s clear Hradecky’s time has come. Bayer Leverkusen needs a better shot-stopper and ball-playing goalkeeper to mount a competitive outfit next season.
In theory, the departure of Edmond Tapsoba leaves a significant gap at right-center-back, however, Odilon Kossounou could inherit his role after developing into a formidable alternative since arriving in 2021. With that said, it is an issue of depth that Leverkusen will need to address should Tapsoba move on.
With Alonso often favoring a back-3, having only 3 Champions League-level centerbacks available is an issue. Sadik Fofana, and particularly Madi Monamay. are two talents for the future, but neither looks ready to step into a big role next season
Given Jeremie Frimpong’s remarkable attacking output, simply replacing the Dutch fullback with a like-for-like alternative looks an impossible task. The club has taken measures with the signing of Brazilian gem Arthur, but he and the unreliable Timothy Fosu-Mensah won’t solve the problem next campaign.
It will be difficult to replace the Dutchman's output, but with the right recruitment spread across the pitch, it is certainly not impossible.
With Moussa Diaby preparing his exit, Bayer Leverkusen will be hoping to secure another stellar winger with the ability to carry a significant goalscoring and creative burden. Ideally, this forward would replicate similar movements to Diaby, operating as a winger who can fluidly cut inside or run down the line if needed.
It has been reported that Bayer Leverkusen are looking for a new striker, and given Schick’s uncertain future after 200+ days sidelined with injury, it would be wise for Die Werkself to proactively apply pressure to the number nine role.
With 5 key positions determined as the areas to recruit for this summer, we now turn our attention to some potential players who could occupy these roles.
Here are some sensible transfers which can elevate Leverkusen’s game within the roughly established €125m budget.
‘Welcome to Leverkusen’
GK: Justin Bijlow
The Dutch goalkeeper was crucial in Feyenoord’s title-winning season with his great shot-stopping and ball-playing abilities standing out.
His pure numbers confirm what the eye can see. Bijlow ended the 2022/23 Eredivisie campaign in the top 14% of goalkeepers in Post-shot expected goals, and he conceded the fewest goals per game of any of the 22 keepers who took to the pitch (.76 goals per game).
It is a massive improvement on Lukas Hradecky, and a much younger one who could build the basis for the future.
24-year-old Bijlow would likely cost around €25 million, and ‘Die Werkself’ would need to fight off interest from Manchester United to secure his signature.
RCB: Martinez Quarta
The Argentine defender is coming off a very successful season together with Fiorentina, one which culminated in a Conference League final.
The 27-year-old ranks as one of the better defenders in Europe, with his radar highlighting a player who is amongst the top 10% for most defensive metrics. Besides his clear defensive abilities, one of his biggest strengths is his above-average passing ability. It often goes under the radar next to Facunda Medina, but incisive, line-breaking balls are clearly in his arsenal. From Vincenzo Italiano’s system, we also know Quarta is very athletic and quick. He doesn’t completely rely on these physical attributes though, with his great ability to read the game making him a stalwart in the Serie A and European run. He will likely cost Leverkusen around €20m.
LCB: Stav Lemkin
The Israeli youth international was one of many defenders who impressed at the previous U20 World Cup in Argentina. Since the competition, numerous star performers have seen their market value rise, however, Lemkin remains a cheap alternative with a buyout clause of only €750k from Hapoel Tel Aviv. An investment for the future who Leverkusen can immediately integrate into the squad.
RWB: Joakim Mæhle
The Danish wingback Joakim Mæhle is a strong technical and tactical match for Jeremie Frimpong. He generated 3 goals and 3 assists for Atalanta last campaign, but his impact on attacking passages of play goes far beyond his raw goal output.
Mæhle is a decent passer who can help in build-up phases, and his overlapping runs and crosses into the box are a constant source of danger. The Danish defender could cost around €20 million.
RIF: Samuel Chukwueze
Villarreal’s Samuel Chukwueze put up great attacking numbers for the Yellow Submarine last season, and with no Champions League football to bargain with, the Spanish outfit may be ready to sell the Nigerian winger for €30 million.
Chukwueze does have a lower attacking output than Diaby, but as replacements go, he is a pretty good one. He is the same age, possesses the same rapid acceleration, and can support the forward line with similar types of movement
Striker: Michael Gregoritsch
At 29 years old, the Austrian international is no longer a young prospect. However, he is only a stopgap that would buy Leverkusen time to assess the extent of Schick’s injury and future fitness.
As far as output goes, he is also nothing to shy away from.
Last season, Gregoritsch netted ten goals and provided four assists. The Freiburg striker is also quite strong in the air, and in general, he is a similar profile to Patrik Schick. Gregoritsch could cost anywhere between €8 and €12 million.
Bayer Leverkusen’s season is heavily reliant upon their activity in the summer transfer window. It is crucial that they take extra care during this period. While losing key talent would require a significant rebuild, with a smart and holistic approach to recruitment, Bayer Leverkusen can account for these departures and provide an even stronger image in the upcoming campaign.
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