Under the management of Lewandowski and Hyypiä, could Bayer Leverkusen be the dark horse in the race for the Bundesliga title this season?
The Club Dubbed “Neverkusen”
Since 1996, Bayer Leverkusen have been Bundesliga runners-up five times and, in 2002, earned the dubious honor of being the first team to reach a Champions League final without having won a domestic championship. Leverkusen achieved a runners-up treble that same year by losing the league to Borussia Dortmund, the DFB-Pokal final to Schalke 04, and the Champions League final to Real Madrid. Thereafter, they earned the nickname, “Neverkusen”.
It is curious that this club have yet to capture the Bundesliga title. On paper, Leverkusen’s squad has been among the strongest in the league, recently boasting such names as Michael Ballack, Arturo Vidal, Stefan Kiessling, and more. In 2010/11, Leverkusen came in a respectable second to runaway champions Borussia Dortmund. Yet a frustrating 2011/12 campaign saw the club languishing mid-table at the beginning of April, at which point manager Robin Dutt was shown the door, and the interim team of Sami Hyypiä and Sascha Lewandowski took over for the remaining six matches of the season.
Thrown into the crucible together, the impromptu duo impressed, leading the team to four wins and two draws to earn 14 out of 18 possible points as Leverkusen jumped to fifth in the table. Leverkusen thus secured direct entry into the Europa League group stages next season, and in May, Hyypiä and Lewandowski were appointed as full-time coaches.
Theirs is a remarkable success story, albeit a very short one so far, and credit must be given to the two men for their ability to hit the ground running. “Sami and I took over at a difficult time for the club, and we got along well very quickly. Our relationship was always based on trust and it was very productive, and I am looking forward to intensifying it“, said Lewandowski.
The question remains, however: what more can their productive relationship produce? Is the Bundesliga title, for example, within sights for Leverkusen this coming season? Are Lewandowski and Hyypiä the right men to help Die Werkself put the ghost of “Neverkusen” to bed at last?
When Dutt was appointed manager in 2011, he famously announced that, “I didn’t come to Leverkusen to turn a second-placed team into a fourth or fifth-placed team. We came second [last season] and I want to improve on that.“
On the other hand, Lewandowski and Hyypiä have been more reserved with their ambitions. “We’re convinced we can work with this team and our support staff to keep performing well in domestic and European competitions,” said Hyypiä. Leverkusen CEO Wolfgang Holzhauser was also cautiously optimistic about the club’s chances. “With the duo of Lewandowski and Hyypiä,” said Holzhauser, “we want to further cement our place in the top third of the Bundesliga with the aim of qualifying for European competition.“
A “top third” finish may be selling themselves a bit short, although with a team as young as this Leverkusen side, it is difficult to predict whether they will impress or need more time to develop. Lewandowski and Hyypiä’s reservations for immediate improvement are therefore understandable.
Yet the team’s greatest strength is arguably this same youthfulness. Only five members of last year’s squad were over the age of 25, with captain Simon Rolfes (30) and vice-captain Manuel Friedrich (32) leading the count, while Stefan Kiessling (28), Michal Kadlec (27), and David Yelldell (30) round-up the veteran group.
This is a team in transition, as several of Leverkusen’s key players now are their youngest, including first-choice goalkeeper Bernd Leno. Arriving on loan from VfB Stuttgart in August 2011 as a replacement for German international René Adler, the 20-year-old Leno signed a permanent deal with Die Werkself just three months later, and has proven himself as one of the best young goalkeepers in the Bundesliga.
Another stand-out player for Leverkusen has been Lars Bender, currently only 23 years of age, whose immense talents earned him a call-up with Germany at Euro 2012. In addition, Leverkusen also have two exciting wingers in Andre Schürrle and Sidney Sam. Schürrle has already earned 16 caps with the senior German side, and both have represented Germany at the U-21 level.
Investing In The Future
In the last two transfer seasons, director of sport Rudi Völler has focused exclusively on bringing in promising youngsters. Some of Leverkusen’s most recent acquisitions this year include Philipp Wollscheid, Junior Fernandes, and Dani Carvajal.
Wollscheid entered a five-year deal with Leverkusen beginning this summer. The new center back was a regular starter at his former club FC Nuremberg, and in 2011 was rated the third best Bundesliga defender by kicker magazine. Fellow newbie Fernandes joins Leverkusen from the Chilean side Universidad de Chile; Völler described the 23-year-old striker as a player who “has everything a modern attacker needs. He has excellent technique, he’s strong physically and quick and sharp in front of goal.” And Carvajal, who arrived from the ranks of Real Madrid’s reserves, was something of a marquee signing. Described as dynamic, aggressive, hard-working, and skilled with crosses, the young right back has won the European U-19 championship with Spain and played a key role in R.M. Castilla’s rise to the Spanish Second Division.
Given the age of defensive stalwart Manuel Friedrich and the team’s heavy reliance on Stefan Kiessling, the new wave’s arrival is timely. With Leno in goal and Carvajal and Wollscheid to supplement fellow young defenders Ömer Toprak, Daniel Schwaab, and Stefan Reinartz, this could be a back line for Leverkusen to build on for years to come.
Furthermore, in addition to the arrival of Fernandes, homegrown striker Karim Bellarabi has been impressive during the team’s pre-season friendlies. Also present at the training camp is the 18-year-old striker Samed Yesil, who has scored 22 times for the German U-17 and U-16 sides, and won the Silver Shoe at the 2011 FIFA U-17 World Cup.
Playing To Your Strengths
Leverkusen’s focus on young players is as risky as it is hopeful, given how unlikely it is that all these talented prospects will prove good in time. The youth strategy is only viable if the team has a coach who can make the philosophy work, but perhaps Leverkusen have found the right men for the job, in Lewandowski and Hyypiä.
Before taking over from Dutt, Lewandowski first made a name for himself as an ambitious and effective youth manager. He coached the VfL Bochum U-19 team from 2003 to 2007 and the Leverkusen U-19 team from 2007 to 2012; he accrued a 69.7 win percentage during this time, and saw the Leverkusen U-19s to a second place standing in the Junior Bundesliga-West.
A coach who believes in young talent enough to take a chance on them is the kind of coach that Leverkusen need, if they hope to see their investments pay dividends. It is under Lewandowski, for example, that Yesil got his start, debuting for the first team in a 3-3 draw against Hertha BSC on April 14, 2012.
To Lewandowski’s style, Hyypiä adds a complementary factor; playing experience. As a seasoned veteran and legend in his own right, Hyypiä brings to the a table a first-hand understanding of professional football as it is played on the biggest stages, in the Bundesliga, in the Premier League, and in international competition. His will be a much-needed perspective for this young team he recently inherited. Together, Lewandowski and Hyypiä may just be what Leverkusen need to make their youth project succeed.
Dark Horse In The Title Race?
So then, is the Bundesliga title within sights for Leverkusen this coming season?
The answer, reasonably speaking, is still no. The favorites for the title must be Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund; perennial powerhouse and arguably the team of the decade, respectively. Leverkusen have some steep odds to overcome if they hope to lose their “Neverkusen” nickname this season. It most likely that they will land somewhere in the vicinity of fifth again, and save a serious title challenge for when both players and coaches are more settled in their roles.
On the other hand, Leverkusen certainly the have potential to be the surprise of the season. There is no lack of talent in this team, and if Sascha Lewandowski and Sami Hyypiä prove that their six-game run at the end of last season was not just a fluke, then Bayer Leverkusen could be the dark horse to watch out for in 2012/13.
Written by Guest Author June Pan
Follow the author on Twitter: @mimsicality