Granit Xhaka the driving force behind Bayer Leverkusen's title pursuit


Three teams remain unbeaten in Europe's top five leagues as football fans welcome the return of domestic duties following the final international break of the year. Ligue 1 side Nice are yet to succumb to defeat, as are Bundesliga pair Bayern Munich and Bayer Leverkusen. You'd be forgiven for thinking the former sit atop Germany's top tier, but with 11 games played; the latter lead the way. 


Xabi Alonso's side have dropped just two points so far this season, that coming in a 2-2 draw with Bayern back in September. Exequiel Palacios rescued a point for Die Werkself earlier in the campaign, keeping his composure to tuck past Sven Ulreich from 12 yards in second half injury time, as Bayer balance both domestic and continental competition superbly having failed to win just one game all season. A number of players under Alonso have drawn deserved praise, with new additions Victor Boniface, Alex Grimaldo and Jonas Hofmann slotting in seamlessly. 


Familiar faces Jeremie Frimpong, Edmond Tapsoba, Florian Wirtz and Palacios have also been key. However, while the wing-backs, goalscorers and creators have been well deserving of praise in Alonso's 3-4-2-1 system, a former Premier League regular has proven to be the heartbeat of the Bundesliga leaders. 


Seven years after leaving Germany for Arsenal, Granit Xhaka returned to the Bundesliga over the summer having enjoyed an excellent campaign for a Gunners side that came so close to securing the Premier League title. Now, the Swiss star is putting in performances reminiscent of his best Gladbach days as Leverkusen seek to shake the 'Neverkusen' tag. Indeed, the German side have never secured Bundesliga glory having finished second five times in their history, with the 2001/02 campaign a particularly bitter pill to swallow as Leverkusen ended the campaign runners' up in the Bundesliga, DFB-Pokal and the Champions League. Always the bridesmaid, never the bride. 


Xhaka though is pulling the strings in this Leverkusen side and Alonso's outfit are well placed to launch a sustained title push. The 31-year-old ranks second for passes per game (99.7), second for total touches (1211), second for successful final third passes (216) and second for final third entries (150) in Germany's top tier this term. A pass success rate of 92.6% meanwhile is the sixth best in the division. No wonder Leverkusen rank second for possession (60.6%) and first for pass accuracy (89%) in the Bundesliga with Xhaka working wonders in the middle of the pitch. 


And it's not as though Xhaka is beefing up his passing numbers with simple balls to teammates. A return of 44 accurate long balls ranks eighth among outfield players in the Bundesliga this season, that in itself first when excluding defenders. The range of his delivery enables Leverkusen to really stretch opponents, with Xhaka able to pick out the wing-backs with ease when they look to press forward. 



For a side with devastating options Grimaldo and Frimpong down the left and right, respectively, this is vital. It's no wonder that the latter has five assists to his name and the former four with the Switzerland international able to put the ball to the flanks for the pair to maximise a Leverkusen strength of 'attacking down the wings'. 


There is also a more measured approach to the way Xhaka wins the ball from opponents where required. While previously, the Leverkusen star has struggled with disciplinary issues, and having totted up double figures for yellow cards in six of the last 10 league seasons prior to his return to Germany, he has at times proven more a hindrance more than a help. However, over time, Xhaka's managed to use his experience to successfully navigate the disciplinary tightrope, so much so that he has committed just 14 fouls across his 11 league outings this term. 


As such, it's no surprise to see that Xhaka ranks fifth for possession won in the midfield third (45) in the Bundesliga this season with the Bayer midfielder able to successfully rob an opponent of the ball and recycle possession effectively, which in turn allows for the league leaders to dominate. This is not only benefiting Bayer Leverkusen in their title push, but one player in particularly is reaping the rewards from playing alongside a midfield star with Xhaka's experience. 


Palacios is enjoying his best rated Bundesliga season to date having earned a WhoScored rating of 7.38 so far. The Argentine had struggled to nail down a specific role in his Leverkusen team but with the help of Alonso and a partner of Xhaka's ilk in the middle of the park, there is a solid core in the middle of the park that means only Bayern Munich (9) have conceded fewer goals than Bayer Leverkusen (10) in the 2023/24 Bundesliga campaign. 


Bayern will be a tough nut to crack this season, especially with the additions of Kim Min-Jae and Harry Kane, the pair strengthening Germany's dominant side in defence and attack, but if the opening weeks are anything to go by; Bayer will give FC Hollywood a run for their money. With Xhaka at his best at the heart of this Bayer Leverkusen side, Bayern's 11-year dynasty as the Bundesliga's number one side is very much under threat.

Granit Xhaka the driving force behind Bayer Leverkusen's title pursuit