Bayer Leverkusen unbeaten atop Bundesliga, teenager Wirtz stealing show
Such is the chaos of 2020 that one of the only unbeaten teams left in top European hadn’t summitted its league table until this weekend.
So perhaps it’s even more fitting and bizarre that Bayer Leverkusen’s run to the top of the Bundesliga and after three draws to start the season comes after selling the most-expensive German in history only to see a precocious 17-year-old take the bull by the horns.
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Leverkusen is one of four unbeaten teams left in the top five leagues of Europe after Atletico Madrid lost to derby rivals Real Madrid at the weekend, Die Werkself having drawn fellow German unbeaten side Wolfsburg to start the season.
Unbeaten teams in Europe’s top five leagues
AC Milan -- 8W-3D
Bayer Leverkusen -- 7W-4D
Juventus -- 6W-5D
Wolfsburg -- 5W-6D
Leverkusen’s only loss this season came to Slavia Prague in the Europa League, a 1-0 Matchday 2 blip in Czech Republic which is surrounded by five wins in which they’ve scored between 3-6 goals per outing.
Throw in the Bundesliga and German Cup -- the latter of which was a 7-0 stomping of a fourth-tier side -- and Peter Bosz’s has scored 51 goals and conceded 18 in 18 games.
Do the math, that’s good.
Lucas Alario is leading the team in goals with eight and Jamaican midfielder Leon Bailey has started well, with four goals and three assists. Young Moussa Diaby continues to impress and has played more league minutes than anyone besides goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky.
But the eye is drawn to the kid playing as an attacking midfielder, third in minutes across all competitions despite his tender age.
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Florian Wirtz, who doesn’t turn 18 until May, is killing it.
Bought from Koln in January after scoring eight goals in 10 U-17 Bundesliga games, he produced two goals and three assists in four matches for Bayer 04’s U-19s.
Promoted to the big club when the club returned from the coronavirus pause, Wirtz made his Bundesliga, German Cup, and Europa League debuts.
He became the youngest scorer in Bundesliga history, against Manuel Neuer Bayern no less, and finished the season as a promising tale for the future.
This season has been even better.
Wirtz has four goals and five assists in 16 appearances, but it’s not just about traditional numbers.
He leads the team in key passes and completed dribbles, sitting sixth and eight in the Bundesliga in both categories, respectively. Wirtz is not simply collecting dribble stats through a ton of attempts, completing 70 percent of his dribbles.
Of the 20 Bundesliga players with the most completed dribbles this season, only three -- Augsburg’s Daniel Caligiuri, Gladbach’s Breel Embolo, and Dortmund’s Raphael Guerreiro -- have a better dribble conversion than Wirtz (SofaScore).
Rolfes is trying to keep a lid on expectations for the teenager, who has handled the move over the Rhine in impressive fashion, and the club is reportedly optimistic that he’ll stay beyond his initial contract that runs through the 2021-22 season.
The early-season success for Wirtz is a bonus but the club’s fine start is not unexpected, at least within the club and certainly not for Rolfes. As a player, the 38-year-old former defensive midfielder earned 26 caps with Germany, played 288 times in the Bundesliga, and finished runner-up in both Germany top flight and the German Cup.
The last time we spoke to Rolfes, he was looking at the German Cup Final and extended Europa League run as a signpost not an endpoint. After falling to Bayern in DfB-Pokal and falling to Inter Milan in the UEL quarterfinals, the players have not rested on laurels despite the exit of Havertz.
Rolfes told ProSoccerTalk that not making a big signing to replace Havertz served as a message to the team.
“The environment is very ambitious,” Rolfes said. “Although we made the cup final and made the quarterfinal in Europa, the players feel there are high ambitions in our club. They have quality and you give them quality. In German it’s fordern und fordern, I don’t know how it is in English. Give them confidence and also quality. We didn’t sign a big transfer for Kai, 1-for-1. That would have been a sign that we need a new player because we do not count on you. That gives extra motivation.”
Fordern und fordern, from our somewhat-limited translation skills, is demand and encourage/promote. That’s a tee shirt waiting to happen.
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Leverkusen has finished Bundesliga runners-up on five occasions since the mid-1990s, the record for a club without winning the league. Throw in five third-place finishes, and Leverkusen has been in the top three 10 times in 27 seasons. Only Bayern Munich and Borussia Dortmund have spent more season in the top three during that span.
We also asked Rolfes about the rise in American talent, as U.S. teens making an impact in recent seasons started with Weston McKennie and Christian Pulisic and have gone on to include Josh Sargent and Giovanni Reyna.
Bayer 04 has history with U.S. players young and old but has signed players to South America in recent seasons.
“More and more eyes are aimed at U.S. talent and young prospects,” he said. “We’ve seen some great players coming up in recent years, just look at this past week’s Champions League action. At Bayer 04, we have our own history with young American talent like Landon Donovan and Claudio Reyna (right). We always seek to enhance our scouting network. The U.S. is a part of the world we will look to strengthen and keep a close eye on, for sure.”
Donovan was 17 when he moved to Leverkusen while the elder Reyna was 21.
Leverkusen has three matches left before Winterpause, Wednesday’s visit to Koln, a cup match, and a huge Saturday visit from Bayern Munich. Our partners SportsBet say they are +1800 to win the league behind Leipzig, Dortmund, and prohibitive favorites Munich, while only five teams are better than Leverkusen’s +1400 to win the Europa League.
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Bundesliga fixtures, Matchday 12
Eintracht Frankfurt v Borussia Monchengladbach — 12:30 pm ET Tuesday
Stuttgart v Union Berlin — 2:30 pm ET Tuesday
Werder Bremen v Borussia Dortmund — 2:30 pm ET Tuesday
Hertha Berlin v Mainz — 2:30 pm ET Tuesday
Schalke v Freiburg — 12:30 pm ET Wednesday
Hoffenheim v RB Leipzig — 2:30 pm ET Wednesday
Bayern Munich v Wolfsburg — 2:30 pm ET Wednesday
Arminia v Augsburg — 2:30 pm ET Wednesday
Koln v Bayer Leverkusen — 2:30 pm ET Wednesday