Historic Leverkusen usurp prolific Kane: the Bundesliga season review

<span>Leverkusen’s Xabi Alonso stands on a barrier as he celebrates with players and fans after winning the Bundesliga.</span><span>Photograph: Sascha Schuermann/AFP/Getty Images</span>
Leverkusen’s Xabi Alonso stands on a barrier as he celebrates with players and fans after winning the Bundesliga.Photograph: Sascha Schuermann/AFP/Getty Images

Team of the season

Bayer Leverkusen’s double (almost treble)-winning season was so stellar that to describe it as such, or as the Bundesliga’s first-ever unbeaten season, almost undersells it. Xabi Alonso’s side were daring, thrilling fare throughout the campaign, signalling how serious they were to the world in late January by destroying incumbents Bayern Munich 3-0 at BayArena. They won the title at the first opportunity – again in great style, beating Werder Bremen 5-0 – and Alonso’s coaching skill was apparent at every turn, managing his squad through injuries and fatigue and expertly flipping the script in game, besides getting unexpected levels out of players like Jonathan Tah, Lukas Hradecky and Robert Andrich.

He is at a club with resources, certainly, but one with around half the budget of Borussia Dortmund. This was a triumph of administrative perfection and top-notch strategy (qualities notably absent at Bayern and BVB) as well as on-pitch brilliance. Inevitably Bayern will begin again in August as the favourites but not as overwhelmingly so as normal. With Vincent Kompany’s side and the vanquished Champions League finalists having plenty of issues to fix, Alonso is wise to stay for now. A landmark season might have the potential to balloon into a dynasty of sorts.

Non-Leverkusen team of the season

Category one was such an obvious answer that acknowledging excellence elsewhere in the Bundesliga is worthwhile and in any normal season, Stuttgart would have been our team of the season, hands down. Like Leverkusen, they added an enormous 40 points to their total from the previous season and if Sebastian Hoeness was, like Alonso, building on sterling work from 2022-23, the turnaround from relegation playoff escapers to runners-up was arguably even more astonishing than Die Werkself’s. Stuttgart too did it with dominant, rather than underdog football, their possession-heavy game a joy to watch and propelling a handful of their stars into Germany’s Euro 2024 squad. If they could hold on to top scorer Serhou Guirassy and Deniz Undav, it will be fascinating to see how Hoeness’ team might get on in the Champions League.

Non-Xabi Alonso coach of the season

Frank Schmidt already began this season as a winner, taking Heidenheim into a maiden top-flight season having taken the reins at the club back in 2007 when they were in the fifth tier. A cult figure anyway for his starring role in the 2013 film Trainer! Schmidt also became the holder of the longest period of continuous service at a German club in September on the same day that his growing team beat Werder 4-2. That might have been the peak of their season but Schmidt wasn’t done, getting the best out of talented second-chancers like Eren Dinkci and Jan-Niklas Beste and ending up with the club’s first-ever European qualification – they will enter the Europa Conference League playoff round after finishing eighth.

A word too for Christian Streich, who left Freiburg after 12-and-a-half years in charge, though he had been at the club as a youth coach from 1995 after two spells as a player in the 1980s. For his wit and humanity as well as his acumen, he will be missed (and he would have signed off with Freiburg’s third straight European qualification had it not been for conceding a stoppage-time goal at Union Berlin in his last game, allowing Heidenheim to sneak in).

Player of the season

A less clearcut one here. Harry Kane couldn’t have done any more in his first season in Germany, with 36 goals (and eight assists) in the Bundesliga alone, papering over many of the cracks at Bayern and winning unanimous approval from teammates, fans and observers alike for his leadership in a team that has lacked it more than expected. Xavi Simons, loaned to RB Leipzig from Paris Saint-Germain, had an explosive start to the season and spent most of the campaign’s first half looking like the league’s best player before a slight levelling off.

The winner could have been any number of Leverkusen players – Álex Grimaldo, Florian Wirtz and Jeremie Frimpong all present convincing cases – but we’ve gone for Granit Xhaka. Choosing to leave Arsenal for a new challenge, Alonso had an entirely different role planned for the Swiss midfielder than the one assigned by his childhood neighbour Mikel Arteta. Xhaka was trusted with being Alonso in the pitch. Plot the strategy, control the tempo, bring the calm. Many familiar with Xhaka’s earlier work wouldn’t have fancied him to fill the last clause in particular but he has been Leverkusen’s wise old head, the glue that brought it all together and, at 31, he has put in comfortably the best season of his entire career.

Goal of the season

Wirtz’s Kyrie Irving-esque slalom against Freiburg and Xavi Simons’ juggle and finish against Leverkusen (the latter overshadowed by the visitors’ typical last-gasp winner) were both magnificent but it has to be Kane scoring from his own half in October’s 8-0 win versus Darmstadt, an incredible combination of vision and execution.

Big exit of the season

Urs Fischer had taken Union from Bundesliga 2 to the Champions League, an extraordinary journey which was always going to make this season a tough challenge. We didn’t know just how tough – a run of 12 straight defeats eventually claimed the safest-looking job in German football with (remarkably) a 1-1 draw at Italian champions Napoli bringing the run to an end, but four days later they were marmalised at Leverkusen (and flattered, in truth, by only a 4-0 defeat) and that was that, amid a great deal of mutual pain. His replacement Nenad Bjelica didn’t even last the season as Union missed the relegation playoff by a whisker.

Rather more meek exits included Leonardo Bonucci from Union in winter (has a player of such strong character ever had such a minimal impact?) and FC Köln, whose incredible fanbase will be missed but went down with barely a whimper at Heidenheim on the final day.

Quote of the season

In future this category will be named after Uli Hoeness, but not while he’s still out there dropping pearls of wisdom. Thomas Tuchel found a rare glimmer of joy in April when asked by a journalist about a supporter petition aimed at getting him to stay. Enter honorary president Hoeness later the same day, telling a discussion panel that the coach “doesn’t think he can improve a [Alphonso] Davies, [Aleksandar] Pavlovic or [Jamal] Musiala. If it doesn’t immediately work, [he thinks] you should buy someone else.” Tuchel declared himself “offended” and claimed the moral high ground.

No such pretensions for Max Kruse, who also showed that exiting frontline service doesn’t mean you have to stop sticking in your oar at the most inopportune moment. He took great pleasure in sticking the boot into a struggling Niko Kovačc when the coach who removed him from the Wolfsburg squad hit the skids, describing him as “an absolute disaster [of a] character” and claiming his former teammate Yannick Gerhardt – who was still at the club – belonged to a group that regularly talked trash about the boss, forcing an embarrassed Gerhardt to deny everything. Even Liverpool’s (now ex-)sporting director Jörg Schmadtke, previously of Wolfsburg, got involved, saying: “The idea that people like Kruse should be talking about character leaves me lost for words.”