Another week, another victory! This week was a 4-0 route of Nuremburg. Bayer 04 have become, along with HSV, one of the dominant teams in the Bundesliga. But it was only a year ago that Bayer, under Bruno Labbadia had a blistering start. But it wasn’t anything comparable to this start, because the Werkself aren’t just winning, their winning with panache and style. They are also playing defense (five shutouts already). The question will be whether they will falter late this season, much like they did last year. It doesn’t seem to be on the cards. Let’s look at seven reasons that the Bundesliga’s 2nd place specialists might be on course for their first title.
- Home Sweet Home
They are back home at the BayArena after a 20 months project to expand and cover the almost 90 year old stadium drove them away for the second half of last season. With an increase in 8,000 seats to take BayArena over 30,000, they are no longer a Zweite level club when it comes to attendance. There is also the uniqueness of the ground, which is now the world’s largest Makrolon roofed stadiums. This new roof covers almost the entirety of the pitch and has proven to be much better at capturing noise than the more repressed awnings of the 1986 additions. With a loud imposing stadium, Bayer are undefeated this year. This is a direct contrast to the home form they had last season when they moved to the LDU in Dusseldorf. With their own home, they shouldn’t suffer through a seven game winless streak at home at any point. Undoubtedly they will do better than the seven points they mustered in Dusseldorf.
- Kid’s Can’t Finnish First
It was a simple change, and one that FM gamers would kick a puppy over, but when Rudi Voller swapped the future superstar Henriquie for the old warhorse Sami Hyypia, it would be one of the smartest moves he ever made. Hyypia has lost a step, but physically can handle the big forwards that dominate the league. There is no better reader of the game in the league and his ability to command and organize the back gives Leverkusen a stronger spine than any of their competitors, perhaps for Hoffenheim. He has also shown the ability to start play with a long pass out of the back. But really where he will be worth his weight in gold, will be his influence on Rene Adler. Always a shot-stopper with few peers, he is learning the most keeper’s most important skill set under the veteran – command.
- Germany’s #1
Adler looked off-the-boil last year. There was no doubt about it. A kid that had been one of the few keepers that could make you watch a game, seemed disinterested. We chalked it up to his back, but suddenly he’s looking nimble again. Could it be that the pressure of being Germany’s #1 along with trying to lead a young defense for his club was weighing too heavily on the emerging superstar? It seems very plausible now. With Hyypia as the leader, Adler seems to be unburdened a little bit. Does Bayer now have the best keeper in the league after a year of having its biggest enigma? And with Schalke desperate for cash, Bayer should be able to hold onto the keeper through the winter break. How long they can avoid Adler’s inevitable move to Old Trafford is another story.
Stefan Kiessling was once called the next Jurgen Klinsmann. I’m not fond of these “next” labels. But what Kiessling is doing this season is living up to the potential that everyone saw in him. He has become a fantastic link man, who can finish and is good in the air. He is also willing to start the defense by his pressing opponents in their own third. In many respects, he is quickly catching up to Ediz Dzeko in ability to link and finish. He has 7 goals in the first 8 games and has become pivotal in the buildup play for this high octane attack.
- Midfield Dominance
Simon Rofles is perhaps Europe’s most cultured defensive midfielder. He doesn’t tackle recklessly, he doesn’t foul unnecessarily and he doesn’t panic. But he gets the job done. He is able to break up play, distribute the ball, bring the ball out from deep and finish when needed. Renato Augusto is the best #10 in the league, now that Diego has departed. Arturo Vidal is a highly skilled Jack-of-all-Trades, who can bomb down the right or play deep with Rofles in a double pivot. Barnetta is a great left wing, and is brutal on the counter. As a unit, they force teams wide and they attack and defend in equal measures. While Bayern has the bigger names, the reason that Bayer and HSV are at the top of the league is because they have better all-around midfields.
Bayer was recently a team that could look to perhaps the 12th man at best. Voller has begun to build a squad that has overall depth to deal with the inevitable injury. In fact, it already has. When Augusto went down, Toni Kroos was able to slot in on the right, pushing Vidal into the center. They haven’t even started using wunderkind Lars Bender. And with Kladec, Schwaab and Castro as fullbacks, they have depth in an always tenuous position, but also the ability to bring Castro to the midfield if needed. Up front, they have four forwards with the aforementioned Kiessling, newcomer Erin Derdiyok, veteran Gekas and last year’s top scorer Patrick Helmes, when he returns from injury. In the back, Hans Sarpei provides cover for Hyypia and Freidrich. It’s not Manchester United depth, but they are only competing in the league.
- It’s Always the Coach
Rafael Honigstein covered Juup Hyneckes’ contributions in his column this week at the Guardian. Needless to say, the man that almost won Bayern the title last year, when all look lost, is a much better match for such a young squad. A team built on youth needs a father figure and Hyneckes is much better at the role than Labbadia could ever be. His calm demeanor seems to be the perfect match for the laid-back Voller and squad too. It’s not that Labbadia isn’t as good as Hyneckes (although only time will tell), but Hyneckes is the better fit at Leverkusen.