Bayer Leverkusen have carried the unflattering ‘Neverkusen’ tag since the turn of the millennium.
If falling short of the title in 2000 was devastating, then 2002 was heartbreak of the most sombre degree. The trophy-shy club, spearheaded by a wonderful young core, saw their dreams of a treble fade in the space of three gut-wrenching weeks.
Back-to-back defeats in April allowed Borussia Dortmund to win the Bundesliga and Schalke battered them 4-2 in the DFB-Pokal final before Zinedine Zidane scored that volley to deny Leverkusen Champions League glory.
Die Werkself have so often been the nearly men; the bridesmaid without ever being the bride. Their 2002 collapse has long been the source of mockery. If they couldn’t get over the line then, when will they ever?
It’s this context, combined with the sheer dominance Bayern Munich have asserted over the past decade, which made Leverkusen’s 3-0 victory over the Rekordmeister in February so significant. The eternal runners-up have surrendered margins greater than five points in the past, but there’s something different about Xabi Alonso’s iteration.
Tactically versatile and laden with talent across the pitch, Bayer Leverkusen are comfortably the best team Germany has to offer. Cruelly, however, the club must prepare for a summer decimation. Alonso is regarded as the hottest coaching property on the planet and is touted to be Jurgen Klopp’s successor at Liverpool, while an array of their playing personnel is bound to garner interest.
Here are five Leverkusen players Premier League clubs should have their eyes on.
Suitable clubs: Manchester United, Newcastle
Potential fee: £60m
Tottenham Hotspur seriously considered moving for Tapsoba last summer before opting for the superior athleticism of Micky van de Ven. While the Dutchman has proven to be revelatory in north London, many supporters were upset at missing out on the Bayer Leverkusen defender.
Tapsoba, who missed a relatively brief period due to AFCON commitments, has primarily operated on the right of Alonso’s back three.
The Spaniard’s commitment to short passing and press-baiting has reigned in Tapsoba as a progressive passer, although he remains proficient when aiming to drive Leverkusen up the pitch, His function on the right side affords him plenty of time to pick passes into the half-space and carry the ball upfield.
Defensively, the Burkina Faso international is physical but more passive than aggressive. He averages less than two combined tackles and interceptions in the Bundesliga this season (per FBref). He is, however, a fine recovery defender who’s comfortable defending space.
Suitable clubs: Liverpool, Chelsea
Potential fee: £50m
Hincapie has been somewhat of a rotation piece for Alonso this season, with the Ecuadorian making just eight Bundesliga starts. However, the defender’s unique talent was on full display in the season-defining win over Bayern.
His versatility allows him to perform a multi-faceted role in Alonso’s system which maximises his ball-playing abilities. He often drifts out into the left-back zone to facilitate Alex Grimaldo’s upfield surges.
Hincapie’s upside is tremendous given his build, speed, and comfort with the ball, but there’s a reason why he’s not been a nailed-on starter. There’s a ruggedness to his game which can drift into clumsiness, especially defensively – he loves committing a foul (although he’s ironed such errors out this season).
Still, Hincapie’s talent is clear and there’s no doubt that a Premier League club will consider taking a punt on him. He’s the sort of player Brighton would’ve signed before he joined Leverkusen.
Suitable clubs: Arsenal, Man Utd, Man City
Potential fee: £34m
Leverkusen’s wing-backs have been nothing short of electric this season, with Grimaldo, in particular, enjoying one of the most impressive full-back/wing-back seasons in recent memory.
His partner in crime, Frimpong, has been no slouch either, with both finding themselves on the scoresheet in Saturday’s statement win.
Grimaldo’s technical brilliance is complemented by Frimpong’s high-flying nature down the opposite flank. He’s effervescent; a de facto winger who thrives when isolated one-on-one thanks to his sharp turn of pace. Frimpong also has a measured eye in the final third – he’s combined for 12 Bundesliga goal contributions this term.
His defensive responsibilities have been reduced under Alonso, with the wing-back certainly requiring some refinement when he’s not flying forward
A new contract, signed last year, includes a €40m (£34m) release clause that will be active this summer.
Suitable clubs: Arsenal, Liverpool, Man City
Potential fee: £85m
The Bundesliga took centre stage in May 2020 when it became the first major European league to return to action after the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
When Bayer Leverkusen lined up for the first time against Werder Bremen, Kai Havertz was the name on the tip of everybody’s tongues. Although, there was a 17-year-old who should’ve garnered more attention.
The precocious Wirtz has superseded Havertz’s impressive legacy in Leverkusen and is destined to garner a monster fee for his sale when he opts to move on.
Wirtz, who missed almost the entirety of 2022 after tearing his ACL, has blossomed into one of Europe’s premier playmakers and is the crafty beating heart of this Leverkusen outfit. Wirtz averages a team-high 6.20 shot-creating actions per 90 minutes this season (according to FBref). He’s laden with guile between the lines and capable of pulling off the spectacular in and around the box.
Wirtz is efficient with his movement but is far too stylish to be considered a Raumdeuter in the mould of Thomas Muller or Havertz.
You could envisage Mikel Arteta and Pep Guardiola having plenty of fun with the German star.
Suitable clubs: Arsenal, Chelsea West Ham
Potential fee: £70m
Despite missing pretty much all of 2024 so far with a groin injury, Boniface remains Leverkusen’s top scorer this season with 16 goals in 23 games.
The Nigerian was perhaps the missing piece Alonso required to reach the next level, although his side have maintained their excellent form in his absence.
Nevertheless, Boniface was a crucial presence when fit – not just because of his goalscoring. The striker functioned as Leverkusen’s focal point after joining the club from Union Saint-Gilloise in the summer, with his athleticism and threat in behind allowing Alonso’s side to regularly exploit the space that is so often surrendered behind opposing Bundesliga defences.
He’s not one to dominate matches and contribute heavily, but his efficiency means Boniface is capable of deciding contests in mere moments.