Bayer Leverkusen’s unbeaten treble seemed inevitable, but it turns out they’re beatable


At the end of a dream season, Bayer Leverkusen experienced a nightmare.

For 51 games, they have been close to perfection. Whoever the adversaries were, they had the answer. Even when they haven’t been at their best, there has always been a late goal or a hero to emerge.

Not this time. Not in the 52nd of their 53 matches.

The defeat, the first in competition since May 27 last year, against Atalanta last night was certainly shocking.

Leverkusen simply had to lift the Europa League trophy at the Republic of Ireland’s Aviva Stadium on their way back to Germany, before heading to an unbeaten treble in the domestic cup final on Saturday. This seemed to be the destiny of this team. But football is rarely that simple and a Leverkusen defeat seemed strangely inevitable from the start of the match.

Thanks to Gian Piero Gasperini for this. He found answers no other coach has this season. Atalanta’s wicked press not only disrupted Leverkusen’s flow of possession forward, but also managed to neutralize Granit Xhaka’s influence at the base of midfield.

Xabi Alonso’s players certainly made mistakes, but their biggest problem was a lack of pace; they were never allowed to play.

“We didn’t find our place in our game,” said central defender Jonathan Tah, their captain. “They were more aggressive in the duels, left us very little space and therefore deserved to win against us today.”

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Atalanta celebrate winning their first European trophy (Jonathan Moscrop/Getty Images)

It was a brief but accurate assessment. Leverkusen lacked aggression as they were beaten 3-0. Or at least the only energy they showed came in moments of frustration, as their inability to control the ball or use it in any meaningful way began to create obvious tension. Florian Wirtz was irritable and agitated. Jérémie Frimpong, always so full of life, appeared lukewarm and marginalized.

Nothing was normal.

Given everything that has been achieved this season, it seems churlish to criticize Alonso for this or judge his team selection harshly. After all, how many times have Leverkusen won this season by being experimental? The team he selected on Wednesday had been good enough to beat Roma at the Stadio Olimpico in the first leg of the semi-final. But this time the balance seemed to be upset and that’s where the questions came from.

Edmond Tapsoba prefers to play on the left of a defensive trio. Passing angles from there are better for him, he has said in the past, and he likes the freedom of being able to cut inside and see the whole court. Was moving it to accommodate Piero Hincapie worth the comfort lost?

Josip Stanisic had a brilliant season in many ways and played a vital role in relief. Had Frimpong played there in his more orthodox right-back role rather than higher up, Ademola Lookman could have been asked to do more than bite between Leverkusen’s centre-backs and score one of the greatest hat-tricks in the history of European finals. Could this be the one Alonso would like to have back?

Truth be told, Lookman was so good it probably wouldn’t matter.

There is, however, another point: Atalanta played better because, that evening, they were better prepared for this match by their coach. Gasperini is admired throughout Europe for good reason, and this is the latest demonstration of why he is held in such high esteem; his game plan was perfect. Atalanta was incredibly superior.

Leverkusen understands this well and there are no sour grapes.

“It’s extremely difficult to take but we have to be honest with ourselves,” said midfielder Robert Andrich. “It was deserved today, so we have to go out with our heads held high and congratulate Atalanta. They certainly deserved it more than we did today.

People tend to get tired of good stories. They certainly get tired of football teams that win a lot. So there might even be a negative reaction – some joy at a bit of reward for Alonso, about whom so many glowing things have been said. This must be especially tempting given the optics – Alonso, young, urbane and cool, tripped over by Gasperini, 66, in his dad-denim and rumpled balaclava.

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Gian Piero Gasperini won the first trophy of his managerial career on Wednesday (Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)

But that doesn’t seem fair, especially since no one at Leverkusen took Gasperini for anything other than a maestro.

Alonso was incredibly respectful to Atalanta in the build-up, warning his side of the dangers they faced and speaking publicly of his admiration for his counterpart. In defeat, he was gracious, praising how quickly Atalanta recovered numbers behind the ball and how little space and time they gave their players.

“We will learn,” he promised. “We were very lucky and we did everything we could for today, but it didn’t go as planned. We weren’t at our best; everyone – including me.

Maybe that’s what makes Alonso so compelling.

It has been a rare season, but it seems unlikely to be an exception in a coaching career that is still in its first full first-team season. Wednesday’s result raises questions and will require evolution. Gasperini has now set a precedent that other coaches will surely follow: a swarming press targeting the right players has been shown to stop Leverkusen and that inside attackers of a certain type can cause them serious problems.

So what does Alonso do next? What is his response to Xhaka being overwhelmed? What does he do when possession coming from the defensive third does not suit his attackers who need space to be dangerous? When a match is not going well and the momentum is not on his side, as has never been the case in Dublin, what tools can he develop to change that?

In the modern era, that is the challenge of coaching. Those who are among the best are able to constantly stay ahead in this race, always managing to reinvent themselves faster than they can be contained or copied.

There is no reason to believe that Alonso will not one day belong to this group. Next season he will still be at Leverkusen, with an older, wiser squad, complete with the added shine of being a Champions League club and reigning Bundesliga champions again.

No, Wednesday night didn’t go well. In some ways, because it prevented the writing of a unique story, it was devastating.

But maybe that makes the future, and what Alonso does next, all the more intriguing.

(Top photo: Alex Grimm/Getty Images)


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