Teams of the Decade #6: Bayer Leverkusen 2001-02

February 25, 2010

Ultimately, this Bayer Leverkusen side won nothing; the pressure of challenging on three fronts with a small squad had disastrous results at the end of the season, where they completed the most unwanted ‘treble’ in footballing history – losing the league on the final day of the season, losing in the German Cup final to Schalke, and finally, being defeated by Real Madrid in the Champions League final.

But to dismiss them as ‘Bayer Neverkusen’ ignores the incredible job Klaus Topmoller did at the club. Leverkusen were an unfashionable, unremarkable club, having never won the Bundesliga in their history. Indeed, when the club celebrated their Centenary in 2004, their best-ever XI contained no fewer than seven of this side.

Their Champions League run didn’t receive enough credit in England – probably thanks to the fact that, incredibly, they put out Arsenal, Liverpool and then Manchester United in successive rounds, at a time when English football was desperate for success in European football (and attempting to overthrow the Bundesliga as the third-best league in Europe, and therefore receive a fourth Champions League place), and they were cast as fortunate, scrappy underdogs.

In reality, the 4-1-4-1 formation employed by Topmoller was terrific. Oliver Neuville arguably reinvented the lone striker role, at 5’7 demonstrating that you don’t have to be a target man to play upfront by yourself. He drew defenders out of position, creating space for the runs of Michael Ballack, who scored 17 goals in 29 Bundesliga games (an incredible record for a midfielder, and just one off being the league’s topscorer) and 7 in 15 Champions League games. Alongside Ballack was the equally talented Yildiray Basturk, who lacked Ballack’s pace but provided intelligent, methodical passing from the centre. Bernd Schneider and the wonderful Ze Roberto (one of the most underrated players of the decade) worked the flanks excellently, swinging in crosses and covering their full-backs in equal measure.

Another key feature was Carsten Ramelow, a tall, rugged centre-half who played just in front of the defensive line. He was comfortable dropping deep and taking up a position as a third centre-back, meaning that Placente and Sebescen were free to roam forward.

The loss of captain Jens Nowotny to a serious knee injury ahead of the run-in hit Leverkusen hard, although they were far from outplayed in the Champions League final. In the end, they lost to the goal of the decade, a tremendous left-footed volley from the most celebrated player of his generation, and Leverkusen will probably remain most famous for Zidane’s greatest moment.

All things considered, it’s perhaps not entirely unfair to claim that this Leverkusen side set the tactical tone for the decadea lone forward who liked to drop deep, a midfield encouraged to make forward runs, a holding midfielder in front of the back four, and attacking full-backs.

In the summer of 2002, both Ballack and Ze Roberto left the club to join Bayern Munich, and Leverkusen struggled with Nowotny out for the entire campaign. They advanced to the second round of the Champions League, but spent much of the domestic season in the relegation zone, and Topmoller was fired in January. They finished one place off relegation.

This season, they currently sit atop the Bundesliga, level on points with Bayern Munich, and still unbeaten. It would be tremendous if they could go onto win their first-ever title, the trophy this great side deserved.

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