Lukáš Hrádecký (l.) and Amine Adli show off their trophies during Bayer Leverkusen's celebrations. - © Christof Koepsel
Lukáš Hrádecký (l.) and Amine Adli show off their trophies during Bayer Leverkusen's celebrations. - © Christof Koepsel

2023/24 Bundesliga season round-up: Brilliant Bayer Leverkusen, Harry Kane's goals, stupendous Stuttgart & much more


Bayer Leverkusen going an entire domestic season unbeaten to become double winners is the major takeaway from a fabulous campaign, but who else is worthy of mention in a campaign for the ages? picks out some of the best talking points from 2023/24.

Leverkusen's unbeatable masterclass

"What we have done this season is unbelievable; we will always remember this in the future." So said coach Xabi Alonso of a recently concluded campaign that will live on in the memories not just for Leverkusen fans, but in the footballing world in general. The moniker of 'Neverkusen,' banished forever more and in spectacular fashion. From this point on, the Werkself will be famed as double winners and the first-ever team to end a Bundesliga season undefeated.

"This achievement is outstanding, not only in Germany but also in Europe. To remain undefeated is extraordinary," Alonso continued. The numbers behind the Bayer's success were equally spectacular. German top-flight champions for the first time in club history by Matchday 29, the side became the first first-time winners since Wolfsburg lifted the Meisterschale back in 2009.

Watch: Xabi Alonso's winning blend

Alonso's men ended the Bundesliga campaign with 90 points - which was only bettered once before, by Jupp Heynckes's Bayern Munich in 2012/13. The newly crowned champions also finished the season with a club record 89 goals. "The full journey and season was wonderful," the team's 42-year-old tactician enthused. "Our target in July was to have a good season. We had clear targets and after three/four games I was optimistic, [but] maybe not as big as what’s happened here."

The size of Leverkusen's achievement was boosted yet further by a remarkable run to the UEFA Europa League final - where they ultimately lost to Atalanta. That reverse was the only one in 53 games throughout an astounding season, with Bayer's 51 game unbeaten sequence until the Dublin showpiece a new continental record.

They would even bounce back from that setback by winning the DFB Cup in the last match of an epic term. "We'll need some time to let it sink in. It's totally deserved to become champions undefeated. Unbelievable!," Alonso said of a side that featured Bundesliga Player of the Season Florian Wirtz, the division's top assist provider Álex Grimaldo, fellow new signings Granit Xhaka and Victor Boniface. Every player played their part in a campaign that also saw Bayer become famous for fighting until the very death, with several last-minute goals across all competitions aiding their drive to glory.

Watch: It's finally Leverkusen time

Stuttgart’s remarkable rise   

Only a year ago, Stuttgart were celebrating their Bundesliga survival following a relegation play-off victory against Hamburg. This time around, the Swabians are raising their glasses to an incredible second-placed Bundesliga finish and UEFA Champions League qualification. The club have been transformed under the leadership of coach Sebastian Hoeneß, who confirmed his future commitment to one of the most exciting teams around during a 2023/24 campaign that yielded club-best points (73) and win (23) tallies in the top tier.

“We’ve achieved something extraordinary,” Hoeneß explained. "Together we have managed to lead VfB on the right path. It’s just unbelievable that we’ll be playing in the Champions League next season; it’s something very special. Our goal must be to [continue on] this path in order to permanently establish VfB in the top half of the table again.”

Helping Stuttgart on their returning road to glory were strikers Serhou Guirassy and Deniz Undav, the latter playing at the MHPArena on loan from English side Brighton.

Watch: VfB are flying high once again 

Read more about Stuttgart's revival

Were it not for the prolific Harry Kane, Guinea international Guirassy would have finished with the Torjägerkanone - the prize awarded to the division’s leading marksman - and the European Golden Boot. The Stuttgart striker weighed in with a hefty 28 goals in 28 Bundesliga appearances. That’s more than any other VfB player ever managed in a top-flight season, while the 28-year-old’s 14 goals in the first eight matchdays represented a new division-wide record.

Undav finished fourth in the top scorers' chart with 18, meaning the Guirassy-Undav pair produced a new club best of 46 goals for a striking duo. Indeed, such were the extent of Stuttgart’s heroics that Undav, Chris Führich, Maximilian Mittelstädt, Waldemar Anton, Alexander Nübel were all called up to Julian Nagelsmann’s provisional Germany squad for UEFA Euro 2024. With Germany’s group-stage game against Hungary taking place at Stuttgart’s MHPArena on 19 June, the VfB boys will feel even more at home.

Watch: All of Guirassy's Bundesliga goals in 2023/24

Goal-king Kane reigns supreme

He came, he saw, he finished top of the goalscoring charts. Kane’s summer introduction to the Bundesliga following his arrival from Tottenham Hotspur was as headline grabbing as the English striker’s start to life in German football.  

When the forward netted on his Bundesliga debut in a one-sided Bayern win against Werder Bremen in August, it quickly became apparent that there would be no bedding-in period necessary for Kane. And so it proved. The first player in Bundesliga history to score 36 goals in his debut campaign - aided by a four hat-tricks, which again no other debutant had ever managed - his season total has only ever been bettered by all-time greats Robert Lewandowski and Gerd Müller.

Kane’s previous personal best in terms of league goals came with his one-time haul of 30 strikes in a season at Spurs. He bettered that at Bayern while also becoming the first-ever Englishman to lift the Torjägerkanone. Kane’s compatriot, Jadon Sancho - who returned to Borussia Dortmund on loan - is currently leading the way as the top English all-time goalscorer in the Bundesliga with 40, a figure Bayern’s No. 9 looks certain to surpass in double-quick time.

Watch: Harry Kane - season review

"I'm really enjoying my experience in Germany,” the striker said in an interview with the Daily Mail. “It was a step that I needed in my career for a fresh stimulus, a fresh challenge and new surroundings, and I'm really happy that I made the move. My future is at Bayern Munich. I have a four-year contract. I'm enjoying it," said the forward who finished his debut season in Germany with 44 goals and 12 assists in 45 appearances across all competitions.

Champions League boasts a Bundesliga flavour  

Not only did this European season have a distinctly German feel with both Dortmund and Leverkusen reaching the Champions League and Europa League finals respectively, the fact that Euro 2024 is being held in Germany is also cause for celebration in the home of the Bundesliga. In fact, that exceptional sporting representation is set to continue into the 2024/25 season with Germany boasting five spots in the new UEFA Champions League, and eight places in European competition in total.

BVB officially sealed the extra Champions League place for the Bundesliga next season when - en route to reaching this season's showpiece in Wembley - the Black-and-Yellows defeated Paris Saint-Germain in the tournament's semi-final first leg, thanks to a Niclas Füllkrug strike. 

Niclas Füllkrug helped to fire Dortmund - and Germany - to a Champions League boost. - IMAGO/Federico Pestellini

The extra place came up for grabs as part of UEFA's remodelling of European football's elite competition, and with the collective efforts of German clubs in 2023/24, the country's co-efficient rose sufficiently to become one of the nations with five spots in the new-look tournament.     

Indeed, should Dortmund go on to beat Real Madrid in this season's final, Germany would then have a sixth space handed to Eintracht Frankfurt.

Mighty minnows provide colour aplenty 

Of the many feel-good stories around the Bundesliga throughout a compelling season, those of Heidenheim and Mainz are up there with the best.

Promoted to the top table of German football for the very first time as second division champions last year, Heidenheim – under long-term coach Frank Schmidt – fought shoulder to shoulder with the Bundesliga’s best in their maiden campaign.  

From Jan-Niklas Beste scoring Heidenheim's first-ever Bundesliga goal on Matchday 2 to the team’s extraordinary win against the previous season’s champions Bayern, there were a selection of highs for fans of the Baden-Württemberg-based team to delight in. The icing on the cake came in the form of an eighth-placed finish which, following Leverkusen’s DFB Cup win – resulted in European football for Schmidt and Co. in 2024/25.  

Watch: The remarkable rise of Heidenheim

“The fact that we as 1. FC Heidenheim 1846 are able to take part in a European competition for the first time is the crowning achievement of our historically successful debut season in the Bundesliga,” club CEO Holger Sanwald said after it was confirmed Heidenheim would take part in the UEFA Conference League play-offs. “One thing is certain,” Sanwald continued, “our team will continue to make history.”

Coach Schmidt added, “These additional two European games right at the start of the season are of course a big challenge, but we are already looking forward to them. It will be a thrilling start to the season with the first round of the DFB Cup, the play-offs for the Conference League and the start of the Bundesliga within a few days.”

Mainz, too, will be in the Bundesliga mix for the start of the new season after the 05ers pulled off the most dramatic of escape acts under tactician Bo Henriksen. Looking all but doomed in the relegation zone when the Dane took charge ahead of a Matchday 22 encounter against Augsburg, Mainz embarked on a nine-game unbeaten run that included five victories at the tail-end of the season to lift themselves to safety.

Coach Bo Henriksen brought the very best out of Mainz. - IMAGO/Harald Bremes

“It was a crazy three months,” the charismatic Henriksen said of the season run-in. “It was hard. We were under pressure for so long. However, it was fun to be part of a group that achieved survival together – with the team, staff and the entire city. We developed a lot over the course of the [final] 13 games."

Relegation drama till the very end

While Heidenheim came into the season with the unwanted title of “relegation candidate No.1”, they enjoyed a pretty much worry-free campaign on their top-flight debut. Instead, it was more seasoned Bundesliga clubs left to fight for their status at this level.

Darmstadt came up with Heidenheim but never really got going. They climbed as high as 11th after back-to-back wins over Werder Bremen and Augsburg in October, but were rock bottom from early December onwards. A 2-0 victory in Cologne in April meant they finished with three wins, but their relegation was confirmed the week after with a 1-0 loss at home to – yes it just had to be – Heidenheim, with three games to go. It meant the Lilies were just spectators to the drama about to unfold.

Mainz had been in the bottom three since Matchday 3 but finally found a way out thanks to their 3-0 win over Champions League finalists Dortmund on the penultimate weekend, eventually finishing as high as 13th on the back of their nine-game unbeaten run since their 8-1 thrashing in Munich.

The 05ers’ charge ensured there was ultimately no escape for Cologne. A late come-from-behind win at home to Bochum in early April sparked real belief in salvation, only for the 2-0 defeat against Darmstadt to knock them right back down to earth. And when they found themselves 2-0 down at home to Union Berlin on the penultimate weekend – needing to win – things looked bleak for the Billy Goats.

Watch: Cologne’s relegation roller coaster

“We were gone, dead,” said defender Dominique Heintz. That was until Effzeh struck three times in the closing minutes to turn the game on its head. “And suddenly you’re still alive,” Heintz added. “It was so loud,” coach Timo Schultz said of the cheer when Damion Downs netted in added time, “The place could’ve taken off. I’m glad the roof is still on.”

Alas, it was all for nothing in the end. Again, they needed to win on the final day to have any chance of making it into the play-off, but a comprehensive defeat at Heidenheim – again, the top-flight minnows wielding the relegation axe – spelled the end of five years in the Bundesliga for Cologne.

Although that was only a fraction of the drama on the final day of the season. Union had dropped into the play-off spot going into Matchday 34, while Bochum were feeling pretty safe in 14th, with Mainz in between them. Feeling safe does not mean actually being safe, though.

VfL had a poor day in Bremen, ending up losing 4-1, but they were set to finish above the bottom three for most of the afternoon. It was only when Union went ahead after 68 minutes against Freiburg – having missed a first-half penalty – that alarm bells started ringing.

Things took another twist again when Freiburg equalised in the 85th minute, before another turn as Union were awarded a second penalty in added time. The Berliners had to score to climb out of 16th place. Kevin Volland missed his spot-kick, but Janik Haberer put away the rebound to spark wild scenes in Köpenick. “We’re still here and that’s what counts!” declared interim Union coach Marco Grote in the aftermath.

Contrast those emotions with how people were feeling around Bochum. From relative safety, they now had to face Fortuna Düsseldorf over two legs to stay up. And the mood reached rock bottom when the Bundesliga 2 side ran out 3-0 winners at the Ruhrstadion in the first leg.

“Anything is possible in football,” stated a defiant Keven Schlotterbeck afterwards. True, yes, but very few believed Bochum could actually turn this around.

Credit to those who did, including the team that took to the field in the second leg. VfL flipped the tables with a 3-0 win of their own in Düsseldorf to force extra-time and ultimately penalties. No team had ever overturned such a deficit in a Bundesliga play-off, nor had a tie been decided in a shootout since 1988.

Watch: Bochum's relegation rollercoaster

“I told them before the penalties that they can make history and become legends,” said coach Heiko Butscher at the end of a long night. That they did, prevailing 6-5 from the spot to complete a remarkable turnaround and keep Bochum in the Bundesliga for another year.

After 308 matches, the drama in the 2023/24 season went down to the very last kick as Atsuto Uchida fired over from 12 yards. A simply remarkable conclusion to a campaign that really had it all in the Bundesliga.