Exequiel Palacios (l.) and Granit Xhaka (r.) - lesser-sung heroes of Leverkusen's march to the title. - © DFL/Getty Images/Lukas Schulze
Exequiel Palacios (l.) and Granit Xhaka (r.) - lesser-sung heroes of Leverkusen's march to the title. - © DFL/Getty Images/Lukas Schulze

How Leverkusen's engine room - Xhaka, Andrich and Palacios - are powering Die Werkself to the title


Florian Wirtz and Álex Grimaldo have grabbed many of the headlines this season, but Bayer Leverkusen's midfield engine room has been central, quite literally, to their success.

Xabi Alonso's side are undefeated in 40 matches across all competitions, which is an outright record for a German team, and the continental treble of Bundesliga, DFB Cup and UEFA Europa League remains on.

Die Werkself are 13 points clear of 11-time defending champions Bayern in the Bundesliga, and could wrap up the title as soon as Matchday 29 - assuming they win their two games between then and now and Bayern lose theirs.

As unlikely as the second half of that equation may be - Bayern face Heidenheim and Cologne next up - Bayer have gone from Neverkusen to never losing. 

Alonso's favoured line up

Xabi Alonso has a settled 3-4-2-1 system at Bayer Leverkusen. - DFL

Alonso has lined Leverkusen up in a 3-4-2-1 for every single one of their 28 Bundesliga games so far this season, and the team have looked remarkably settled.

Wirtz is one of two No.10s, most often alongside Jonas Hofmann, and has racked up seven goals and 10 assists despite his tender 20 years.

Grimaldo and Jeremie Frimpong patrol the flanks, and have a barely fathomable 36 goal-involvements between them, the former proving the side's most potent attacking asset despite being a nominal left-back.

And in the engine room is Granit Xhaka, the summer arrival from Arsenal who has been paired with Argentina's FIFA World Cup winner Exequiel Palacios, injury permitting, and if not Robert Andrich, who has played his way into Julian Nagelsmann's Germany squad in recent months.

Xhaka, Alonso's midfield general

Alonso (l.) has an on-field lieutenant in Xhaka (r.). - Alex Grimm

Only Grimaldo has racked up more Bundesliga minutes than Xhaka so far this season, the Switzerland captain pivotal to Leverkusen's play.

A left-footer, he invariably lines up on the right half of the double pivot, with the right-footed Palacios or Andrich on the left. We've all heard of inverted wingers, and inverted full-backs are increasingly common, but Alonso inverts his central midfielders.

It opens up their passing range when they receive the ball on the turn, and the results have been remarkable.

No player league-wide can match Xhaka's 3,145 touches so far this season - an average of 118 per 90 minutes players - and for a 31-year-old who was never renowned for his pace, he has covered an impressive 317.9km this term, another Bundesliga-best mark.

Watch: Xhaka's impact at Leverkusen

He is the least prolific of the three players in question - one goal from 33 shots is some way behind Palacios' three from 18 and Andrich's two from nine - but his 92.9 per cent pass completion is testament to how effectively he orchestrates play.

That goal came as Bayer beat Mainz 2-1 on Matchday 23, Xhaka's position on the edge of the box after a deflected Grimaldo cross from the left affording him time to curl home a stunning finish, before feigning injury in his celebration by clutching his hamstring.

"I know Granit's done it before in training and it made me nervous then," Alonso explained after the game. "The physio came to me but I just said 'relax.'"

Palacios and Andrich, midfield partners with different profiles

Andrich and Palacios (l-r.) give Alonso an embarrassment of options in central midfield. - IMAGO/HMB Media

Relax isn't a word in the vocabulary of either Palacios or Andrich. The former matches Xhaka's 92.9 per cent pass competition, which, considering his greater box-to-box impulse, is eminently impressive. 

Palacios has three goals and four assists to his name this season, giving him a direct goal-involvement of one every 225 minutes he has played - not bad for a player whose average position is around the halfway line.

Watch: Highlights of Leverkusen's 2-2 draw with Bayern

He has also taken a leaf out of Patrik Schick's "Clutch goal" playbook, with two of his three strikes rescuing invaluable points in injury time - a penalty to hold Bayern to a 2-2 draw on Matchday 4 and the 1-0 winner against Augsburg on Matchday 17. 

Palacios injured his thigh in the very next game - a 3-2 win over RB Leipzig - which handed Andrich the chance to come to the fore…

Andrich, now Kroos' partner in crime

Toni Kroos' (l.) international recall has been accompanied by Andrich's (r.) emergence. - IMAGO / Kessler-Sportfotografie

To say Andrich has seized his chance would be a gross understatement. The former Union Berlin man had been getting his game in midfield in the Europa League and DFB Cup, but three of his Bundesliga appearances had been as cover at centre-back.

But he took up his position of trade from that point on, and was called up to Nagelsmann's first Germany squad for their friendlies against the USA and Mexico last October, making his debut the following month against Austria.

Watch: Leverkusen's control centre

He now looks likely to start alongside Toni Kroos at the upcoming Euro 2024 finals tournament on home soil, with the Real Madrid (and former Leverkusen) man benefitting from what Xhaka does at club level: Andrich's grit.

"I heard a really good description of Andrich, because I was watching on German TV, and they called him his bodyguard, Kroos' bodyguard," Bundesliga co-commentator Mark Schwarzer reflected recently.

Andrich has won 56 per cent of his duels this term, and is yet to get through a Bundesliga campaign without a booking, missing 12 games through suspension across just five seasons in the German top flight to date.

Alonso's system

Alonso has built a team in his image at Leverkusen. - Lukas Schulze/Bundesliga

But despite their differing profiles, each one of Xhaka, Palacios and Andrich are complete midfielders. Palacios has won more duels than either of his teammates. Andrich has contributed two goals and three assists, and Xhaka's return of one from 33 shots can be attributed to statistical noise. His 40 passes to a shot are a high among the three. 

All three can attack and defend. And perhaps the biggest credit for how they are playing should go to their head coach Alonso, who was a midfielder of quite some aplomb himself not so long ago, filling his trophy cabinet across spells at Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern.

And the Spaniard has drilled his vision into his players. Just as Schick can replace Victor Boniface up front, or Nathan Tella Frimpong on the right flank, so Alonso can maintain his style in central midfield, regardless of personnel. 

Alonso was a pass master himself, and it is no accident that Xhaka and Palacios have only mis-hit 7.1 per cent of their passes. Andrich's score on that front is a miserly nine per cent. 

Alonso is the brains of the operation, Frimaldo have changed expectations of what a wing-back can achieve, and Wirtz might be the best young player in world football, but without their midfield engine, Leverkusen wouldn't be purring towards the title as they are.