- Leverkusen have finished fourth then third in the last two seasons.
- Aranguiz's return to fitness is a positive for Die Werkself.
- Volland is set to complement an embarrassment of attacking riches.
FC Bayern München and Borussia Dortmund turned most of the 2015/16 Bundesliga campaign into a two-horse race. If they should falter next term, Bayer 04 Leverkusen, who completed the podium, could find themselves challenging for the title in 2016/17…
Roger Schmidt's team proved how strong they were in the final stages of last season. Eighth as late as Matchday 25, Die Werkself hoovered up 25 points from their final ten games to finish five points clear of Borussia Mönchengladbach in fourth. From early March to the final day, Bayern managed just a single point more, with Dortmund gaining four less. Will the BayArena club be Bayern's closest challengers next season? There are good arguments in their favour…
1. The team is settled
FC Bayern will welcome a new coach in the shape of Carlo Ancelotti, whilst Thomas Tuchel will look to integrate summer signings Marc Bartra, Ousmane Dembele, Emre Mor, Raphael Guerreiro and Sebastian Rode in his second season at the SIGNAL IDUNA PARK. In contrast, consistency is key for Leverkusen. Only Christoph Kramer has left, for Gladbach, and though the 25-year-old won the FIFA World Cup with Germany in 2014, he failed to live up to expectations last term.
Watch: Athletics coach Oliver Bartlett explains how Leverkusen stay in shape
2. New additions
Kramer's position in central midfield will be filled by former 1. FSV Mainz 05 man Julian Baumgartlinger following his summer arrival from the Coface Arena. The Austria international is a slightly different player from Kramer, with his battling qualities coming to the fore in his country's recent 0-0 draw with Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal. "He is a strong character with leadership skills," enthused Leverkusen's sporting director Rudi Völler. "He is ambitious, physically strong and has strategic skills. He will raise the level of our team and increase competition."
In addition, Kevin Volland has been brought in from TSG 1899 Hoffenheim to help bolster Leverkusen's attack. The 23-year-old was resurgent in last season's Rückrunde with three goals and five assists in 2016 helping the Sinsheim club ensure their top-flight survival. Capped six times for Germany, Volland is likely to blossom in the company of Javier 'Chicharito' Hernandez, Karim Bellarabi, Julian Brandt and Co. The aggressive attacking style employed by Schmidt should sit perfectly with Volland, and with that stable of attacking talent, they should be difficult to stop.
3. A fully-fit Aranguiz
Although Charles Aranguiz moved to Leverkusen from Brazilian side Sport Club Internacional de Porto Alegre in the summer of 2015, the Chile midfielder feels almost like a new signing. A torn achilles tendon meant that he had to wait until April 2016 to make his debut. In the final five games of the season Aranguiz gave a glimpse of what he could do, controlling games from midfield and chipping in with one goal and two assists.
Watch: Aranguiz on recovering from injury and adapting to the Bundesliga
Moreover, Aranguiz is a crucial component of the Chile team on course to defend their Copa America title in the United States this summer. In La Roja's run to the semi-finals, Aranguiz has completed 217 of his attempted 230 passes. His pass completion percentage of 94 is four better than international colleague and FC Bayern stand-out Arturo Vidal. If he stays injury-free, Aranguiz could prove extremely important to Schmidt.
Roger Schmidt demands a lot from his team. "Either we have the ball and try to play forward," he says. "Or the opponent has the ball, and we are trying to attack quickly. Or, there is a change of possession. In any case, the players are called upon to immediately react to new situations."
In the last two years that did not always work as planned, but now the players have had time internalise his demands it is a positive thing for the upcoming season. They might not be title-contenders quite yet, but if Bayern and BVB falter, the outlook for Die Werkself looks bright.
Florian Reinecke/Stuart Telford