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You will doubtless have heard the tale of Bayer Leverkusen by now, the all-conquering kings of German football who may be as little as 180 minutes away from immortality. Beat Atalanta in the Europa League final and second-tier Kaiserslautern in the DFB Pokal and they will have played out Europe's first unbeaten top-flight season in the age of UEFA competition. Not bad for a club previously defined by the glorious failures of 2000-02. 

You may have an idea of where Leverkusen are heading. You may not be so familiar with how they got there. To truly understand Xabi Alonso's Invincibles you have to understand the team that the Spaniard inherited in the autumn of 2022, moored in the Bundesliga relegation zone. The issue was not so much the quality of the players as much as the sense of sloppiness to them. That was particularly pronounced in the Leverkusen defense, where they were late to second balls, continually chasing back to recover, any semblance of shape swiftly vanishing in the vertical headrush of the German game.

"Initially we really had to focus on stabilizing ourselves defensively," said Florian Wirtz, the jewel in Leverkusen's crown, of the weeks after Alonso's appointment. "We had to improve that part of the game. So the whole team was focused on defensive work. First and foremost, defend our goal, don't give up goals. That was really the foundation Xabi wanted to build."

Europa League final: Atalanta vs. Bayer Leverkusen

Date: Wednesday, May 22 | Time: 3 p.m. ET
Location: Aviva Stadium -- Dublin, Ireland
TV: CBS Sports Network Stream: Paramount+

Almost immediately Alonso established a back three that would go on to be the foundation of this all-conquering side, Jonathan Tah flanked by Edmond Tapsoba on his left and Odilon Kossounou on his right. That defense, backed up by Piero Hincapie and Josip Stanisic, and Lukas Hradecky would go on to achieve 16 clean sheets in 34 Bundesliga games this season, conceding just 24 goals in total and allowing only 30.1 expected goals (xG).

A major factor in that defensive excellence is what perhaps ought not to look like the radical break with German footballing orthodoxy that it might be. Alonso's side actually keep the ball. The gegenpressing age isn't over yet and only five teams in the Bundesliga complete an average of over 3.5 passes per sequence, the top five teams in the league to be precise. They average more passes per sequence than anyone else at 4.9 and have the league's second-slowest speed, in terms of meters advanced. In that sense, they are a team built in their manager's image, one that prioritizes control above all else.

"The positioning, the tempo, the construction of our game -- we like to do that differently," Alonso has said of his side. "We try to be patient, we don't like to be too crazy or hectic. That is something that is not easy to do in the Bundesliga."

If you want to do it, you need an Alonso-like player. Sources say that the Leverkusen boss is not particularly didactic about the formation his side must play, his blueprint more fluid than those who have managed at multiple clubs, but he has a clear preference for a midfield double pivot. The man who runs that is Granit Xhaka, who ended the season leading the Bundesliga in touches, pass completion, passes into the final third and carries, among many other statistics. Aided by Exequiel Palacios or Robert Andrich, the former Arsenal man sets the tempo and controls the center of the pitch, blocking out the opposition's attempts to fly forward in numbers. The pass map from a 4-0 win over Union Berlin in October -- one of those rarer-than-you-might-imagine games where what is considered the title-winning XI actually all take to the pitch together from the off -- emphasizes the outsized role that Xhaka (No. 34) and Palacios (No. 25) play, even for central midfielders.

Bayer Leverkusen's pass map in their 4-0 win over Union Berlin in October of 2023. TruMedia

If Xhaka controls the pitch then it is up to Alonso's widemen to stretch it. Jeremie Frimpong does so by putting the wing in wing back. With Moussa Diaby having departed to Aston Villa in the summer, it falls on the Dutch international to stretch the pitch and bring searing pace into the side, often functioning as a one-man right flank with Jonas Hoffman stationed more infield. His eight goals "from wing back" might seem remarkable until you discover that he had more penalty box touches than anyone in the Bundesliga at all. Harry Kane: 197. Lois Openda: 225. A guy whose position has the word back in it, in over 400 fewer minutes: 230.

Incidentally, both Kane and Openda have also had more touches in their defensive penalty area than Frimpong's 19. In short ... this is not a normal heatmap, Jeremie.

Jeremie Frimpong's heatmap for the 2023-24 club season. TruMedia

Alejandro Grimaldo is only a touch more orthodox. He tends to stick more to the left flank than burst into the penalty area and when Leverkusen do lose the ball he is more likely to do customary wing back things, dropping deep to create a four-man defense. His ball-recovering qualities have perhaps slipped under the radar, no wonder given the string of brilliant goals he has delivered either from dead balls or stepping into more central areas.

His return of 19 assists and in particular 12 goals (from 7.6 xG) speaks to what is probably an inevitable truth for a team that goes 51 games undefeated: plenty of their players have hit hot streaks in front of goal at a time when their opponents have not made the most of their chances. Xhaka's implausibly bending effort against Mainz, Florian Wirtz smacking the ball home against Werder Bremen and Grimaldo bending the ball from the left into the far right corner to blow away Union Berlin: how many stunning shots from deep have you seen on your social media this season? Bayer's shooting hand has been scorching over the last 10 months.

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Curiously it is only Victor Boniface that hasn't really blown the doors off his xG, at least in the Bundesliga. That isn't much of a problem when he is averaging 0.7 non-penalty xG per 90. The Nigerian has been limited to just 1553 minutes, the vast majority of which came from an adductor issue prior to the winter break. His physicality means he can excel with his back to goal but he is an extremely effective ball carrier too, averaging six take-ons per 90 and 1.3 chances created. Patrik Schick, Amine Adli and January loanee Borja Iglesias offered some of what Boniface does but having him at full tilt will offer Atalanta a much tougher test.

Then there is the guy, the homegrown (well since they snatched him from the Koln academy as a 16-year-old) superstar who, like Alonso, says he is more intent on making history with Leverkusen than following in the footsteps of Diaby, Kai Havertz or Michael Ballack away from the Bay Arena. Hoffman is the dual 10, Wirtz is the jewel 10. An outlet for ball progression, a carrier and creator in the final third, a decisive figure around the penalty area: the 21-year-old has all the qualities of an archetypal creator.

Wirtz doesn't just find his teammates, he also recovers the ball.  TruMedia

What makes him the lodestar for this Leverkusen side is his off ball work. His teammates don't have to accommodate Wirtz without the ball. If anything he leads the charge, competing in more duels than any other member of Werkself, making more ball recoveries in the final third than anyone in the Bundesliga. If that sort of player is creating six and a half shots for him and his teammates per 90 minutes, well then you're working with something special indeed.

The nitrous dropped onto the V12, Wirtz's rise to no longer be one of the world's best young players but simply one of its leading talents explains why Leverkusen have the talent to go unbeaten. There is one more ingredient to this superteam: the remorseless belief, perhaps now knowledge, that they will not lose. Even when they don't actually need a goal they keep chasing more. A goal down to Roma on the night but 3-2 up on aggregate in their Europa League semifinal, they chased parity, Stanisic went driving forward, showing staggering cool to take the ball at full pelt, put his defender on the floor and drive home an equalizer to make it 49 undefeated.

"You can't count us out, not even for a second," Frimpong said after that great escape. "No one gives up. Everyone knows that if we go down, we will get a goal." 

Seeing Roma, West Ham, Borussia Dortmund and Eintracht Frankfurt cave at the death is to get the sense that it isn't just Leverkusen who are waiting for the late dagger.

Leverkusen's manifest destiny, it would appear, is an undefeated treble, the sort of season that no one in Europe could have imagined Manchester City, Bayern Munich or Real Madrid delivering, let alone a team who were in the Bundesliga relegation zone 19 months ago. The team that once only knew how to lose now seems to view the idea that someone might beat them as simply unimaginable.