Xabi Alonso's arrival in the Bundesliga has made huge waves, seizing the attention of German football enthusiasts. Alonso's association with the league predominantly revolved around his later years as a midfielder at Bayern Munich, a stint that left a lasting imprint. His experience as a two-time UEFA Champions League winner with Liverpool and Real Madrid preceded his spell in Munich, where he featured in 117 games for the all-time European champions between 2014 and 2017 before hanging up his boots.
Alonso's transition from player to coach sparked intrigue, with Bundesliga clubs such as Borussia Mönchengladbach and Bayer Leverkusen tracking his progress while he took his first managerial steps, overseeing Real Sociedad's reserve team for three seasons.
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When Leverkusen came calling in the autumn of 2022, it was during a tumultuous period for the club, as a floundering start to the 2022-23 campaign led to the exit of head coach Gerardo Seoane. Recent years have highlighted the stark difference between successful footballers and their prowess as coaches. However, Alonso possesses that innate gift that transcends from the pitch into the dugout.
After revitalising the team following his arrival roughly 14 months ago, Alonso went on to transforming them into a serious contender for Bayern Munich's throne. With 12 match days played, Leverkusen are currently two points ahead of Alonso's former club. The two teams played to a 2-2 draw in mid-September and seemed too close to separate. That game has been the only time this year that Leverkusen have dropped points in the Bundesliga, as they have won the other 11 games, only conceding 10 goals so far.
Alonso has naturally benefited from the fact that several of Leverkusen's signings, most notably Victor Boniface, Granit Xhaka, Jonas Hofmann, and Álex Grimaldo, acclimatised to the club and Alonso's system effortlessly, becoming pillars of the Basque's starting XI. "To prepare for this year, we started thinking about these strategic players in the strategic positions, who could make us and where we could be better," Alonso said during a recent media roundtable.
What's striking about the way Leverkusen play the vast majority of their games is that it is reminiscent of how Alonso acted as a midfield conductor during this heyday. Bayer are usually under control of the ball and the tempo of the game, while methodically progressing up the field.
Their build-up play can be compared to an accordion as they usually pass the ball a couple of yards forward, making the opponents backtrack to cover the space behind the receiver before the ball is played back to Xhaka or Exequiel Palacios, the two centre midfielders, or one of the three centre-backs. That way, Leverkusen keep relatively safe control of the ball and still push the opponents back to the point where Xhaka and his teammates can enter the final third and have the other team in a state of reactiveness.
"Passing quality gives us a lot of control, especially in the first structure, the defenders with the midfielders," Alonso explained. "But after that, we need a change of tempo. We need to be right there behind the midfielders."
"And then different things need to happen. The talent needs to arise. And those things that you can't train that much, that are the natural talent of your players. But until there, we try to give this control, pass movement, and to know where not to go too early, but to go in the right moment in those positions," Alonso added.
Once in the final third, Leverkusen are usually not simply crossing the ball through the air into the penalty area, even though Boniface, their new centre-forward who was signed for a transfer fee of €20.5 million from Belgian side Royale Union Saint-Gilloise and has essentially replaced the talented, yet injury prone Patrik Schick, can be dangerous in aerials. Leverkusen may complete the most passes into the final third among all 18 Bundesliga teams, 48.5 per game, but they only play a little less than 13 crosses over 90 minutes, per FBref.com.
What Alonso's players prefer to do when they enter the final third is to penetrate the dangerous zones creatively. With Florian Wirtz, Bayer possess one of the most talented attacking midfielders in Europe, whose greatest strength is to receive and keep the ball between the lines and assist his teammates through tight pockets.
"I was encouraged to have my own criteria on the pitch, to take my own decisions," Alonso said. "That's something that I really push, and I want to invite my players that they have their own decision-making. It's not about being robots. It's not about 'we always have to do this, and if you don't do this, you are going to be on the bench.'"
As a player, Alonso was not the flashiest midfielder, but one who always seemed thoughtful in his approach to initiate plays and put his teammates in the right positions to progress ball possession. He perfected the move of dropping between the centre-backs and thus outmaneuvering high presses, while also having the defensive awareness to avoid exposing too much real estate in the middle of the park that otherwise could have been used by opponents to set up transition attacks. Alonso might not have filled as many highlight reels as some of his former teammates such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Fernando Torres, and Ángel Di María, but he was among their greatest helpers.
Leverkusen had lacked this sort of anchor midfielder for several years and are lucky to have found one in Xhaka during the summer transfer window. Xhaka, who played for Mönchengladbach in the Bundesliga between 2012 and 2016, has developed into a competent playmaker during the second half of his seven-year stint at Arsenal. While it might be foolish to argue that Xhaka is close to the player Alonso was once upon a time, he is in a way serving the Alonso role in that he secures possession, always keeps an eye on how the opponents are positioned, and shows great field awareness once he receives a pass.
It certainly helps Xhaka and even more so less experienced players that, to a degree, Alonso continues to think like a player and remains keen to be part of training exercises. The 42-year-old looks like he is still close to the shape he was when he finished his career at Bayern. With that being said, while the Basque has been successful in pushing Leverkusen to the top of the Bundesliga table, he has a lot of room for improvement and is nowhere near a finished product.
He acknowledged the fact that he is developing with the team. "Just in one year and one month, I've learned a lot in both ways in the man management way," he saids. "In trying to be a leader, because you need to be a leader, and how to be a leader in different circumstances, when you need to push when you need to be a little bit softer when you need to not let them relax. Like the situation right now, if we drop our level a little bit, we have no chance."
Alonso said that he sees how other Bundesliga teams are trying to get better and closer to Leverkusen's level. One of these teams is Borussia Dortmund, who are currently fourth in the league, trailing 10 points behind Leverkusen, but have recently shown in the Champions League how strongly their squad can perform. Bayer will meet Dortmund in a highly anticipated game at the BayArena on Sunday, which will be another tough test for Alonso's players and his brand of football.
"We were not a possession team last year. We were a transition team, we were a counter team," Alonso explained. "That was completely different to this year, for example. But to be able to make that effort, to try to learn or to convince the players how to do that, it made me a better coach, probably. But my idea was to update and to evolve in our game." That has worked so far, and Alonso is thereby proving what he may be able to do from the sideline in the future.
However, this would also pique the interest of top-tier clubs, potentially reuniting him with former employers Liverpool, Real Madrid, or Bayern Munich. His stint with the Rhineland-based team is likely only the beginning of his coaching career that may lead him to places very familiar to him, including the top of winners' podiums.
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