Xabi Alonso and why everyone wants Bayer Leverkusen as a coach | ET REALITY


From the relegation zone to level on points with Bayern Munich at the top of the Bundesliga, Xabi Alonso has led Bayer Leverkusen on a great journey in his 12 months as coach. Some sort of rebound was almost inevitable given the team’s talent, but the complete change in the team’s attitude under the Spaniard has been nothing short of remarkable.

Since the club acquired the unwanted nickname “Neverkusen” after three runners-up finishes in 2002, Bayer was synonymous with poor performance and a lack of resilience. Now, however, they are coming back from a late goal against serial champions Bayern to score an even later equalizer and generally playing with an arrogance befitting the most balanced and confident team in the league.

Sports director Simon Rolfes does not try to downplay the coach’s role in this transformation. “There is seriousness and maturity in our football that reflects Xabi as a person,” says the 41-year-old. The Athletic. “He is a natural competitor and winner. He has instilled a battle-hardened attitude and fighting spirit into the team.”

Rolfes points to February’s knockout stage victory against Monaco in the Europa League as a key game in lifting spirits last season. “We were the better team in the first leg at home, but we lost 3-2 due to two late goals.

“In Monaco we were the best team again and we should have won in 90 minutes. But we had to go to extra time and then to penalties, after having missed the last seven penalties in a row. Everything was set for another unfortunate ending. It seemed like things were going against us all season. But we scored all five and won! That was an important moment for the team and for all of us.” Bayer narrowly lost against José Mourinho’s Roma in the semi-final.

Tactically, Alonso has been inspired by many of the different ideas he found playing with Pep Guardiola, José Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Rafael Benítez. His first move was to stabilize the defense, playing on the counterattack. Once they were more solid out of possession, Alonso focused on improving Leverkusen’s quality on the ball. This year they have taken another big step forward, they are becoming more and more visible and now they play the best football in Germany.

“Xabi is not a dogmatic coach,” says Rolfe. “When necessary, the team knows how to defend or be pragmatic in certain situations, it is not always good preparation from behind. Finding a way to win is what matters to him, more than anything.”

Alonso transmits instructions to Jonas Hofmann (Christof Koepsel/Getty Images)

However, there is a sense that Alonso’s philosophy is firmly rooted in his development at his boyhood club, Real Sociedad. He had his first opportunities as a player and as a coach at a club that has an emphasis on producing technically talented players to play controlled, possession-based football.

go deeper

He led Real’s B team to promotion to the Spanish second division for the first time in 60 years. Although they were relegated at the end of that campaign, there are caveats, specifically his youth squad, which had an average age of 21.4). His inexperienced team still surpassed 70 percent possession in seven different games.

At Leverkusen, his steady improvement has coincided with greater control in his preparation over the last calendar year, with a dizzying start to the season based on passing-heavy attacking moves.

As the scatterplot below illustrates, no team has averaged more passes per sequence through the first five games. They have even more than Bayern. Leverkusen’s slightly greater “direct speed” (how quickly the ball moves upfield) suggests they can also be quick and incisive when space opens up.

Summer signings have also accelerated Leverkusen’s progress, with tactically versatile players enabling a new system.

Full-back Alejandro Grimaldo has given Alonso an attacking threat down the left side, after generating 12.7 expected assists (a measure of the quality of chances a player creates) last season at Benfica, a figure that only five players in the top European league. league seven could improve, along with defensive solidity, allowing Leverkusen to adopt a solid back four shape in the build-up.

Centre-backs Edmond Tapsoba, Jonathan Tah and Odilon Kossounou move away, allowing the dangerous Jeremie Frimpong to move forward more freely.

In the middle, the experienced Jonas Hofmann is a talented coach who can combine with Frimpong and cover his teammate defensively, while Granit Xhaka has reinforced a solid double pivot, encouraging the creative presence of Florian Wirtz to move. the third attacker in search of the ball, as shown below.

Leverkusen scored their second goal against Heidenheim with this same structure at the weekend, when Hofmann dove behind to receive a perfect pass from Exequiel Palacios.

There’s also the relentless Victor Boniface, who has averaged an incredible 7.6 shots per 90 minutes since joining the Bundesliga, in addition to his explosive running off the ball. Leverkusen are a powerful attacking force.

go deeper

“Having a deep theoretical knowledge of football and a superstar aura for winning everything as a player is a ridiculously powerful combination for a coach,” says a senior Bayer official. The Athletic on condition of anonymity, maintained to protect relationships. “He’s done it all, but he has the work ethic and humility of a total rookie.” Alonso is the first in and the last out every day, mulling over tactical details for hours on end.

One employee who saw him address the annual staff meeting described him as a “rather dry” speaker who is neither a born entertainer nor a tactile ‘Menschenfanger’ (man-hunter) like Jurgen Klopp. Unlike some of his predecessors at Bayer, he has shown little interest in club departments that do not have a direct impact on football. He only really cares about the game.

But that kind of determination has also inspired staff members at a club that has sometimes been derisively described as a ‘Wohlfuhloase’ – an oasis of comfort – due to the relative lack of pressure to succeed. Alonso has managed to energize the Leverkusen staff with his professionalism, charm and hunger for success. “You just believe every word he says, because of who he is and the way he says it,” the employee says. “You think it will bring success. Because he does.”

go deeper

The players are equally fascinated. It doesn’t hurt that Alonso continues to be the best footballer on the pitch after six years of retirement. He regularly performs 50-meter diagonals that land on the desired blade of grass and makes vertical passes that cut lines like a freshly sharpened yanagiba knife, all without breaking a drop of sweat.

Some people at the club initially feared that his fantastic technique might intimidate the team or, worse, annoy them. They remembered 1990 world champion Pierre Littbarski in his role as assistant coach to Berti Vogts at Leverkusen in 2001, showing off his free kick skills and mocking the players for not meeting his standards. “You have to take off the lasts of your boots,” the former midfielder used to joke. Until one day, a Bayer player sought revenge and ‘accidentally’ knocked down Littbarski in a training match.

That won’t happen to Alonso, and not just because he’s too skilled to be caught out by a stingy tackle. The team respects and admires him too much. “There are some ex-professionals who try to impress the players with their ball skills as they don’t have much else to offer in the way of training,” says the club’s senior manager. “Xabi doesn’t need that. He simply makes a spectacular pass to convey the idea of ​​it (as if someone drew an arrow on the tactics board) and raise the quality of the training exercise.”

Alonso’s brilliant playing career earns him respect (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

There is an air of focus and commitment to the cause that has not always been seen on the training grounds in front of the BayArena stadium. Alonso moves a lot, talks a lot and sometimes shouts if he feels a specific message needs emphasis. Recently, he challenged his team to be more effective on set pieces. When they improved properly, he rewarded them with two days of rest.

“He is a very intelligent man, with sensitive antennas that capture all types of signals,” says another Bayer source who works daily with Alonso. He notes that the coach makes sure that some players whose contributions risk being ignored by the public get the attention they deserve and a little extra attention from him.

Obviously, Alonso is not the only reason for Bayer’s positive momentum. He has a strong relationship with Leverkusen’s Spanish general manager, Fernando Carro, and with Rolfes, a former central midfielder who is the same age as Alonso and shares many of his footballing beliefs. His ideas are also closely aligned with Leverkusen’s transfer policy.

The club’s scouting has been formidable for decades, but last summer they were especially clever. The sale of French winger Moussa Diaby to Aston Villa for €60m (£52m, $63m) allowed them to invest in a couple of more experienced professionals to complement the pool of talented youngsters.

Former Arsenal midfielder Xhaka and German international Hofmann, both 31, have brought character and mentality as well as quality to the dressing room. Grimaldo, 28, is also cited as a hugely positive influence behind the scenes. And furthermore, it is always useful to add a dynamic goalscorer like Boniface (six goals in five league games), signed for €20.5 million from Union Saint-Gilloise.

Choosing the right club to succeed is a coach’s most underrated skill. Alonso has been especially careful in that regard. He took advantage of this time to learn the trade in three years at Real Sociedad B and turned down the opportunity to coach Borussia Mönchengladbach in the spring of 2021; He knew from his time at Bayern as a player (2014-2017) that Leverkusen was better. fit.

Bayer is a relatively wealthy club committed to attacking football, but does not operate in a cacophony of media noise, due to the small size of the city. It is an ideal place for a young manager to take his next steps. The only question now is how long Bayer will be able to keep up with a coach who is going far.

Rolfes says they are not concerned about reports linking Alonso with the Real Madrid job. “I don’t care about rumors about our players or coaches. If they are good and successful, others will take note. In April, there were many stories that Alonso would leave this summer. “It didn’t happen.” Instead, he signed a new contract until 2026.

Bayer is not naive. If Alonso is offered the job at the Bernabéu for next season and he decides that he is ready to accept it, the Germans will not keep him against his will and will try to manage that process in a way that minimizes interruptions. But there is still hope that it will not end in May. Bayer has not received any indication that Alonso wants to move on. And from everything they’ve seen so far, he’s not a man in a hurry.

(Top photo: Getty Images)

Leave a Comment