Xabi Alonso’s football addiction: Success puts Bayer Leverkusen manager on Liverpool, Real Madrid doorstep

LEVERKUSEN, Germany — “Talk, work, show, improve.”

With those four words close to his heart, Xabi Alonso has both Bayer Leverkusen and the Bundesliga as a whole on the precipice of a renaissance this season.

In his first managerial job, the Spaniard hasn’t intended to revolutionise German football, bringing a club starving for silverware close to exorcising old demons and putting himself on the possible cusp of the world’s most coveted job. All he wants to do is play football.

But at 41, those days are gone. So instead, he signed on to coach in a sleepy town outside Cologne, where in little more than 12 months he’s transformed the squad from relegation candidates to European juggernauts. Bringing a revolutionary tactical approach coupled with a relatively simple philosophy, Alonso is threatening to turn European football upside down.

The Sporting News traveled to Germany in November of 2023 to get a closer look at both Xabi Alonso’s meteoric rise to managerial prominence and how he could be ready to thrust himself towards the top of European football at just 41 years old.

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Xabi Alonso oozes a youthful love for football

The former midfield maestro couldn’t hold it back. At a round-table overlooking the BayArena pitch, Xabi Alonso was asked whether after six years of building the foundation of his managerial career, he misses playing.

He tried to say something less direct, but couldn’t. It just came out. “I shouldn’t say it, but yes, yes, I miss it,” Alonso admitted to The Sporting News and other select media. “When I prepare the games and I am on the sideline…it would be better to be in that position.”

Football is, quite simply, Alonso’s home. On the training pitch, he seems unable to walk anywhere without a ball at his feet, like a teenager might require a fidget toy to stay focused. And going even a step further, he often dons a colored pinny and joins the drills himself, coaching from the very heart of the exercise.

His itch for endless doses of football was evident as he admitted that while a desire to win in any way possible is necessary in this high-pressure environment, he gets the most personal satisfaction from seeing the everyday process pay off.

“Mostly the process,” Alonso said when asked what he preferred. “Sure you want to win, but if you win with a good performance, and you do what we have prepared to do, it feels better for sure. At the end our results…I’m not gonna say I prefer to to play well and lose, I know that is stupid. But if you deserve [the results] in the way you want them to, it feels better.”

A love for that process may feel simple to the man himself, but to others, it is perceived as a rabid attention to detail.

That has stuck with many of the players, including Granit Xhaka who said after the recent victory over Union Berlin that he appreciates that “Xabi is showing us many many small details on the pitch. For me, that’s something special.”

Xabi Alonso translates playing success to managerial career

Xabi Alonso was a special player — and he knows it. He had to know the question was coming, as it’s most certainly not the first time he’s been asked, yet it still produced an unmistakeable smile that he was useless to hold back.

“Are you still the best passer on the pitch?” He just couldn’t help it. “Yes,” Alonso muttered as he tried unsuccessfully to swallow the smile. He immediately clarified that Bayer Leverkusen boast “many good ones,” and the stats can easily support that follow-up claim, but his split second of involuntary honesty betrayed Alonso’s unending love of the game.

It is this deep devotion — and, by proxy, understanding — of football that allows him to transfer his title-winning abilities on the pitch to his new role on the touchline. Many at the club believe his illustrious career as a central midfielder contribute to his success as a manager.

“In the midfield, you’re always a connector between the offense and defense, you’re the connector and rhythm,” said Leverkusen managing director Simon Rolfes, who says defenders or attackers only focus on their portion of the overall system, but true central midfielders must learn it all.

“At the end, every player has to perform with his qualities: his passing, his running, dribbling, shooting goals…if you understand the game or what to do as a player within the bigger picture, that does not mean that you understand the big picture. There’s brilliant guys on the pitch, understanding their piece of puzzle in an amazing way, unbelievable. But to see the whole picture and to understand all pieces and put them in the right way together, it’s a different story.”

Bayer Leverkusen CEO Fernando Carro pointed out the exact same feature. “The position he played was a key position in the game itself. He was always a very intelligent player who understood the game and knew what the game needed. He was almost a little bit of a coach as a player already.

Carro explained how while identifying their next coach a year ago, he and Rolfes split up the job, with Rolfes scrutinizing Alonso’s football approach and Carro focused on the intangibles of man management. “A coach is a big leader, you not only have to understand football but understand people and leadership, and you have to understand what a dressing room needs.”

That was evident from the start, and it still bleeds through now. “For me, the priority is to get the commitment and involvement from the players,” Alonso said. “And with that, we will start getting a football idea, doing the next steps. But I think that first you need to persuade the players, you need to convince them that we can play good football.”

Alonso believes results are the biggest way to get through to players, as it was when he was on the pitch. “When I see the things that we are training and the things we were preparing, they made us win games. So that was a straight impact. We do this, it works. I convince you easier. If I tell you something and it doesn’t work, it’s gonna be more difficult to convince you.”

By that measure, the players shouldn’t need any more convincing. They are one of just three clubs from Europe’s top five leagues who have yet to be beaten in any competition this season, and their 34 goals across the first 11 Bundesliga matches of the season are the second-most of any Big 5 European team, two more than defending treble winners Manchester City who have played an extra game.

Yet his training philosophy is quite simple. “Talk, work, show, improve,” is what Alonso said he tells his players. “Do collective training, individual training. I don’t know if it’s a technique. I don’t know if there’s a name of the technique. It’s just face to face conversation.”

MORE: Full list of candidates for next Liverpool manager after Jurgen Klopp announcement

Xabi Alonso tactics, talent have transformed Bayer Leverkusen

Xabi Alonso may yearn for the days of pinging jaw-dropping passes around Anfield or the Bernabeu. But instead of allowing his obsession and love to tear him down after the end of his playing career, Alonso has, as Michael Caine famously advised, used the difficulty.

Having been coached by some of the best managers the modern game has to offer, the Spaniard has combined all the best parts of his former bosses and produced one of the most patchwork tactical revolutions in recent memory. Alonso’s tactics at Bayer Leverkusen this season take inspiration from all his greatest former managers — Pep Guardiola, Carlo Ancelotti, and Rafael Benitez.

Everyone at Bayer Leverkusen, including Alonso, promotes the idea that his 3-4-2-1 system is meant to be possession based. “The vision, how we want to play, also with the roots of Bayer, is to be dominant with the ball, technical, and intelligent,” Rolfes told The Sporting News.

Yet they all make sure to caveat that the idea of “possession based” football is not a perfect descriptor of their philosophy.

After one reporter at the BayArena roundtable suggested in passing that Alonso’s tactics display elements of Guardiola’s famous “tiki taka” style. Alonso leaped into action. “Not tiki taka” he interjected. “Many times tiki taka is a little bit defensive in possession. I’ve played in that, but we are…we have other things.”

And he’s absolutely correct. Watch Bayer Leverkusen for one moment, and sure, you’ll see some influence from his old La Liga days, but that is only a small portion of his approach. After all, Leverkusen play in the modern Bundesliga, where high-tempo counter-attacking and Gegenpressing are all the rage — so he’s, in essence, married the two.

“There are some parts that I could say similar,” Alonso said of if his team has elements of Gegenpressing, but that’s as far as he would go. “In the tempo and the construction of our game, we, we try to be patient. We don’t like to be too, too crazy, too hectic.”

In today’s German football landscape, that’s almost considered heresy, but you’d be jumping to conclusions if you said Alonso has tried to force a German club to discard its identity. Far from it. Instead, he has produced a brilliant amalgamation of styles — Leverkusen have completed the fourth-most passes in the attacking half of any major European side, and yet they still boast the Bundesliga’s highest ratio of defensive actions outside their own third per opponent pass. Leverkusen keep possession and choke the life out of a match, and should they turn it over, they converge on the ball like a swarm of wasps.

To execute this strategy, Alonso has managed to craft a squad tailored perfectly to this system. Devastating wing-back Jeremie Frimpong, visionary attacking midfielder Florian Wirtz, and reliable centre-back Jonathan Tah are all designed for their various roles in this style of play — or maybe, this style of play is perfectly designed for the squad at hand. To that effect, adding Granit Xhaka, Victor Boniface, and Alex Grimaldo this summer proved a masterstroke, as they filled every gap in the squad.

What do all those players have in common? “Football intelligence,” claims Alonso. “I think that we have signed very strategic players to give us a stability, to play more efficient and more consistent in our football. That gives you the possibility to be more regular in the Bundesliga to be more regular.”

Yet even he has been blown away by his players’ ability to perform with such consistency. “We were not expecting to be this super regular, to be honest,” Alonso admitted. “But let’s try to keep that way.”

Xabi Alonso, Florian Wirtz, Victor Boniface of Bayer Leverkusen split

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Xabi Alonso to Liverpool or Real Madrid makes too much sense

Regardless of this season’s eventual outcome, it seems that Xabi Alonso is headed for even grander shores, and soon.

His former club Real Madrid was thought have a managerial opening at the end of the season as Carlo Ancelotti was heavily linked to the Brazilian national team, but that talk came to an abrupt halt after Ancelotti signed a new contract in late 2023. But just a month later, Jurgen Klopp’s shocking announcement that he would leave Liverpool at the end of the year reignited the conversation of Xabi Alonso’s candidacy for a top European job, and of all the available candidates mentioned most in various reports, Alonso is by far the most sensible.

Clearly capable across all facets of management, it would seem ludicrous for Madrid to instead choose the likes of Pepijn Lijnders, who while serving Klopp nobly as his right-hand man, is wholly inexperienced as a head man himself.

Whether Xabi Alonso leaves Germany or not, though, Leverkusen will feel his influence for years to come. Looking to shake the painful “Neverkusen” nickname earned more than 20 years ago from a host of second-place finishes across multiple competitions, their fans long for silverware to exorcise those demons. Yet even if they fall short as this season progresses, they can take lessons and benefits from their progress.

Leverkusen aren’t too worried about if — and likely when — giant clubs come calling. “We want success,” said Carro.

“If we have success then we know our players and coaches, everyone will want them,” Carro said. “I think that Xabi is very young and has a lot of time, he might end up at Bayern Munich or Liverpool or Real Madrid, but at the moment he’s here and only focused on here, and the rest doesn’t interest him at the moment and doesn’t interest us as well.”

While Rolfes can’t help but be intoxicated by the early season success at a club that is starved for silverware for reasons beyond just a long drought, he also knows that the rise in stature brought on by this season’s results will be an asset regardless of the eventual outcome.

“It would mean a lot,” Rolfes admitted of a potential trophy this season. “Because it’s evidence, proof of a successful way, and for sure at the end it’s special. But we can play a successful season also without trophies.

“It would mean a lot, but I think our development of the club is not only connecting to this. We are improving in so many areas, not only in the sport areas, to really create an ambitious, modern, innovative football club. And this way we will go, but on this way, we try also to get some silver.”

Sitting atop the Bundesliga, with four wins from four Europa League matches, and alive in a wide-open DFB-Pokal field, trophies feel within their grasp. Whether Alonso will be torn from his first top-flight managerial home this summer or later, the Spaniard will surely hold a special place for the club at which the world witnessed his emergence as a managerial force.

Or, as Xhaka describes Bayer Leverkusen: “It’s an amazing club with big history, let’s make bigger history if we can.” All it will take, according to his manager, is four things — talk, work, show, improve.

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