Xabi Alonso coaching style, tactics, formation at Bayer Leverkusen: Manager turns down Liverpool opportunity

Jurgen Klopp shocked the football world in late January when he announced that he would be leaving Liverpool at the end of the season, set to embark on a new chapter in his career and life.

Having led Liverpool for the last nine years, Klopp felt like a staple at the club and it was difficult to imagine him ever at another position in his career, and retirement felt early at 56 years old. But now, with his future suddenly anyone’s guess, the Reds are forced to look for a new manager.

Reports for some time linked the club with Bayer Leverkusen boss Xabi Alonso, a former Liverpool midfielder who spent five seasons at Anfield, winning the Champions League and FA Cup during his time there. The 42-year-old is inexperienced at the top level but has seen instant success leading the German club, could be a leading candidate for the position.

Given his exceptional career as a player and the trophies he won with Liverpool, as well as later in his career with Real Madrid, Bayern Munich, and the Spanish national team, he would certainly seem to be a sensible candidate. However, after signing on at Bayer Leverkusen for another season, fans of those teams will have to wait for him to become available for a move from the reigning German league winners. So is he ready for a step up?

The Sporting News brings you all you need to know about how the former midfielder manages and how he’s performed in charge of the Bundesliga side.

MORE: The Sporting News traveled to Germany to chat with Xabi Alonso in Leverkusen

Xabi Alonso coaching style, tactics, preferred formation at Bayer Leverkusen

In his short time at Bayer Leverkusen, Xabi Alonso has largely utilised a 3-4-2-1 formation, which is overloaded to one side. In possession, this results in one wing-back dropping into the back line, while the wing-back on the opposite side pushes extremely high almost as a striker, leaving that side’s centre-back to play a full-back role.

Twenty-two-year-old Dutch right-back Jeremie Frimpong has thrived in the elevated role, becoming a true attacking force to help the team transition forward.

Jeremie Frimpong of Bayer Leverkusen stat radar 2022/23

Eleven Stats

Alonso has organised his build-up to invite pressure to spring their attack, thereby opening up the opponent for space to play through. This is also a tactical component of rising managerial star Roberto De Zerbi at Brighton and Hove Albion — another man linked with the Liverpool job.

Once Bayer Leverkusen get forward, they look to exploit the space they’ve coaxed the opponent into conceding and use the pace of Frimpong and others to speed past the pressuring defenders and accelerate into space. Moussa Diaby was key to this approach last season, before he was sold to Aston Villa for €55 million ($58.4 million).

Florian Wirtz is also a key part of this tactical approach, recovering from an ACL injury last year to boost the attack. Despite not having extreme top speed, he sprints very often and has a near-endless energy reserve, in the 82nd percentile for accelerations amongst Bundesliga wingers, according to ElevenStats.com.

A Leverkusen winger will drop to receive the ball, pulling his defender into a stretched position along with it. He will then lay off to a paired midfielder and immediately accelerate into the space created by his trailing defender, receiving the ball one a one-two and bypassing his defender, creating a transitional play in the process as the defensive team attempts to patch the leak.

Below, you can see the average position of the Bayern Leverkusen starters in the 2-2 draw against Bayern Munich early in the 2023/24 season. You’ll notice the very high and wide position of wing-back Frimpong (No. 30), while his counterpart on the opposite flank, Alex Grimaldo (No. 20) is slightly further back and pinched, often invited to cut inside and shoot from outside the top of the penalty area. Consequently, the back three are also overloaded to the right to account for the space behind Frimpong bombing forward.

Bayer Leverkusen vs Bayern average positions

Opta Stats

This overload to the right causes an unbalanced formation and confuses an opponent who must themselves adjust to the uncommon distribution. Below are Bayern Munich’s average positions from that same match, which shows how they were forced to keep Alphonso Davies (No. 19), a very attack-minded left-back, in a muted defensive position to cover for this, while their midfield was slightly shaded to the left as well.

Bayern Munich vs Bayer Leverkusen average positions

Opta Stats

In his 3-4-2-1, Alonso utilises a counter-press to put opponents under threat on the ball and generate turnovers high up the pitch. With this, Alonso’s Leverkusen side thrives in transitional phases, using space created by opponents either pressing or possessing to attack at pace. The press isn’t overtly aggressive or high in its positioning, but instead uses a 3-2 box in midfield to force opponents to pass the ball wide, and then springs a trap on unsuspecting full-backs.

While building from the back, Alonso will instruct a central defender to step forward into midfield, drawing opponents centrally and affording the wing-backs space out wide. Once they break the initial line of defence, Leverkusen look to play their two No. 10s who can then either drive towards goal themselves or find the wing-backs in advanced positions.

Bayer Leverkusen are amongst the top teams in Europe in passing, but also remain high amongst defensive actions per opposition pass, indicating they still play a high intensity counter-press when the opponent has the ball. They rank last in crosses attempted, indicating they prefer to use their width to work the ball back centrally instead of whipping crosses into the box.

Xabi Alonso coaching career, resume, teams managed

Alonso has not been in management for long, starting his journey in the dugout in 2018 as a youth coach for Real Madrid, having retired from playing the previous year.

After a season in Madrid, he moved on to manage Real Sociedad B, where he began as a player during his football career. He spent three seasons crafting his management style there before looking for a senior professional job.

German club Bayer Leverkusen needed a new manager after a dreadful start to the 2022 season, and Alonso stepped in to help Die Werkself turn things around. He got off to a good start with a 4-0 win over Schalke, and he went on to lead Leverkusen to a sixth-place finish in the Bundesliga in 2022/23, qualifying for the Europa League in the process.

Last season, Leverkusen reached the Europa League semifinals, losing narrowly over two legs to Roma, managed by Jose Mourinho, Alonso’s former Real Madrid coach.

There was reported interest from Tottenham Hotspur in summer 2023 before Alonso signed a new contract with Leverkusen that runs until 2026. After five league games of the new season, they are level with Bayern Munich on 13 points at the top of the table, having drawn 2-2 with the reigning champions in September.

Records updated as of May 1, 2024

Team Years Wins Draws Losses
Real Madrid (youth) 2018-2019
Real Sociedad B 2019-2022 40 23 35
Bayer Leverkusen 2022-present 55 18 10

Will Xabi Alonso be next Liverpool manager?

It certainly seemed for a while like there was a distinct possibility that Xabi Alonso could be the next Liverpool manager, given the other available options, and the easy match in both tactical style and personal history.

On September 25, it was reported by Radio Marca in Spain that Alonso had been chosen as top target to succeed Carlo Ancelotti at Real Madrid next season, with Ancelotti at the time thought to be departing for the Brazil national team at the end of the year. Given his connection to the club as a former player and youth team manager, and his commitment to a positive style of football, it is an appointment that would likely generate some excitement, even if the 41-year-old remains largely inexperienced as an elite-level manager.

However, Ancelotti surprised by signing a new contract at Real Madrid in late December of 2023, ending speculation of his departure for Brazil, and thus ending talk of Alonso moving back to Spain for next season.

Alonso was previously linked with the Tottenham job before Ange Postecoglou was hired, but he said his focus was on Bayer Leverkusen for at least one more season. “Rumours are normal but we still have a lot to achieve,” Alonso said of the Spurs talk. “That’s why my head is 100% here for the last few months. And my head is also 100% here for next season.”

Brighton boss Roberto De Zerbi is another to be linked with the Liverpool job, having also been in contention for the Real Madrid position as well. Cadena SER in Spain reported that the Italian was under consideration, even if Alonso would was thought to represent a more obvious choice given his links to the club.

Ultimately, Xabi Alonso ruled himself of not only the Liverpool job but all immediate openings, announcing in late March that he would remain at Bayer Leverkusen for another season, a huge boost to the German club as they look to defend their league title and make another European push, this time in the Champions League. He will be hoping to prove their success this year was more than just a one-year flash in the pan, and that both he and the players in the squad are capable of reprising their achievements and performances.

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