Xabi Alonso's stellar CV commands instant respect and he can still ping an inch-perfect pass… the Spanish coach is excelling with Bayer Leverkusen unbeaten this season and it could lead him back to Real Madrid or Liverpool
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Xabi Alonso's stellar CV commands instant respect and he can still ping an inch-perfect pass… the Spanish coach is excelling with Bayer Leverkusen unbeaten this season and it could lead him back to Real Madrid or Liverpool

Dec 10, 2023

The problem with making an unbeaten start to the season, of sitting top of both the Bundesliga and your Europa League group while playing eye-catching football is that people tend to notice.

It’s why Bayer Leverkusen coach Xabi Alonso is top of Real Madrid‘s wish list to replace Brazil-bound Carlo Ancelotti next summer and touted as a potential replacement for Jurgen Klopp at Liverpool one day.

The 41-year-old former midfielder – who won 17 major trophies with Spain, Real Madrid, Liverpool and Bayern Munich during an illustrious playing career – is now the most exciting up-and-coming coach in world football.

The hope in this particular corner of Germany is that they can shed the club’s cruel ‘Neverkusen’ nickname by winning a first trophy since 1993 before Alonso is spirited away.

It stems from the 2001-02 campaign when a talented Leverkusen team finished a point behind Borussia Dortmund in the Bundesliga, lost to Schalke in the DFB-Pokal final and were beaten by a Zinedine Zidane-inspired Real Madrid in the Champions League final.

Xabi Alonso has overseen an outstanding start to the season with unbeaten Bayer Leverkusen

Xabi Alonso has overseen an outstanding start to the season with unbeaten Bayer Leverkusen

Leverkusen celebrate one of their four goals against Union Berlin in the Bundesliga last week

Leverkusen celebrate one of their four goals against Union Berlin in the Bundesliga last week

Leverkusen sit top of the Bundesliga table at present, having won 10 of their 11 matches (table before Bayern Munich's clash with Cologne on Friday)

Leverkusen sit top of the Bundesliga table at present, having won 10 of their 11 matches (table before Bayern Munich’s clash with Cologne on Friday)

When Alonso arrived in North Rhine-Westphalia last October, replacing Gerardo Seoane, a Leverkusen team designed to challenge for Champions League qualification sat second bottom.

13 months on and their fortunes have been transformed. Entering the international break, Leverkusen sat two points ahead of Bayern Munich at the top of the Bundesliga.

The only points dropped came in a 2-2 draw with the champions of the past 11 years at the Allianz Arena, when Exequiel Palacios converted a 94th-minute penalty.

They have won all four of their Europa League group games and have a golden chance in the Pokal. Through to the last-16, where they’ll host second-tier Paderborn, a path has been cleared by Bayern’s shock exit to third division Saarbrucken.

Alonso won’t be caught getting carried away, of course, but Leverkusen may not have a better chance to win something.

Though reserved and humble, the first thing that works in Alonso’s favour is his CV. Winning everything on offer in football as a player does command respect from players.

Although six years on from retirement, Alonso has very much still got it. A video emerged from Leverkusen’s training ground showing him insouciantly pinging passes onto a sixpence during attacking drills.

A deep tactical thinker, Alonso has transformed Leverkusen's fortunes in the space of a year

A deep tactical thinker, Alonso has transformed Leverkusen’s fortunes in the space of a year

The Spanish midfielder was well accustomed to the biggest clubs and games as a player

The Spanish midfielder was well accustomed to the biggest clubs and games as a player

He was on the receiving end of Nigel de Jong's kung-fu kick in the 2010 World Cup final

He was on the receiving end of Nigel de Jong’s kung-fu kick in the 2010 World Cup final

But Alonso isn’t doing this to show-off, which may annoy his charges, but just to be in the thick of the action.

The Spaniard isn’t a rousing orator like Klopp and isn’t a control freak who must have his say on every element of how the club is run. He’s happiest in his tracksuit mulling over tactics and team selection.

But his quiet dedication – Alonso had already mastered the German language and grafts long hours at the training ground – has proved infectious. His players want to win for him.

Alonso recently challenged his players to improve their effectiveness from set-pieces and rewarded them with a couple of days off when they did.

Having worked under some of the greatest-ever managers – Pep Guardiola, Ancelotti and Rafa Benitez – Alonso seems to cherry-pick elements from all of them.

He isn’t married to just one way of playing and the nature of his Leverkusen team has evolved even over the course of a year, the accent changing gradually from conceding fewer goals to a more aesthetically-pleasing style.

But really all that matters is finding ways to win games. As Leverkusen midfielder Granit Xhaka, the former Arsenal captain, said: ‘That’s what distinguishes a top team – that you also win games where maybe you don’t shine.’

He started his coaching career by returning to Real Sociedad as their B team coach

He started his coaching career by returning to Real Sociedad as their B team coach

Alonso worked under Carlo Ancelotti at Real and Bayern - now he could replace the Italian

Alonso worked under Carlo Ancelotti at Real and Bayern – now he could replace the Italian 

His preferred system is a 3-4-2-1 and Alonso has placed a big accent on consistency. That’s of both formation and team selection – Alonso has made only seven changes to his Bundesliga starting XI all season, naming the same team in eight of 11 league games.

There is naturally some rotation in the Europa League though Victor Boniface, Jonathan Tah, Xhaka and Florian Wirtz started both last Thursday’s 1-0 away win over Qarabag and Sunday’s 4-0 thrashing of Union Berlin, with a lengthy round trip to Azerbaijan thrown in.

We usually see a three-man central defence in front of goalkeeper Lukas Hradecky. It’s designed to shift across and cover the spaces left when wing-backs Alex Grimaldo and Jeremie Frimpong charge forward.

Xhaka and Palacios, the two central midfielders, can drop in then ahead of then is a double 10 of Wirtz and Jonas Hofmann behind forward Boniface.

Goals actually come from all over the side – Leverkusen have 11 different league scorers so far this season – and only Bayern have conceded fewer goals so far (nine to Leverkusen’s 10).

Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti is expected to leave the club at the end of the season

Real Madrid boss Carlo Ancelotti is expected to leave the club at the end of the season

Former Real star Alonso has been viewed as the perfect candidate to succeed Ancelotti

Former Real star Alonso has been viewed as the perfect candidate to succeed Ancelotti

While Leverkusen aim to dominate possession, they’re also direct and effective when gaps do appear, with Frimpong and Grimaldo offering potency out wide.

Alonso honed all this in his former job coaching Real Sociedad’s B team, whom he led into the second division in Spain for the first time since 1962.

While they came straight back down, Alonso won many plaudits while figuring out his approach to coaching, turning down job offers because he felt them too premature.

But Leverkusen has proved the ideal fit. His first summer saw French winger Moussa Diaby sold to Aston Villa for £52million, allowing them to reinvest in players suited to his vision.

They paid £21m to buy Xhaka, 31, from Arsenal and have been rewarded with not only dressing room leadership and experience but a revitalised player.

Xhaka has played more final third passes (127) and more progressive passes (119) than any other player in Europe’s top five leagues this season.

Granit Xhaka has proved influential for Leverkusen since arriving at the club from Arsenal

Granit Xhaka has proved influential for Leverkusen since arriving at the club from Arsenal

Jeremie Frimpong charges forward down the wing during Sunday's 4-0 win over Union Berlin

Jeremie Frimpong charges forward down the wing during Sunday’s 4-0 win over Union Berlin

Forward Victor Boniface has impressed since arriving from Belgian football over the summer

Forward Victor Boniface has impressed since arriving from Belgian football over the summer

Grimaldo was a free from Benfica but has excelled on the left, while Hofmann, who came in from Borussia Monchengladbach, offers more defensive cover than Diaby did.

Nigerian forward Boniface, 22, was bought from Union Saint-Gilloise in Belgium and offers threat with his explosive pace up top. He has scored 11 times in 15 matches.

The Alonso blend is good and heads are being turned.

Although he recently signed a contract until 2026, Real are expected to make an approach for Alonso next summer. It will prove difficult to resist.

If they don’t come in for Alonso, future interest from Europe’s elite clubs is assured. Leverkusen hope and pray he can deliver some long overdue success before he goes.

IT’S ALL KICKING OFF! 

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