The job Alonso has done since arriving in Leverkusen in October 2022 is certainly impressive. He took over a team sitting second from bottom of the Bundesliga and led them into Europe via sixth-placed finish.
During the summer, he saw his best player, Moussa Diaby, sold to Aston Villa but helped ensure that the money raised was re-invested wisely. Indeed, Alonso was reportedly key to ensure that it wasn’t just promising players that were added to an already young squad; he knew that he would also need players that were as experienced as they were suited to his style of play.
Alex Grimaldo (28), Jonas Hofmann (31) and Granit Xhaka (31) all fit the bill perfectly, helping to add the kind of winning mentality that Alonso himself boasted as a player.
Leverkusen also sorely lacked an imposing and prolific centre-forward – Diaby was their top scorer in the Bundesliga last season with nine goals – so Victor Boniface was another crucial addition.
At €20 million (£17m/$21m), he was something of a gamble, given he’d only scored nine goals in the Belgian Pro League in 2022-23. However, Boniface proved the perfect player to spearhead Alonso’s new 3-4-2-1 formation, as he was directly involved in 24 goals, scoring 16 himself, before injury cruelly interrupted his campaign.
Boniface has missed Leverkusen’s last four games and is expected to be sidelined until April. His absence is undeniably a major blow to Bayer’s bid to win a first-ever Bundesliga. However, while Leverkusen’s title rivals, Bayern Munich, would undoubtedly collapse without Harry Kane, there is enough about Alonso’s thrilling team to suggest that they can cope without their talismanic No.9.
Outstanding in attack and defence
For starters, Leverkusen are not the best attacking team in Europe simply because of Boniface. Their goals have been divided up among a total of 15 players, 11 of whom have, rather incredibly, scored at least five times in all competitions.
This is a team that is proving the perfect mix of possession and penetration, one that knows not only how to hog the ball but to hurt you with it at the same time.
The width is provided by wing-backs Jeremie Frimpong and Grimaldo, who have scored 16 goals between them. Hoffman and Florian Wirtz (15 assists!) are flourishing as the twin No.10s, while Alonso’s double pivot of Xhaka and Exequiel Palacios boasts the right mix of aggression and composure required to control nearly every game.
The net result is that Leverkusen have scored 90 goals this season – more than any other club across the continent’s ‘Big Five’ leagues in spite of the fact that they have played far fewer games (30) than Liverpool (36) and Manchester City (35) in second and third, respectively.
However, Leverkusen would not be the only unbeaten team left in Europe right now if they couldn’t defend, too, and Alonso’s work in that regard has been outstanding.
He inherited a team from Gerardo Seoane that was terrible at the back, conceding on average two goals a game – and they shipped five in the Spaniard’s second league game in charge, against Eintracht Frankfurt. However, his switch to a three-man backline has proved a masterstroke, as underlined by this season’s tally of 14 clean sheets – only Inter, Real Sociedad and Lille have more.
‘Every detail is important’
So, what is the key to Alonso’s success? How has he taken a team from battling relegation to top of the table – as well as the semi-finals of the DFB-Pokal and the last 16 of the Europa League? Leverkusen CEO Fernando Carro says the 42-year-old’s “meticulous, analytical and self-assured approach” has really resonated with the players, which Grimaldo has confirmed.
“For Xabi, every training session and every detail is important,” the left wing-back told MARCA. “And then there is the way he conveys his ideas. He knows how to make the players understand everything he has in his head and gives them confidence. That is key for footballers to know what they have to do, and for them to be loose and calm.”
His status as one of the finest midfielders of his generation obviously helps in that regard. As Frimpong told the Associated Press, “You’ve got to respect him because he’s been there and done it. He’s won everything: Champions League and World Cup. As a footballer, to have a manager like we have, we’re very grateful. And he knows how to use the team. He knows our abilities, our weaknesses.”
Destined to be a coach
He’s acutely aware of his own limitations too. Talk to anyone who has dealt or worked with Alonso and they’ll tell you he’s one of the most humble characters you’ll ever come across, a “positive personality” that is always striving to better himself and improve his understanding of the game.
Which is really saying something, given it was abundantly obvious to those that coached him, such as Jose Mourinho, that he was always destined to become a manager because of the way in which he read the play before anyone else on the pitch.
Alonso says he has taken tactical elements from all of the legendary coaches he has played under, but it’s clear that he also fully appreciates the emotional and human side of the role.
“In football you have to have that knowledge of the game but not just about the data and the stats – which is so important,” he explained to Sky Germany. “You also have to deal with the [player as a] person, and to deal with the team in good and difficult moments.”
Turning doubters into believers
It was inevitable, then, that Alonso would emerge as Liverpool’s No.1 choice to succeed Klopp at the end of the season, as the word is that he will be allowed to leave the BayArena if his former club comes calling (particularly if he’s just banished the ‘Neverkusen’ nickname for good by winning the Bundesliga).
There are obviously those that suspect that he is not quite experienced enough for such a high-pressure position, and that he might not even be the right fit from a tactical perspective. Alonso’s Leverkusen are certainly a lot less likely than Liverpool to play long, raking passes from deep, preferring instead to play short, sharp passes in between the lines.
However, it’s worth remembering that Klopp’s very best side also had a very narrow front-line, relied on the full-backs to provide width and were utterly devastating in transitions (Mourinho has labelled Leverkusen the best team he’s seen on the counter-attack), while Alonso considers himself as tactically adaptable as a coach as he was as a player, so it’s exciting to think what he might achieve with Liverpool’s vast array of attacking options and ever-lengthening list of buccaneering full-backs.
Nonetheless, many will view Saturday’s Bundesliga showdown between Leverkusen and Bayern as something of an audition for Alonso, his big chance to not only take a significant step towards a historic title, but also cement his status as the leading candidate to take over at Anfield.
Whatever the result, though, the Liverpool fans watching on are unlikely to be disappointed, given Leverkusen are an exciting side roared on by a raucous crowd and led by a charismatic coach that has rapidly turned doubters into believers since being greeted with “scepticism” when he first arrived at the the club 18 months ago.
Should they win, though, expect more wild scenes of jubilation at the BayArena – and also among certain members of the Celebration Police back on Merseyside.