Forget Xabi Alonso - the dream Jürgen Klopp successor Liverpool can land instead this summer

Xabi Alonso is staying at Bayer Leverkusen next season - we look at the manager Liverpool should turn to next.
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The battle for Xabi Alonso seems to be over before it ever really began. The Bayer Leverkusen manager has confirmed that instead of deciding between Liverpool and Bayern Munich, he will opt for the third way – remaining at Leverkusen for what will, barring a remarkable late-season collapse, be a title defence and a Champions League run next season.

It's a brave and perhaps surprising decision. Few managers would turn away the attentions of two of Europe’s superclubs, especially when they were so closely linked to both of them through their playing career. This is the sort of decision that happens in Football Manager, not in real life.

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Alonso himself had, until Friday, been tight-lipped about his future, understandably preferring to focus media attention on the end of a season which sees Leverkusen ten points clear at the top of the Bundesliga, on course for their first ever German championship, and still unbeaten across all competitions as they head unerringly in the direction of an astonishing treble. But the Spaniard has now told reporters that after reflecting on his choice over the international break, Leverkusen is "the right place for me to be as a young coach."

Bayern Munich and Liverpool already knew, by the sound of it. On Thursday, honorary Bayern Munich president Uli Hoeness said of his club’s attempts to lure Alonso to Bavaria that they would be “difficult if not probably impossible,” adding that “[Alonso] is more inclined to stay at Bayer Leverkusen in view of their current successes.” Liverpool, too, had reportedly received word that he will not be available this summer before it was made public.

That leaves Liverpool with a problem, albeit one they will be prepared for. They knew they were in a tug of war to sign Alonso, even if they didn’t anticipate their former midfielder deciding to ignore the scrap for his services altogether, and they have certainly got both Brighton & Hove Albion’s Roberto de Zerbi and Sporting’s Rúben Amorim on their shortlist. There may be others, of course, and most likely will be, but those remain the leading candidates now that the chances of signing Alonso seem slim to none.

Of the two, Amorim seems like the more natural fit, simply because his playing style in many ways already mirrors the tactics in use under Jürgen Klopp. Amorim’s Sporting – the current leaders of La Liga Portugal with a one point lead over Benfica and a game in hand – press high and with intensity, use aggressive wing-backs to stretch the pitch, and play with a fluid, pacey front three who look to switch positions to drag defenders around and create space. You don’t have to have watched all that much of Klopp’s Liverpool to see how the current squad could slide right into Amorim’s set-up.

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The biggest difference in styles is that Amorim has always played with a back three. During his first job in senior management, when he went undefeated in domestic football with Braga, he ran a 3-5-2. At Sporting, he has rigidly adhered to a 3-4-3 with one of the centre-halves stepping up into a midfield double pivot in possession. That would be a substantial adjustment – but Liverpool are likely going to need to make some changes in defence anyway.

Veteran defender Joël Matip, currently sidelined by a cruciate ligament injury, will likely be released when his contract expires at the end of the season, and Virgil van Dijk, while impressive this season after a shaky start, is not getting any younger. Joe Gomez’s renaissance will help matters – he’s got the kind of playing profile that would suit playing on the outside of a back three – but there’s enough incentive to add a centre-half or two already to make that particular adjustment less painful.

The double pivot in midfield, if Amorim stuck to his shape from Sporting, would require some adjustments too – Liverpool have a host of midfielders on the books and are set up well to play with a staggered midfield three, and it’s not immediately obvious as to where, say, Dominik Szoboszlai would fit in. That is, of course, assuming that Amorim sticks with 3-4-3. Perhaps he would go back to his 3-5-2 from Braga, or even prove flexible enough to work with a back four.

But the fine details of position and tactics shouldn’t be seen as a sticking point. The broader brushstrokes of Amorim’s style of play are more important, and they should suit Liverpool down to the ground. Aggressive wing-backs who can get downfield and offer attacking width as the team moves to a front five in possession? Check. Speedy, positionally flexible forwards who can rotate and find half-spaces around the defences? Check. Combative, ball-playing midfielders who are effective in the press and can play in both thirds of the field? Check.

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It might be a stretch to say that Liverpool’s squad is tailor-made for the Portuguese head coach’s methods, but there is a great deal of overlap – more, perhaps, than there would be for De Zerbi, who likewise plays a back three and has a philosophy which relies on deep passing link-ups between defence and midfield and quick, direct counter-attacks which bypass the midfield. Amorim’s more possession-based style, which emphasis structure in possession rather than speed of passing but still sets up to get the ball forward quickly and on the ground, seems like it would fit Liverpool’s existing midfield more comfortably, for instance.

It helps that Amorim has a reputation as an affable diplomat who gets players on his side quickly. Liverpool are fortunate in that they appear to have a well-gelled dressing room with relatively little room for ego, but there will inevitably be an adjustment period with any new manager. Amorim has the personality and personal skills to work through that with relative ease. He seems like a manager who can get players working as he wants quickly, and demonstrated that at both Braga and Sporting, whose results improved almost immediately after he took charge.

Furthermore, Amorim has a lot of experience at bringing young players into the first-team and has overseen the rise of the likes of centre-halves Gonçalo Inácio and Ousmane Diomande, now both highly-rated youngsters who are likely to command large transfer fees in the near future. Liverpool have invested a lot in their young players recently, and a manager who has a proven track record of shepherding such young bucks through their early years is a necessity. In fairness, the same can be said of De Zerbi, who has never shied away from giving youngsters their chance to shine at the Amex Stadium.

But it’s Amorim who has more ticks in more boxes, more success on his CV (he already has a Portuguese championship and three League Cups to his name) and a playing style which shouldn’t be too hard to impose on the players already at Anfield. He’s a fantastic coach, and if Alonso does prove to be off the menu, then they probably won’t find anyone who looks like a better fit on paper.