How ex-Liverpool man Xabi Alonso transformed Bayer Leverkusen into Germany’s best team

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A look at the tactics and ideas of Xabi Alonso as he guides Bayer Leverkusen towards the Bundesliga title.

It was, as Xabi Alonso phrased it, a “great victory” – a 3-0 win for an unbeaten Bayer Leverkusen side over perennial German champions Bayern Munich which sent the home side five points clear at the top of the Bundesliga. What Alonso is doing at Leverkusen would be remarkable under any circumstances, but it’s even more incredible given how bad they were when he took over just 16 months ago. This is how the former Liverpool and Real Madrid man transformed his team.

Alonso had never managed a senior side when he took over at the beginning of October 2022 – and although he had a burgeoning reputation as a fine coaching mind from his work with Real Sociedad’s B team, his appointment was still a substantial gamble. Not that Leverkusen could get much worse – they were second-bottom of the Bundesliga with eight matches played and had just one league win to their name. The last game overseen by Alonso’s predecessor, Gerardo Seoane, was a 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Bayern. It goes without saying that a great deal has changed between that game and the vastly impressive win on Saturday evening.

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Alonso’s first order of business was to completely revamp Leverkusen’s tactical set-up. Seoane preferred a 4-2-3-1 formation but Alonso immediately moved to a fluid 3-4-3 which typically transitions into a 4-2-4 in attack. While it took a few weeks for his methods to bed in, Leverkusen swiftly started winning, picking up five victories on the spin either side of the World Cup in Qatar, and his tactics have been impeccable.

He has transformed Leverkusen into a side who are extremely hard to play against. Teams who press high up against them find that Alonso has made them very press-resistant indeed, with the quick passing among the back three, supported by a pair of deep-lying midfielders, redolent of Roberto de Zerbi’s methods at Brighton & Hove Albion – they’re happy to sucker the opposition in and spring a quick counter when the opposition have over-committed. Sit off them, however, and their quick short passing game comes into play.

In possession, Alonso makes use of passing schemes which will be familiar to anyone who watched Pep Guardiola’s great Barcelona teams. Attacking players will drop off the back four to set up quick one-twos which create pockets of space around the area which players like Florian Wirtz are expert at exploiting. The only way to counter that is to defend very narrowly, but then that opens up room for the wing-backs, who are just as happy sitting wide and delivering the ball from the byline as they are dropping inside the full-back and centre-half against a wider defence. However you attempt to shut Leverkusen down, they have an answer ready and players who can execute the plan to perfection.

The win over Bayern provided a perfect example of their attacking versatility. For their first goal, Bayern packed the centre of the field and gave the superb left wing-back Álex Grimaldo the chance to whip across the face of the area which was turned in by Josip Stanišić who is, rather ironically, on loan from a Bayern team who couldn’t find space in the squad for him. For their second, Bayern wing-back Noussair Mazraoui went wide to mark Piero Hincapié, the centre-back who pushed wide in support, and allowed Grimaldo to play a quick one-two that put him in a huge tranche of space between Mazraoui and the centre-backs, allowing him to lash home a strike at the near post. Against Leverkusen you’re damned if you do, and damned if you don’t. There have been no apparent weaknesses.

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His success isn’t solely a result of his superlative strategic understanding, however. He has also earned a reputation as a fine man manager who communicates well with his players and gets them on his side. Many of the individuals in Leverkusen’s squad have improved dramatically since his arrival – Grimaldo being a fine example, a player finally fulfilling long-held potential and developing in specific areas, such as his set-piece delivery. Jonas Hoffman, a 31-year-old summer signing who has become a key cog in Alonso’s machine as one of the deeper-lying attackers in the front three, described him as “special and very instructive” and you will go a long way to find anyone who disagrees.

But it’s his firm grasp of different tactical concepts that have allowed him to weave together an incredibly coherent team who are rigid in defence (they have conceded just 14 goals in 21 league matches, eight better than second-best Bayern), dominant in possession with 92% of passes played short, and lethal in attack, with 55 goals being a better mark than anyone other than the Harry Kane-led Bavarians. They remain unbeaten in the Bundesliga, setting a record for the longest unbeaten start to a German top-flight season, have reached the semi-finals of the DFB Pokal and won all six of their Europa League group stage game. They look invincible.

And while many pundits have rushed to excoriate Thomas Tuchel for a poor season in Munich, the truth is that Bayern are not under-performing. They have accumulated 50 points already and had as many or fewer in six of the 11 consecutive seasons in which they have won the German title. They are proving just as successful as they have been over the course of a long, dominant period, but are simply second best now to the truly exceptional side that Alonso has crafted. Leverkusen’s 3-0 win reflected their qualities at least as much as it did Bayern’s failings.

Between his team’s exceptional form and the elegant, entertaining football they are playing, it’s little wonder that other teams are eyeing him up as their next manager. Alonso insists in public that he is committed to Leverkusen and focussed solely on following through on their superlative start to the campaign, but he must be tempted by the notion of returning to Anfield to take over from the outgoing Jürgen Klopp. On current evidence, there are certainly few better appointments that Liverpool could make.

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Of course, the season is not done yet, and Leverkusen have yet to win anything. This time last year it looked for all the world as though Borussia Dortmund would finally snap Bayern’s long reign as German champions, but blew it down the home stretch as the mentality of Tuchel’s team, used to winning when it counts the most, proved to be stronger. They have been here before, many times, while Leverkusen have a reputation which is similar to that of Tottenham Hotspur – they are ‘Neverkusen’, always the bridesmaid but never the bride, and the butt of many jokes about empty trophy cabinets.

If Leverkusen do stumble with the finishing line in sight, that will be the final test of Alonso’s qualities as a manager – whether he can keep a team’s eyes on the prize even as doubts creep in. Clear that hurdle, and he will earn every inch of his burgeoning reputation as one of the finest coaches in Europe. Not that he isn’t doing that already.

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