In his first year at the helm, Xabi Alonso has taken Bayer Leverkusen from the Bundesliga’s relegation zone to a tie for first place with Bayern Munich. Given the team’s quality, a recovery was probably expected, but the team’s mindset shift under the Spaniard has been truly astonishing.
Since the team was dubbed “Neverkusen” after finishing second three times in a row in 2002, Bayer has been synonymous with failure and inability to bounce back from setbacks. Now, though, they are playing with the swagger befitting the most balanced, confident team in the league despite conceding a late goal on the road to serial champions Bayern and scoring an even later equalise.
Director of sport Simon Rolfes gives the management full credit for the turnaround. A mature and serious approach to the game is a reflection of Xabi as a person, the 41-year-old says The Athletic. He was born to compete and win. He has given the team a sense of fortitude and will to succeed through adversity.
Last season’s victory over Monaco in the Europa League last round in February was cited by Rolfes as a pivotal match in boosting morale. We dominated the first leg at home but fell short, 3-2, due to two late goals.
Alonso has incorporated many of the tactics he learned from working with different coaches like Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, and Rafael Benitez into his own style of play. His initial action was to shore up the defence and switch to a counter-attacking style of play. Alonso prioritised enhancing Leverkusen’s quality on the ball after the team established a strong defensive foundation. They’ve improved dramatically this year, becoming more entertaining to watch and ultimately becoming Germany’s top team.
But one gets the impression that Alonso’s outlook was formed during his time at his childhood club, Real Sociedad. His earliest coaching and playing opportunities came at a club that promotes the development of technically proficient players who can execute a possession-based style of play.
For the first time in 60 years, he led La Real’s reserve squad to promotion to Spain’s second division. His young team (they averaged 21.4 years old) is one of the caveats to their relegation at the end of that season. Even with their lack of experience, his side won seven games with more than 70% possession.
Leverkusen’s explosive start to the season was founded on pass-heavy attacking plays, and the team’s continuous development over the last calendar year has corresponded with an increase in control in their build-up.
With wing-back Alejandro Grimaldo, Leverkusen are able to shift into a solid back-four shape in the build-up, while also providing Alonso with an attacking threat down the left side. Last season at Benfica, Grimaldo generated 12.7 expected assists (a measurement of the quality of chances a player creates), a number that only five players in Europe’s top-seven leagues could better.
While Granit Xhaka has strengthened a solid double-pivot, allowing the inventive presence of Florian Wirtz to roam across the attacking third in search of the ball, as shown below, veteran midfielder Jonas Hofmann is a talented technician who can combine with Frimpong and cover defensively for his live-wire teammate.
All of the players are completely captivated. It helps that Alonso, after being retired for six years, is still the best footballer on the training ground. Without breaking a sweat, he routinely pings fifty-meter diagonals that fall on the desired blade of grass and plays vertical passes that slash through lines like a newly sharpened yanagiba knife.
The training fields across from the BayArena stadium exude a level of intensity and dedication not typically seen there. Alonso is constantly on the go, constantly talking, and even shouting to get his point through. In a recent assignment, he tasked his squad with improving their performance on set pieces. When they showed great improvement, he gave them two days off.
Bayer are a rich club with an offensive football philosophy, but they don’t have to deal with a symphony of media noise because of the city’s modest size. It’s a great opportunity for a young manager to advance in his career. How long Bayer can stay up with a manager on the rise is the only remaining issue.
Rolfes has stated that rumours of Alonso being offered the position at Real Madrid are not a cause for concern. I don’t care what people say about our team or staff. If they are competent and productive, people will take notice. There were several rumours circulating in April that Alonso would be leaving the club this summer. Not the case. He decided to re-up instead, this time through 2026.
Bayer are not gullible. The Germans won’t hold Alonso against his will if he’s given the Bernabeu post for next season and thinks he’s ready to take it, and they’ll strive to handle the transition in a way that causes as little disturbance as possible. The situation may not be hopeless by May. Alonso has not given any hint that he is ready to leave Bayer. And based on their observations, he does not appear to be someone who is in a rush.