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How Xabi Alonso gave a tactical masterclass to destroy Bayern Munich

When Bundesliga leaders Bayer Leverkusen dismantled Bayern Munich, coach Xabi Alonso proved that he is the best bet to succeed Jurgen Klopp as Liverpool boss

Bayer Leverkusen coach Xabi Alonso is widely tipped to succeed Jurgen Klopp as Liverpool manager.
Bayer Leverkusen coach Xabi Alonso is widely tipped to succeed Jurgen Klopp as Liverpool manager. (AFP)

There were quite a few startling sights during Bayer Leverkusen’s 3-0 humbling of the mighty Bayern Munich. The strangest of these was just how disjointed and dispirited Bayern were through the match. The reigning Bundesliga champions looked less like a team than a collection of talented individuals, all waiting for someone—basically Harry Kane—to somehow win them a football match.  

This was in stark contrast to Leverkusen, who played like the finely-drilled team that they are, winning duels, working passing patterns, defending intelligently, and attacking with speed and verve. Above all, what really stood out about the home team was their sense of control, one that radiated from the players, and crucially, their manager Xabi Alonso. 

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As far as auditions go, the win over Bayern—which extended Leverkusen’s lead at the top of the Bundesliga to five points—was the best possible glimpse into the coaching abilities of Alonso. After all, most Liverpool fans are hoping that he will take over from Jurgen Klopp when the iconic manager departs at the end of the current season.

To recap, Klopp stunned the footballing world late last month when he announced that he will be leaving at the end of the season. With a contract till 2026, and with Liverpool currently fighting for four trophies after Klopp overhauled the squad in the summer, the announcement came as a shock. Klopp’s reason for quitting early was tiredness, and the fact that after nine unrelentingly high octane years at Liverpool, he needed time away from football.

Many Liverpool watchers have also reported that Klopp feels that with a rejuvenated squad—with plenty of homegrown players breaking through—developing at least a season ahead of schedule, this would be as good a time as any to hand over the reins to another manager. Quite importantly, Klopp said that he had announced his decision to the club hierarchy as far back as November, giving them enough time to find a successor.

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Despite that head start, it is bound to be a difficult choice to find someone to fill Klopp’s considerable shoes. He has been Liverpool’s most transformative manager in the modern era, winning every trophy there is, including the Premier League in the 2019-20 season after a gap of thirty years. Equally importantly, he single-handedly changed the vibes around the club, injecting his charisma, vigour and a stubborn, winning mentality into a club that was feeling quite moribund in 2015, when he became manager.

One thing is for sure. Whoever succeeds the German will not, and should not, try to be another Klopp. However, there aren’t that many top coaches out there who could inherit Klopp’s Liverpool and keep the momentum going. A number of young managers have been linked to the club in recent weeks, including former Real Madrid manager Zinedine Zidane and the current Brighton manager Roberto De Zerbi. However, it is Alonso who has emerged as the frontrunner for the job, both due to his past exploits with the Reds as a player—he won the Champions League in 2005 in his first season with Liverpool—and because of the spectacular job he has done with Leverkusen, his first senior coaching gig.

Leverkusen were languishing in the Bundesliga relegation zone when Alonso took over as coach in October 2022. By the time the 2022-23 season ended, Leverkusen had climbed the table to finish sixth. It was a commendable job, but nobody could have predicted the giant steps that Leverkusen would take in the current season. His first full season in charge, Alonso has built on the defensive steel of the previous season to add attacking verve and unpredictability. 

Although Leverkusen plays counterattacking football on paper, with a 3-4-3 shape, in action, the team is much more flexible. Alonso has coached the team to be fluid in formation, depending on the opponents and the game situation. He has tactically out-thought every opponent, and the fact that Leverkusen remain the only undefeated team in all of Europe’s top leagues is testament to what a great job he has done.

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Like Klopp, Alonso is first and foremost a football coach, happiest when he’s instilling his style of play to his squad. Leverkusen’s Bundesliga opponents have been unable to live with the different ways the team have at their disposal to win matches. This season, while there have been the trademark blitzing counterattacks, there have also been moments of pure control, when Leverkusen have passed opponents to death. 

This unpredictability completely unnerved Bayern during the 3-0 defeat at the weekend. While Leverkusen was happy to let Bayern have the ball during the opening phase, very little managed to penetrate the home team’s midfield. Bayern wasn’t sure exactly how Leverkusen were playing, because Alonso had chosen to start without a centre-forward and had omitted one of his main players this season, Jeremie Frimpong from the starting eleven. 

Leverkusen’s players though, were more than prepared for the occasion, winning the tactical battle as much due to their mental alertness. They knew their roles, the movements they had to make and the way they had to play. Alonso’s coaching and tactical masterclass was even more impressive since it came against one of Europe’s top coaches, Thomas Tuchel. 

It's a long way till the European football season ends in May, and as of right now, there are no guarantees that Alonso would indeed make the shift to England. Leverkusen’s sporting director Simon Rolfes said yesterday that he feels “sure” that Alonso will stay on at the German club next season. “There are (always) factors, whether with coaches like Xabi or even players, which attract the interest of other clubs regardless of contracts, but many stay with us anyway.” What seems increasingly likely is that Alonso is on track to guide Leverkusen to their first ever Bundesliga title, and end Bayern’s eleven-year Bundesliga-winning hegemony.

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