Xabi Alonso and Steffen Baumgart's contrasting styles will come to fore when Leverkusen host Cologne. - © Getty
Xabi Alonso and Steffen Baumgart's contrasting styles will come to fore when Leverkusen host Cologne. - © Getty

Xabi Alonso vs. Steffen Baumgart: Polar opposites battling for Rhine Derby bragging rights


Leverkusen's Spanish tactical master is to lock horns with Cologne's bundle of energy as the local rivals clash on Matchday 7. bundesliga.com looks into the fascinating contrast in styles of Xabi Alonso and Steffen Baumgart.

Since being appointed as Bayer Leverkusen boss in October of last year, Alonso has rejuvenated the club and the playing squad, with quite stunning results. Sitting 17th with just one win in their opening eight matches of the 2022/23 campaign when he joined, Die Werkself ended up finishing sixth, also reaching the UEFA Europa League semi-finals.

The summer gave Alonso more time to implement his style and philosophy, and it has clearly had an impact as Leverkusen sit top of the table after their best start to a season in Bundesliga history.

Watch: Bayer Leverkusen's renaissance under Xabi Alonso

To say the former Bayern Munich midfielder is placid on the sidelines would be wrong – like any boss, he has his moments of frustration – but he has a definite reassuring sense of calmness. The majority of his efforts go into training and, while he can often be seen giving his players instruction as games progress, he appears to be analysing every pattern of play as it unfolds before him in a quiet, studious manner.

His Cologne counterpart Baumgart could hardly be more different. The 51-year-old is a veritable bundle of energy on the sidelines, heading every ball and jumping into every tackle. You only need to see the viral video of him watching Effzeh’s 1-0 victory over Freiburg at home in November of last year – he had contracted COVID-19 and therefore had to stay away from the RheinEnergieStadion – to understand just what it means to him.

“I love being on the sidelines,” he said following that match. “When my boys are playing, it’s the same wherever I am.”

Baumgart’s all-action attitude is just one of many reasons why he has been such a success in coaching. The former player led Paderborn from the third division to the Bundesliga and secured European qualification for Cologne; just the second time they'd done so in 30 years. The Billy Goats have not enjoyed the best start to the 2023/24 term, failing to win any of their opening six matches, but you would not bet against Baumgart turning things around.

Opposing personalities are not the only thing that separates the two men. This campaign, Leverkusen have completed a league-high 89.3% of their attempted passes, while their 56% average possession is behind only Bayern Munich (60%) and Borussia Dortmund (58%). Alonso played under Pep Guardiola at the Allianz Arena and was a mainstay of the Spanish national team as they dominated European and world football between 2008 and 2012 – it is clear his playing career has heavily influenced his philosophy as a coach.

Alonso has said: “I was fortunate enough to work with some very good coaches as a footballer. They  were all strong influences for me – at Real Sociedad, Liverpool, Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and with the Spanish national team.”

Watch: The story of Xabi Alonso

Baumgart, meanwhile, sees the game in a different way. Dominating possession is not a priority – they averaged 50% per game last term – but instead demands an incredibly high work-rate from his players. No team ran more than Cologne’s collective 4044.8 km in 2022/23, while they also attempted the most crosses from open play (466). They also featured high up the rankings in terms of intensive runs and duels won, further examples of Baumgart’s passion and demands influencing his squad.

Baumgart told a podcast hosted by Toni Kroos in 2021: “I’m definitely not the greatest tactician in the world, but I can make sure everyone runs those extra few metres. At the end of the day, it is all about each player versus an opponent, and you always have to win those individual battles. That’s what football is about, for me.”

Football has no one-size-fits-all approach, it would be far less entertaining if that was the case and the approaches of Alonso and Baumgart highlight the beautiful game's nuances perfectly.