Buckle up for the big one! It’s Bayer Leverkusen against Bayern Munich on Matchday 21 in a game that could go a long way to deciding the destination of the 2023/24 Bundesliga title. But how do the teams’ coaches, Xabi Alonso and Thomas Tuchel, compare?
bundesliga.com takes a closer look ...
How did they get here?
His silverware-studded playing career culminating in a third Bundesliga title in 2017, the World Cup and two-time EURO winner stepped almost immediately across the white line into the dugout. "I'm sure that when he hangs up his boots he'll be a great coach if he wants to be," predicted his former boss Jose Mourinho in 2010 after managing Alonso the player at Real Madrid. "He reminds me of Pep Guardiola when I had him as a player. He was already a coach on the pitch."
"He will come back soon as a manager," said Guardiola, who brought Alonso to Bayern Munich in 2014. "I bet, wherever he wants, he will become a manager and will be good." Pep was right.
Watch: Alonso's Leverkusen tactics decoded
His coaching badges studied for alongside former Spain international teammates Xavi, Victor Valdes and ex-Schalke man Raul, Alonso returned to Madrid to take charge of Real's U14 side. In summer 2019, he made another comeback, to his first club Real Sociedad to boss the reserve team.
He steered the team to promotion to Spanish football's second tier in only his second season - the first time in nearly half a century they would play at that level. The fairytale did not end quite so happily as his side then suffered an immediate return to the third division, but when Gerardo Seoane was removed from the Leverkusen hotseat eight games into the 2022/23 season - with Die Werskelf second from bottom of the table - Alonso stepped in.
Not only did he save the club from relegation, he took them to the Europa League semi-finals - losing out narrowly to his old mentor Mourinho - and squeezing into a European qualifying place as the team ended sixth. That earned him a contract extension through to 2026. "I'm in the right place to develop and improve," said Alonso, his coaching reputation seemingly growing with each passing week.
Tuchel would have dreamed of having the sort of playing career Alonso had when he set out as a youngster, but never got higher than Bundesliga 2, and was forced to hang up his boots through injury in his mid-20s. But he soon rebounded, taking a job at Stuttgart's youth academy in 2000, setting himself en route to becoming one of the game's most respected coaches.
Like Jürgen Klopp, a disciple of Ralf Rangnick, who was his coach at Ulm for three years, Tuchel then crossed paths with a youthful Julian Nagelsmann at Augsburg in the first decade of the millennium before pursuing a similar trajectory to Klopp: stepping into the current Liverpool manager's shoes at Mainz in 2009 - though Jorn Andersen had been in charge for a season in between - and Borussia Dortmund in 2015.
He didn't quite have the same success, though he did lift a DFB Cup in 2016/17, but made enough of a name for himself as BVB pushed Bayern on the domestic front, and provided redoubtable adversaries in Europe.
He won Ligue 1 titles in France with Paris Saint-Germain, and the Champions League with Chelsea before returning to Germany to take charge of Bayern when Nagelsmann was dismissed in March 2023.
Watch: Tuchel discusses the drama of the 2023 title race
"The way Xabi Alonso leads the team, what he radiates, he stays calm, he's a role model on the sidelines for other coaches. He was a great midfield player and you can see that his team has been shaped in his own image," said former Dortmund and Bayern boss Ottmar Hitzfeld.
Not that Alonso doesn't get irritated by decisions going against his team or express his emotions - check out his reaction to Florian Wirtz's amazing goal against Freiburg - but you rarely see him lose his cool on the sidelines.
As intelligent a coach as he was a player, Alonso has the sort of hands-on approach to man-management he will have experienced with the likes of Carlo Ancelotti, Guardiola or Mourinho, though he does have rules: his players must master either English or German, the two languages of the dressing room.
He also has the smarts to deal with the speculation created by the success he has enjoyed at the BayArena. "Rumours are normal but we still have a lot to achieve," said Alonso last season when linked to the then-vacant Tottenham Hotspur job. "That's why my head has been 100 per cent here for the last few months. And my head is also 100 per cent here for next season."
Watch: Skip to 0:10 in the video below for Wirtz's goal and Alonso's reaction
Like Klopp, Tuchel is a master of man-management. He stepped in at Chelsea in January 2021 and revived the team in part by reinvigorating two fellow Germans - Antonio Rüdiger and Kai Havertz, who played a major role in the 14-game unbeaten start their new boss made to life at Stamford Bridge. Long gone are the days when he ordered youth academy players at Augsburg to the hairdresser to bring a sense of moderation to their more outlandish hairstyles.
Shortly after being appointed at Mainz, he noted that "I'm a lot calmer in Bundesliga games than in youth matches", though did add that "that could have something to do with not being heard so well because of the loudspeakers in the stadium."
He is, however, certainly more combustible than his Leverkusen counterpart, often berating officials or clashing with opposition coaches. And there is a limit to his closeness with his players. "That is only when discussing performance," he said at the start of his top-level coaching career. He has softened somewhat, but there is little doubt: Tuchel is all business.
"I have learned a lot from all my coaches and I have transformed it into my own personality as a coach who is starting out. Rafa [Benitez] is football, tactics: how to fit in, how to help, what to do... Pep tells you: 'Let's play like this and this will happen'. He is very good at that," Alonso said in a Spanish TV interview.
"From Mourinho, I highlight the strength and intelligence he has to communicate. From Luis [Aragones] I'd like to highlight his conviction and his ability to define what you wanted. [Vicente] Del Bosque taught me to worry about the things you have to worry about. Ancelotti stood out when it came to transmitting what good football is and what we had to do."
So how has Alonso applied the knowledge he has gained from some of the game's coaching greats? And what about adding his own special sauce?
The immediate switch to a back three last season made Leverkusen tougher to beat, and he has retained that set-up this term, but has encouraged more forward impetus from wide positions: that explains the impressive attacking stats of Alejandro Grimaldo and Jeremie Frimpong, Alonso's first-choice left and right wing-backs respectively.
Watch: Grimaldo and Frimpong giving Leverkusen wings
Summer arrival Granit Xhaka has provided that additional security, giving Jonas Hofmann and Wirtz free rein to wreak havoc at the business end of the pitch, combining neatly with Victor Boniface, another recent recruit who - although currently injured and unnavailable for the Bayern game - hit the ground running to give another glowing testament to Alonso's ability to quickly get his squad on the same wavelength.
Another is that they have swelled their average possession to 59 percent per game this season, and while that does not always equal success, the fact they are top of the table more than suggests a well-oiled and drilled match-winning machine.
"What we have done until now is brutal," said the Leverkusen boss, whose side are the only unbeaten team in one of Europe's top five leagues. "But It doesn’t matter. We want more, always. We thought that we could start the season well. We’re doing well and in a good position. We can talk about the table in April."
Watch: The best of Victor Boniface
That voracious appetite for success is something that resonates with Tuchel, as is the overriding concept of football being a team sport.
"I found it impressive how Barcelona last season often won the ball back within seconds in the opposing half," said the then new Mainz boss in 2009 admiringly of Guardiola's superb team. "This determination to press was also shown by the biggest stars. That is a real collective."
Tuchel famously met up with Guardiola in a Munich bar during the latter’s spell at Bayern, discussing tactics and team shape for hours on end. “I was very grateful for that great opportunity,” Tuchel later said. “I was a very unknown coach at the time. Pep gave me an insight into how he sees football. That was very formative.”
All of which has shaped the tactician he is today. This season, Bayern have tended to line-up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, although injuries and absences to key players of late, including Minjae Kim, Serge Gnabry, Dayot Upamecano and the recently returned Noussair Mazraoui, among others, have forced his hand into tweaks.
Watch: Tuchel's Road to Munich
In possession, Bayern make ample use of their speedy wingers. Leroy Sané and Kingsley Coman have started more often than not, respectively on the right and left flanks as inverted wingers. This allows them to cut inside and either shoot or play in an overlapping full-back for a cross. Yet with Gnabry still out injured and Coman recently forced to the sidelines, it will be intriguing to see what solution Tuchel comes up with in attack.
The arrival of Sacha Boey adds another exciting option for the Bayern coach. Alphonso Davies’ pace and attacking instincts mean the team’s forward forays are often a touch lopsided, biased towards that the left side of the pitch.
Konrad Laimer was a reliable stand-in for Mazraoui, solid in his defensive duties but lacking the pace and attacking drive, but with injury making him unavailable too, it's just as well the Moroccan made his reappearance for Bayern in last weekend's win against Borussia Mönchengladbach. That was a game Boey debuted in and with his pace and attacking verve on a par with Davies, he could even be given the task of exploiting the space down Bayern’s right that will inevitably be left by Leverkusen’s wing-back Grimaldo.
Yet Tuchel is also aware that even the best-laid plans are worthless without the correct implementation. After his side’s surprise home lose against Werder Bremen on Matchday 18, he demanded more from his players ahead of their rescheduled Matchday 13 clash with Union Berlin a couple of days later.
“The basis for every game is to play with passion, aggression, enthusiasm and to be strong in the challenges. They're the foundation for any tactical plans.” Cue an improved, battling performance from the defending champions in a 1-0 triumph, followed up by another gritty display in their next outing, a 3-2 victory in Augsburg.
It is a fearsome combination: outrageously skilled individuals, fine-tuned tactics and the desire to fight until the end. No wonder Tuchel has not only received widespread praise in the media, but also from his contemporaries.
"He’s a fantastic coach, you can really see his influence," Klopp said of his compatriot. "I know many people who have worked with him and respect him immensely. You cannot aim for the Champions League only by spending money, it does not work. It takes a good organisation, all the other clubs are not blind, we also do our job well so we need the right tools at the right time. Thomas obviously has them."
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