A year into his Bayer Leverkusen reign, coach Xabi Alonso has exceeded all expectations by rapidly transforming the Bundesliga side into early title contenders.
"Xabi has an in-depth understanding of football that receives a positive response from a team like ours. His ambition and sporting aspirations fit in 100 per cent with Bayer 04 Leverkusen."
So said Leverkusen’s sporting managing director Simon Rolfes after coach Alonso agreed terms on a contract extension at the Werkself during the summer. That ambition has seen the highly decorated Spaniard take Bayer unbeaten to the top of the standings at the international break and has fans of the club dreaming of a first-ever Bundesliga title.
Matchday 7 coincided with Alonso’s one-year anniversary in the Leverkusen hot-seat. It’s been a memorable 365 plus days for the 41-year-old, whose stock as a top-line tactician has risen exponentially in that time.
Watch: Alonso enjoys winning start to life at Leverkusen
There are few who don’t know by this stage that when the coach took up the reins at the BayArena, Leverkusen were in the relegation zone. Club officials were desperate for an injection of youth and enthusiasm and were prepared to take a risk on a man who may have won everything in the game as an outstanding midfielder, but who was a complete coaching newcomer when it came to the big leagues.
“Bringing in Xabi last October did attract a lot of approval but also scepticism at the same time,” Rolfes recalled. “We were in a difficult situation and saw in Xabi a world star but also an inexperienced coach who had not yet been in charge of a top team. Nevertheless, I was convinced of his ability from the start and Xabi was convinced of the quality of our squad. We overcame resistance together and created the best of all perspectives for Bayer 04,” the club official continued.
Guiding the team to a UEFA Europa League semi-final and a sixth-place Bundesliga finish from the despair of 17th place was a formidable achievement for a man who had only previously coached youth and B teams at Real Madrid and Real Sociedad.
Yet there was something else in that memorable 2022/23 season that made observers sit up and take note: a 2-1 home victory against the tactician's former side Bayern Munich that featured guile, counter-attacking excellence and the seeds of a style finally beginning to flourish. On that evening last March, Alonso’s Leverkusen had arrived.
In the game, several signs of those under whom Alonso received a coaching masterclass could be seen: Carlo Ancelotti’s attacking verve, José Mourinho’s counter-thrust instincts, Pep Guardiola’s man management and Rafa Benítez’s eye for detail. The former Bayern Munich, Real Madrid and Liverpool midfield maestro now looked the part on the touchline and his players were responding to a man for whom they held the utmost of respect.
Watch: Alonso outwits his former side Bayern in 2022/23
“You’ve got to respect him because he’s been there and done it,” Jeremie Frimpong told the Associated Press. “He’s won everything: Champions League and World Cup. As a footballer, that’s what you want to win, and of course, to have a manager like we have, we’re very grateful as well. And he knows how to use the team. He knows our abilities, our weaknesses.”
“There is a very good and relaxed working basis day-to-day,” Alonso explained of the atmosphere withing the Leverkusen group. “That makes working with my staff and all Bayer 04 employees great fun. The fact we are convinced of the same ideas and direction on the pitch creates close affinity and confidence,” the coach continued, in quotes appearing on Leverkusen’s official website.
With the dawning of a new campaign, 2023/24 represented a chance for Alonso and his players to build on the season before. A full pre-season and some important squad building was undertaken.
Top talented Moussa Diaby left for England but in came Jonas Hofmann, an inspired signing from Borussia Mönchengladbach. Forward Victor Boniface, flying full-back Alejandro Grimaldo and the experienced and influential Granit Xhaka also arrived. The gelling-in period for all concerned was minimal, a testament to Alonso’s communication and player management.
“We needed new players with new energy,” the coach said ahead of the start of the new season. “We got very good players who have a direct influence. They have a lot of quality and experience, that was important for the squad.”
When he took over as coach a year ago, Leverkusen had the third-worst defence in the Bundesliga. Today, Alonso’s commitment and belief in a three-man back-line - or line of five without the ball – has reaped rewards. Bayer currently have the joint second-meanest defence in the division, conceding just six times in their opening seven Bundesliga matches - and in fact only twice from open play.
Watch: Bayer deny Bayern at the death
Up top, the team are an attacking joy to behold. Boniface has netted seven goals – a club best at this stage of a season - and provided two assists in seven games and has been one of the season’s revelations.
Hofmann has made Diaby’s departure an afterthought – the 31-year-old weighing in with four goals and three assists to date. As well as setting up three goals, Grimaldo has scored with two sumptuous free-kicks, one coming in the dramatic 2-2 draw with champions Bayern Munich. Meanwhile the skills of Florian Wirtz and the pace of Frimpong only add to an immensely talented collective.
The current Bundesliga leaders have made their best-ever start to a top-flight campaign with 19 points after seven matchdays. Bayer’s 23 goals at this point is also a club record whilst they also boast the best passing rate (90 per cent) and second-most shots on goal (119) in the league this season. The Alonso effect is clearly in full flow one year on.
Watch: Leverkusen make it a happy anniversary for Alonso with Cologne win
“The meticulous, analytical and self-assured approach from Xabi is really good for us at Bayer 04,” Leverkusen CEO Fernando Carro explained. “At the same time, he has an outstanding environment here with us and in the Bundesliga where he can further build his profile as one who is still a young coach,” Carro added of his fellow Spaniard.
Still young, but Alonso already has the second-highest win rate (58 per cent) of any previous Leverkusen coach in the position for the same amount of time. Only Bayern, Borussia Dortmund (73 each) and RB Leipzig (69) have picked up more points in the Bundesliga than Leverkusen (64) since Alonso took the post, while only Bayern (92) and BVB (88) have scored more goals than Xabi’s Bayer (71) since his maiden game in charge against Schalke last year.
“I see last season as a positive; but I want more, just as the club does,” the Tolosa native said. “Our goal is to be as successful as possible in every competition; we have great ambitions.”
For Bayer, winning a first title since a DFB Cup success back in 1993 seems a far more distinct possibility than just one year ago. For fans of the Werkself, that’s even more reason to wish Xabi Alonso a very happy first anniversary at the Leverkusen helm.
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