Alonso's the most exciting young coaching talent in football, but it's been a long path to the top. - © INA FASSBENDER
Alonso's the most exciting young coaching talent in football, but it's been a long path to the top. - © INA FASSBENDER
bundesliga

How Xabi Alonso transformed from midfield icon to Bundesliga title architect

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When Jose Mourinho was asked which of his never-ending list of world class former players would make the best manager, his choice of Xabi Alonso may have triggered a few nods of agreement.

The Spaniard was only two years out of retirement at Bayern Munich in 2019, and just dipping his toes into coaching with Real Sociedad’s B Team, back home where it all started.

Among Mourinho’s list of reasons were Alonso’s father being a player and coach, his experience of different countries and managers, and his world class ability in the middle of the park. Like many of the treble-winning former Inter Milan manager’s predictions, this one certainly came to fruition, but far sooner than even the Portuguese could have imagined.

In the 42-year-old’s first full season of senior management he has led Bayer Leverkusen to a record-breaking first Bundesliga title and, still undefeated in all competitions his name is clear at the top of the list of the best young coaching talents in world football. Taking over the side in October 2022, it was seen as a huge gamble by sporting director Simon Rolfes, but a former elite-level midfielder himself, Rolfes had clearly spotted something special, something that started in the Basque country back in 1981…

Born in Basque town Tolosa to Periko Alonso and Isabel Olano, there was clearly something in the water in San Sebastian, with Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta born a few miles away a year later, going on to also become one of the top coaching talents in world football.

Arteta grew up with Alonso playing on the picturesque fields and beaches of northern Spain, and they got to watch Periko starring for Barcelona where Arteta would eventually end up. Periko, a former Spain international, was already a legend at Real Sociedad, giving his son the impetus to follow in some iconic footsteps when he made the academy of a team his father would later coach.

It wasn’t straightforward for Alonso, who was loaned out to Eibar as a child shortly after his La Real debut, but used the opportunity to come back as a man in 2001 under his first figurehead of a coach, John Toshack.

Once settled into the first team Alonso began shining against world class talents like Ronaldinho. - LLUIS GENE

Three seasons later Alonso’s performances in LaLiga as a regular had caught the eye of Valencia manager Rafael Benitez, who took him over to England on his way to Liverpool in a €10million deal. There, the world got to see his talents as one of the best pass masters in Europe, forming a midfield partnership with Steven Gerrard that would combine for glory during the ‘Miracle of Istanbul’ 2005 Champions League final where the Reds beat AC Milan despite being 3-0 down at half-time.

The centrepiece of a new era at Anfield, Alonso would go on to win three more trophies, including an FA Cup, and his status as one of the best in the world was beyond any argument when he helped lead Spain to their second-ever major title at Euro 2008. 

Alonso scored Liverpool's equalising penalty - on the rebound - against Milan, and secured his status as a club legend. - Mike Hewitt

Now established as a Liverpool club legend, Alonso moved onto Real Madrid in 2009, in their new era of Galacticos under returning president Florentino Perez. Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benezema and Kaka may have also arrived, but Alonso wasn’t outshone by any means, and he continued to stand out as one of the game’s premier midfielders, winning LaLiga under Mourinho, the Champions League with Carlo Ancelotti, and a World Cup and another Euros under Vicente del Bosque at Spain.

Swapping teams with Toni Kroos in the summer of 2015, Alonso would go on to finish off his learning under Pep Guardiola. Three more league titles would come after his one with Madrid, and for many, he helped the former Barcelona manager reach footballing nirvana by becoming the key midfield cog in a side that were more often than not utterly unplayable.

At international Alonso changed Spain from nearly men to winners. Sounds familiar right? - Clive Mason

Retiring in 2017 as a player respected and adored by rivals and the footballing world as a whole, Alonso summed it up perfectly, saying: “I’ve played for my hometown club, the best team in England, the best team in Spain and the best team in Germany.” He stepped away with an iconic farewell shot of his boots over his shoulder, and for many that would have been enough, back on the beaches of San Sebastian with a young family ready to settle down.

However, with two years of rest under his belt, the iconic No.14 clearly got itchy feet, and arrived back at Sociedad’s Anoeta complex to take over the B team. Having impressed in his three seasons, his path to LaLiga was blocked by the Copa del Rey winning heroics of first team manager Imanol Alguacil, but Real’s loss was very much Leverkusen’s gain.

Now, Alonso has taken the five-time runners-up from ‘Neverkusen’ to winners once and for all. There could even be more to come, with a DFB Cup final berth against second-tier Kaiserslautern and a quarter-final Europa League spot versus West Ham.

Watch: Xabi Alonso announces his decision to stay at Bayer Leverkusen

Leverkusen were second-bottom when Alonso arrived in 2022, and now unbeaten in 2023/24, the focus has understandably been on his high-intensity brand of football that focuses on midfield domination and the exceptional full-back pairing of Alex Grimaldo and Jeremie Frimpong. Alonso, though, is always keen to stress mentality.

Speaking about two of the most impactful coaches of his career and the biggest rivals, Mourinho and Guardiola, he explained: “They share many things but above all they are leaders. They share that charisma, that special thing that whenever they come into the room everyone knows the boss is there and they have to listen to him. They have different personalities and different approaches to the game, but in terms of their ambitions, how they go into the detail and how they respect the opponent, they spend so much time analysing the opponent.

"They know that nowadays you need to adapt your team to have an advantage over the opponent, they spend a lot of time and they’re hard workers. To be demanding with your players you have to first be demanding with yourself and they are. For me the special thing is how they are able to deliver the message they want to the players and how they are able to connect with you and exchange that idea that they have.” 

Watch: The animated story of Xabi Alonso

It’s absolutely undeniable that Alonso has that skill, and has been able to use it on his players when tactics alone haven’t been enough during a string of late shows.

Mourinho got a snippet of what he’d helped create when the pair met on the touchline during last season’s Europa League semi-final between Leverkusen and Roma, and was able to see his 2017 prediction coming together in what may be the biggest direct evolution of his coaching methods to date. 

With Mourinho currently out of work, it could be Manchester City’s Guardiola or even Real Madrid’s Carlo Ancelotti who get a sample of the prodigy they helped create in next season’s Champions League, and with the trajectory their star pupil is already on, they may be in for an almighty shock.