Xabi Alonso

Why Xabi Alonso can lead Bayer Leverkusen to Bundesliga title

Very little is on your side if you are Bayern Munich’s challenger in Germany.

Bayer Leverkusen are fighting not only the Bavarian giants, but history.

Five times they have finished second in the Bundesliga, three times been beaten finalists in the German Cup (DFB Pokal) and once the runners-up in the Champions League final - all since 1997.

In their 120-year history, Leverkusen have never been champions of Germany.

Photo taken by Abel Meszaros
Photo taken by Abel Meszaros

The solitary German Cup from 1993 and UEFA Cup from five years prior which occupy their trophy cabinet could really do with some company.

There was certainly no talk of that being likely when Xabi Alonso first arrived. Now it would almost feel like a disappointment to end the season without it becoming a reality.

Because, ahead of this Saturday's huge game at home to Bayern, Alonso's side are two points clear of their illustrious adversaries at the top of the table.

Quick rebuild

Alonso took over, replacing the sacked Gerardo Seoane, with Leverkusen second-bottom eight games into last season having won just once.

Bayer Leverkusen manager Xabi Alonso

Although they had finished third the season prior it was clear the team was missing a few elements:

  • A capable left-back to complement the recovering Florian Wirtz’s remarkable combination skills
  • A build-up number six to control tempo and get out against pressure
  • Another off-ball runner to get in behind and open space for Jeremie Frimpong
  • A reliable goalscorer to finish games
  • A bit of luck

Led by upper management duo Simon Rolfes and Kim Falkenberg, Leverkusen then pulled off arguably their best recruitment summer in recent memory with four perfect signings: Alejandro Grimaldo, Granit Xhaka, Jonas Hofmann and Victor Boniface.

They have not only reinforced, but transformed the squad.

Nobody expected Leverkusen to have such a turnaround and challenge Bayern, although perhaps some hidden signs existed as for large swaths of the season, Alonso’s team were in the top four in most underlying metrics.

Hands-on coaching

The extremely hands-on Alonso has spent key training time working out a revolutionary fluid system of positional play.

Leverkusen passing networks

Although they’re tied with Bayern for most goals via counter attacks (8), thus keeping the best aspects of predecessor Seoane’s team, Alonso has moulded them into a side with much more to offer than just catching teams on the break.

Leverkusen are a well-connected team, as all parts move up in unison to finish attacking sequences while also being fully prepared for a turnover in possession.

Alonso has zoned in on the importance of counter-pressing and not just its intensity - which has never been an issue at a club that has employed high-press exponents Roger Schmidt and Peter Bosz as previous managers - but, crucially, its efficiency.

After three seasons below 50 (not in the top five in the league), per Italian analytics company xvalue, their Gegenpressing Intensity is at 58, the highest since Bosz’s team led the category in 2019.

Alonso has figured out the balance between winning the ball back and not conceding huge chances by systematically and situationally falling back.

As a result they’re extremely difficult to penetrate defensively, while having an elite attack.

Oh, and Alonso’s got some in-game adjustments that have facilitated comeback and/or last-minute wins in just the last few weeks alone.

The following ranks from Opta further underline just how complete this team is:

  • Allow the fewest open-play goals (8)
  • Have the most pressing sequences (208)
  • Forced a league-best 39 shot-ending turnovers
  • Have the most 10+ pass sequences from open play (439)
  • ...and build-up attacks (107)
  • Tied for the lead with 11 set-piece goals

To explore this further, let’s take a closer look at how this style is manifested on the pitch by some key figures because, for all the great coaching, football is still a player’s game.

The players behind Leverkusen's success

Alex Grimaldo has been a revelation for Alonso's side. He's the total package.

He is able to pick up the ball deep and combine in build-up play, slot into the middle to eliminate pressure as a passing option to create, as well as finish situations with unpredictable positional switches with the Wirtz-Boniface duo in the attacking third.

Last season, Alonso had limited options in possession with the unreliable and one-dimensional Mitchel Bakker or the defensive specialist Piero Hincapie, who was moved from centre-back to wing-back.

Grimaldo - at 28 - with superior technique, spatial intelligence and combination play is a tactical ace up Alonso’s sleeve.

Grimaldo stats

With his international experience and surprisingly lethal finishing (nine goals from 3.5 xG), he’s often able to influence games with vital goals, including hitting winners in close matches against Wolfsburg and Hoffenheim.

Alonso discusses his fellow Spaniard's unpredictable role as an extra man showing up in free spaces in this video:

STILL THE BEST? 🔝 Xabi Alonso

Much to the chagrin of some Arsenal fans, and perhaps Borussia Dortmund, who were unwilling to pay the €25m fee, Xhaka has been a revelation.

Together with Grimaldo, he has fixed the key issue for Leverkusen - the absence of a number six in build-up play, which was a problem given the side's centre-backs not named Edmond Tapsoba lack elite progressive passing.

In addition, Xhaka provides consistent, world-class ball retention, aids the back-line by dropping in but also has the intelligence to find pockets beyond opponents’ pressing lines. His leadership skills and experience are eerily reminiscent of Alonso too.

Exequiel Palacios has also massively benefited from playing alongside someone capable of anticipating his slipping behind the press movements. In addition, he has become an elite line-breaker, thanks to his little dump-off passes with Wirtz.

Former Borussia Mönchengladbach winger Hofmann’s underrated profile as an unselfish, tireless, do-it-all off-ball runner with surprisingly good playmaking and transition finishing skills hadn’t escaped Leverkusen.

They smartly took advantage of a €10m release clause - for an 11-season veteran who turned 31 in the summer - and plugged him into their puzzle.

Abel tactical diagram one

This has had at least three direct consequences:

  • Hofmann’s ability to receive in deeper positions allows Frimpong to run behind.
  • He’s a threat in transition, which was a known quantity at Gladbach, with back-to-back 12-goal seasons but his combination play and understanding of his teammates is surprising to those who followed the early parts of his career.
  • His pinning of the opposition backline allows centre-back ball carriers (Odilon Kossounou has taken massive leaps in this regard) and, more importantly, Wirtz to come over and overload that side, receiving and turning in open spaces.
Abel tactical diagram two

Wirtz, meanwhile, has not yet turned 21 but has been a fixture at B04 since Bosz surprised many by introducing him once football resumed after the initial Covid outbreak.

He’s putting up 0.73 G+A/90 (goals and assists per 90 minutes) in the league and 0.97 non-penalty numbers in all competitions - all after returning from a devastating ACL injury.

Then there's Boniface, whose opening two months with the club were nothing short of fabulous.

The 23-year-old Nigerian has himself had two ACL tears, but hugely impressed Leverkusen when facing them for Belgian side Union Saint-Gilloise in last season’s Europa League, a competition in which he finished as joint leading scorer.

Interestingly, it’s his finishing that’s been a little off - at one point in December, only Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang had a worse xG underperformance in the big five leagues - but Boniface's mazy dribbling, chance creation, hold-up play and positional rotations with Wirtz and Grimaldo have made him into a Bundesliga star, showman and nightmare for defenders.

Victor Boniface
Victor Boniface has found the net 16 times this season

His finishing has actually picked up recently, but he’s also now out with a groin injury until April.

However, Leverkusen have also carefully managed Patrik Schick’s long-awaited comeback from injury and he’s shown that the 24-goal striker from 2021/22 is still there with a hat-trick against Bochum in late December.

During his B04 spell, the Czech, joint top scorer at Euro 2020, has put up 0.67 goals/90 and 0.59 xG/90 when healthy.

His time at Leipzig under Julian Nagelsmann (0.69 goals per 90 and 0.5xG) was similarly impressive and perhaps Alonso’s approach is not dissimilar to that of the now German national team coach.

At any rate, as an insurance policy on Boniface and Schick, they’ve loaned Borja Iglesias, an experienced Spanish target man.

Borja Iglesias has joined Bayer Leverkusen
Borja Iglesias adds depth to the Leverkusen forward ranks

The man nicknamed Panda and his penalty-area nous could be vital if Leverkusen are to continue winning those close games.

What could derail Leverkusen's success?

The absences of Kossounou, Amine Adli and Tapsoba at AFCON were managed through pre-existing squad planning (Piero Hincapie, loaning Josip Stanisic, moving Robert Andrich to centre-back) and now only Kossounou remains out in Ivory Coast.

It seems like the injury to Boniface has been addressed and they could likely scrape by with Andrich starting (or either Gustavo Puerta or Noah Mbamba filling in against weaker teams) for the three weeks without the injured Palacios, although missing him against Bayern is a blow.

Robert Andrich
Robert Andrich provides depth in multiple positions

Frimpong has luckily not missed time after an injury scare saw him replaced by the capable Nathan Tella against Leipzig. But what happens if Wirtz - who reportedly cut training short after a knock recently - Grimaldo or Xhaka go down is less clear.

History, as touched on earlier, is always against teams not named Bayern Munich, with Dortmund blowing a nine-point lead under Lucien Favre in 2018-19 and then throwing the title away on the final day last term.

But history - "the inexhaustible well from which everyone draws the water of example to wash away their filth," to quote famous German historian Reinhart Koselleck - can be changed as Luciano Spalletti proved by guiding Napoli to a first Serie A title in 33 years last term.

Additionally, Bayern remain an unsolved mystery under Thomas Tuchel with a thin and lesser-built squad.

Sure, they have Harry Kane, Leroy Sane and Jamal Musiala as consensus world-class goal, assist and magic creators, but how to consistently get the ball to them is less obvious than it is with the star turns at B04.

In typical Bayern media fashion, Alonso has been touted as the ideal successor to an increasingly frustrated and scrutinised Tuchel who, like every FCB coach, has only got one avenue of retort - to win the Bundesliga.

There’s always that quintessential Bayern winning mentality. But, at the same time, we have seen Leverkusen are capable of winning difficult games, as evidenced against Augsburg and Leipzig last month with Alonso making key in game adjustments.

Xabi Alonso
Xabi Alonso is close to the Bundesliga title

Their defenders can score key set-piece goals and the likes of Grimaldo, Wirtz, Palacios and Schick are just as capable of moments of magic as Bayern’s vaunted front four.

As Kicker, German football’s iconic newspaper/Bible, recently put it:

Bayer defied all the odds in Leipzig and were not shaken by any of the setbacks. The early 0:1? The first 30 minutes without any control of the game? The loss of whirlwind Jeremie Frimpong after half an hour? Going behind again when they were so close to taking the lead? Nothing was going to break Bayer. Not even the fact that world champion Exequiel Palacios had to leave the pitch injured shortly before the end. After that, Bayer continued to press for the winning goal, which came in stoppage time, just like the 1-0 win in Augsburg a week ago. Champion teams are made of such wood."

"I don't know [about that]," said managing director Rolfes, who celebrated his 42nd birthday on Sunday, on Sky, "but it's a wood that is very stubborn and resilient."

Leverkusen fans will be knocking on wood that they can see it out all the way to the end.

More from Sporting Life

Safer gambling

We are committed in our support of safer gambling. Recommended bets are advised to over-18s and we strongly encourage readers to wager only what they can afford to lose.

If you are concerned about your gambling, please call the National Gambling Helpline / GamCare on 0808 8020 133.

Further support and information can be found at begambleaware.org and gamblingtherapy.org

Like what you've read?


Sporting Life
Join for free!
Access to exclusive features all for FREE - No monthly subscription fee
Race Replays
My stable horse tracker
giftOffers and prize draws
newsExclusive content