Xabi Alonso’s appointment at Bayer Leverkusen at the start of October raised a few eyebrows.
With the team second-bottom of the Bundesliga after a dreadful start to the season, it would have been easy to pick an experienced head coach to replace Gerardo Seoane, but Leverkusen opted to take a gamble and went with Alonso.
The former Liverpool and Real Madrid midfielder had never managed in the top-flight in any country before, but he got off to a flying start as he guided his side to a 4-0 win over Schalke in his first game, and he hasn’t looked back.
Xabi Alonso has made a flying start since being appointed Bayer Leverkusen boss in October
Having won four straight league matches after the World Cup, Alonso’s men have moved up to ninth place and now have genuine aspirations of finishing in the European spots.
It has been an impressive turnaround, and one that Alonso deserves immense credit for.
But how has he done it? Sportsmail takes a look at how the 41-year-old has transformed Leverkusen’s fortunes, taking them from relegation contenders to the in-form side in Germany’s top division.
Adjusting to the team’s needs
Alonso was widely regarded as one of the finest passers of his generation, and having been part of arguably the greatest international team ever – winning three consecutive tournaments with Spain – many would expect him to want to adopt a possession-based game-plan.
Yet that is not always easy when taking over a struggling team who have become accustomed to losing, and Alonso quickly realised that.
He has needed to go against his natural instincts to dominate the ball, instead focusing on making his side tough to break down.
Alonso has made Leverkusen tough to break down, and they have won seven games on the trot
Alonso has largely utilised a 3-4-3 formation, ensuring that his team is compact without the ball, and it has paid dividends.
There have been setbacks, most notably Leverkusen’s 5-1 hammering at Eintracht Frankfurt in his second league game in charge, but the team have gradually found their feet as a defensive unit.
Three clean sheets in their last five matches shows clear progress, with Leverkusen sitting deep and then hitting their opponents on the counter-attack.
This may not be a long-term strategy for Alonso and Leverkusen, but he has quickly recognised the limitations of his team, and has adapted well thus far.
Keeping training secret
Some managers don’t mind having their work seen by the public, but Alonso is keen to keep things under wraps.
Ahead of Leverkusen’s return to action against Borussia Monchengladbach following the winter break, he ensured that there were no open sessions for the media and public to see for the final four days before the match.
It has also been reported that he has called for a three-metre high viewing platform to be closed off, meaning that no one can see what his side are working on.
Alonso has looked to keep training sessions as private as possible at Leverkusen
Alonso is still in the infancy of his managerial career, and clearly wants to get his ideas across without being in the media spotlight.
His approach is working so far, with Leverkusen winning both of their games since the Bundesliga resumed, as teams struggle to find a way to get past Alonso’s resurgent team.
The perfect role model
Players who have excelled at the highest level don’t always succeed when they go into management.
Alonso’s midfield partner at Liverpool, Steven Gerrard, found things difficult in his first Premier League job at Aston Villa. He was sacked after less than a year in charge, while Frank Lampard was recently shown the door by Everton.
But having such a lofty status in the game can help when it comes to inspiring players.
That certainly seems to have been the case at Leverkusen, with creative midfielder Florian Wirtz describing Alonso as ‘very knowledgeable’ and ‘someone you can model yourself after’ in an interview in November.
Florian Wirtz has praised Alonso’s knowledge and wants to model his game on him
‘You definitely notice in the dressing room that you are now working with someone who, as a player, has won many titles, something that you dream of yourself,’ Wirtz told Transfermarkt.
‘It isn’t the worst thing in the world to have someone you can model yourself after, who can give you tips.’
Of course, the magic can wear off quickly if results start going against a team, but Alonso is commanding the respect of his players and they are currently hanging off his every word as he looks to lead them up the table.
Trusting young talent
Leverkusen endured a miserable start to the season, and their young players weren’t firing at all. The easy thing to do would have been to rely on experience to drag the team out of their slump.
Instead, Alonso has stood by his young stars, and they have repaid his faith – none more so than Moussa Diaby.
Prior to Alonso’s arrival, Diaby had failed to score in any of Leverkusen’s opening eight Bundesliga games, and he looked a shadow of the player that was linked with a move to Newcastle last summer.
Moussa Diaby has repaid Alonso’s faith by scoring six goals in his last nine league matches
But Alonso has got him back to his best, with the 23-year-old netting six goals in his last nine top-flight appearances to show what all the fuss has been about.
Down the right flank, Diaby has struck up a strong partnership with Jeremie Frimpong, who has gone from strength to strength under Alonso.
Frimpong showed glimpses of his talent at Celtic and made an instant impact when Alonso took over at Leverkusen by scoring twice in the Spaniard’s first match. A further goal against Wolfsburg followed later that month.
Frimpong has also played his part in Leverkusen’s improvement at the back in recent months.
Jeremie Frimpong has emerged as an exciting talent under the guidance of Alonso
Can Alonso build on his positive start?
The signs are very promising for Alonso and his team, but they will have challenges to overcome in the second half of the season.
With the team set to return to European action next month when the Europa League resumes, they face the prospect of having a congested fixture list if they have a deep run in that competition.
That will test Alonso’s ability to rotate his squad effectively to ensure that they can compete on all fronts.
There is then the issue of Leverkusen’s playing style. Right now they are an organised outfit, but they are not controlling possession and dominating teams as much as Alonso might want.
Should he try to change a winning formula during the season, or would it be wise to build a side over the summer that can implement his preferred approach next term?
That is a question that Alonso is likely to be asking himself, and the answer could determine how the rest of the campaign plays out.
For now, though, he has been almost faultless, enabling his side to start looking up the table rather than nervously over their shoulders.
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