Alonso’s Journey from Player to Manager

Xabi Alonso is not a new name in the soccer world. His player journey took him from the heights of Real Madrid, Liverpool, and Bayern München, gathering accolades and titles along the way.

The Basque-born legendary midfielder recently entered his managerial career with a short stint at Real Sociedad’s B team, known as ‘Sanse’. Though it was not a complete failure, it also wasn’t marked by spectacular success

Challenges at Real Sociedad

As I had noted – in possession, Xabi Alonso demonstrated great ideas, but the defensive limitations of academic soccer prevented the Real Madrid legend from fully implementing his vision.

A frequent source of dispute was the lack of transfers, which Alonso looked for to bolster his squad – as it clashed with Real Sociedad’s txuri-urdin methodology. This eventually led to his departure. However, the results also did not speak in favour of Alonso. 

A New Chapter at Leverkusen

Xabi Alonso’s return to Germany, where he previously excelled with Bayern Munich, started a significant shift. Few people knew it back then, but this was the beginning of a larger revolution at Bayer Leverkusen.

The club was in shambles after Seaone’s stint, which had left the team in a state of disarray despite the visible quality of many promising players. 

Tactical Innovations Under Alonso

Xabi Alonso’s build-up saw a switch from Seaone’s 4-4-2 formation to a more fluid three-at-the-back system. In practice, this often resembled a 5-2-3 due to the high positioning of the wing-backs.

This freed two players that were ‘good’ but not brilliant – Frimpong and Hincapié. 

Frimpong was previously utilized as a right winger, where his lack of maturity in decision-making often hindered his possibilities. 

Under Xabi Alonso, he was moved to the wing-back position. This role minimized his need for complex decision-making, allowing him to focus on leveraging his speed and proximity to other players. 

Hincapié also found a new lease on life in this system, with both players exemplifying one of the main features of Xabi – bringing players ‘together’.

This turned out to be important – everything Alonso upgraded is not linked to the players (or lack of) but instead to what they can all bring together. 

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Midfield Overload and Pressing Strategy

Leverkusen’s introduction of a midfield overload, with the likes of Xhaka and Palacios, has transformed zone #14 into a key area for Leverkusen’s control in both possession and pressing.

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The strategy out of possession focuses on a disciplined three-man press aimed at disrupting opponents’ build-up by cutting down passing channels rather than recklessly overcommitting. It makes it more than frustrating for any opponent. Leverkusen excels at keeping a high intensity throughout their matches, which is tough to do.

Flexibility and Adaptability

But with Alonso, you get the full package – which means Leverkusen does not only have only one way to destroy its opponents. This was shown in their recent match against Bayern München. Leverkusen led comfortably, but, in reaction to the opponent’s change, comfortably sat down in their own block. 

Leverkusen shifts well to different transitions while maintaining their concentration. Therefore, the team also has no problem being more passive and relying on counters. This flexibility is further enhanced by the speed of Hincapié in forward movements and Grimaldo’s role, which creates space and opportunities through his inside positioning.

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Grimaldo’s numbers speak for themselves – the Barcelona academy graduate has become the ‘free spirit’ of the team in the past months. Bayern’s defence struggled to track him down because of the inside movement that forced defenders to either leave him with the ball or find a pass left or right.

Impact on Players and Team Performance

I do not doubt that the closeness and unity within the Leverkusen squad are what has catapulted them to the top tier of Bundesliga competition. This season they have been undefeated in the Bundesliga while impressively defeating Bayern München 3-0.  

This mentioned consistency, equally noticeable in and out of possession, might lead some to question their stamina over the season. Yet, they continue to prove their endurance.

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If the situation calls for the conservation of energy through strategic defending, the team adapts accordingly.

The improvement of Palacios and Frimpong shows how Xabi Alonso has improved the team, both as a unit and on an individual level. Most players are reaching a level they never dreamed of – because Xabi Alonso opened a new set of horizons for them. 

Addressing Weaknesses

The only weakness I can think of is the space behind the wing-backs – who are tasked to defend that space behind them. Every player defends a zone in positional play frameworks, which is no different from Xabi Alonso’s approach. 

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However, this issue rarely becomes a significant problem. Few opponents successfully exploit this vulnerability, and when they do, Leverkusen often quickly readjusts the players’ synchronization to address the issue effectively.

Xabi Alonso’s Philosophy: Xabism

What makes Leverkusen elite, and why can a newbie like Xabi Alonso take the team to such a high level? Midfielders often represent the soul of soccer’s greatest minds, and the same can be said for Alonso. 

However, the unique blend of soccer philosophies he’s experienced throughout his career has surely led Xabi Alonso to see more possibilities than most managers. 

Soccer is a game of momentum, so a coach must be ready to coach any type of system. Xabi Alonso is a great example of the flexibility required at the top level to survive. But if anything stands out – it is the harmonious integration of Spanish possession-based soccer with the relentless pressing characteristic of German soccer. Put these two together, and you have the essence of “Xabism”. 

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