Xabi Alonso: Future Tottenham (or Liverpool) manager?

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Xabi Alonso Bayer Leverkusen 2022-23
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The Spaniard has been impressive since taking over at Bayer Leverkusen, and now faces Jose Mourinho's Roma for a place in the Europa League final

Xabi Alonso and Jose Mourinho have history, both as friends and as enemies. Not for the first time, they meet in a European semi-final this week; the apprentice versus the master, the bright young thing against the man who has been there, done it and told the world how special he was while doing it.

It promises to be a hell of an occasion at Stadio Olimpico on Thursday, as Mourinho’s Roma welcome Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen for the first leg of their Europa League clash.

For Mourinho, it is a chance to confirm his return to prominence, after a few fallow years, by reaching his sixth major European final, and a second in successive seasons. Even at 60, there’s life in the old dog yet.

For Alonso, meanwhile, it’s the biggest test yet of his burgeoning managerial career, an opportunity to underline why so many are tipping the former Liverpool, Real Madrid and Spain star for a long and successful managerial career, one which will surely see him in the Premier League before too long.

  1. Lighting up Leverkusen

    Lighting up Leverkusen

    Alonso has had quite the impact since taking over at Leverkusen in October. Having inherited a side 17th in the Bundesliga, the 41-year-old has won 17 of his 32 games in charge since, losing only eight. His side have beaten the likes of Bayern Munich and RB Leipzig, and were enjoying a 14-match unbeaten run in all competitions prior to their 2-1 defeat at home to FC Koln last weekend. 

    Eliminated from the Champions League in the group stages, Die Schwarzroten have taken to the Europa League well too, eliminating Monaco in an epic clash in the play-off round before seeing off Ferencvaros and Union St. Gilloise in the last 16 and quarter-finals, respectively.

    Now, only Roma stand in their way, as they seek to reach only the third European final in their history, and their first since 2002. "For the team and the club, it will be very nice," Alonso said this week. "To be in the semi-finals in Europe has not happened often in the club's history, [so] we want to make it as good as possible."

  2. Destined to be a top coach

    Destined to be a top coach

    To those who worked with Alonso throughout his distinguished, 18-year playing career, it is no surprise to see him succeeding in management. Mourinho certainly saw the potential, having coached the midfielder for three seasons at Real Madrid between 2010 and 2013.

    “His father was a manager, so he grew up similar to me,” he said back in 2019. “Then he became a player. A top player. His position on the pitch and his knowledge of the game [was] very high.

    "He played in Spain, in England and in Germany. And he was coached by [Pep] Guardiola with Bayern Munich, by myself in Real Madrid, by [Carlo] Ancelotti in Real Madrid, by [Rafa] Benitez in Liverpool. So, I think if you put all this together, Xabi has the conditions to be a very good coach.”

    Alonso himself has spoken of those key influences, and how they have helped shape him. "I've learned from each coach," he explained recently. "I've lived through good and bad moments. I tried to understand why they made the decisions they did so that I could start to build my own vision as a coach and a manager. But later, after taking the best piece from each one, you need to build your own personality and style, and not just copy and paste. It's about being authentic."

    His Leverkusen players have certainly responded to him. "When he got here, the first thing he did was to change the mentality within the squad," says forward Moussa Diaby. "He asked us to forget about what happened before he got there, and told us to play as if we were starting a new season.

    "He brought his experience to the club; he uses what he has been through as a player to help us improve on a daily basis. He's done really well so far, so long may it continue. We're very happy that he's our head coach, the team is playing well and we're heading in the right direction."

  3. Taking his time

    Taking his time

    What has been notable about Alonso’s rise to prominence is how carefully he has chosen his jobs. His reputation as a player was that of someone who always saw the bigger picture, and that has been evident so far during his coaching career too.

    He retired from playing in 2017, but rather than jumping in at the deep end with a high-profile senior role, he worked first with Real Madrid’s Under-13s side, and then with the B team at another former club, Real Sociedad before finally, after much deliberation, taking the plunge with Leverkusen last autumn.

    Roberto Olabe, the sporting director at Real Sociedad, believes such a patient approach will serve Alonso well in the long run. “With Xabi, one thing to know about him is that he considers every decision he takes very carefully,” Olabe told GOAL back in January. “So when he chooses to go to Leverkusen, it is because he feels he is ready.

    “He has stuck to the plan so far in his coaching career, and now he has taken this big step, and I say good luck to him. I have no doubt he will do well.” So far, so good on that front, you’d have to say.

  4. Style guide
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    Style guide

    So what kind of coach is Alonso, then? Well, it won’t surprise you to learn that Leverkusen have developed into a possession-based team since he took charge. They are one of only seven Bundesliga sides to average more than 50 percent of the ball, and have the fifth-best passing accuracy in the league. They also have the fourth-best expected goals (xG) figure, suggesting they are pretty adept at carving out good scoring opportunities.

    “Xabi is a midfielder, still!” Olabe told GOAL when asked about Alonso’s coaching style. “And I think midfielders want to have control of the game. If they don’t, they suffer a lot. He wants his team to have the ball, to be balanced, to control the space with possession. He wants to build this midfield zone, and he wants that axis player that can help him do that.”

    To achieve this, Alonso generally uses a three-man defence and a deep-lying midfield pivot, relying on his wing-backs to provide much of the side’s width and with two No.10s looking to pick up possession and create in more advanced central areas.

    Generally, it has worked well. Since the resumption of the Bundesliga season in January, Leverkusen have failed to score only four times in 22 matches, and have scored two or more in 15 of those games. They are certainly far from dull. 

    "We may be a young team, but we're also a very mature one," says Diaby. "Players here know what they want to achieve, and we also know what we shouldn't do. Young players need to be told what to do at times, and that's what their older peers are there for."

  5. The key players
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    The key players

    Crucially, and not coincidentally given Alonso’s carefully-chosen career path, the Spaniard inherited a Leverkusen squad featuring several highly-gifted young players, whom he has been able to swiftly improve.

    Many are already being tipped for transfers. Dutch international wing-back Jeremie Frimpong, once of Manchester City, has been linked with Manchester United, while Arsenal and Newcastle are among those tracking 23-year-old French international forward Diaby. The likes of Ecuadorian defender Piero Hincapie (21), striker Adam Hlozek (20), defender Edouard Tapsoba (24) and forward Amine Adli (23) have also performed well since Alonso's arrival.

    The jewel in the Leverkusen crown, however, is attacking midfielder Florian Wirtz, who has been working his way back towards peak fitness and form since January, after missing 10 months due to an ACL injury.

    The 20-year-old, already capped six times by Germany, has been linked with Barcelona, Real Madrid and Manchester City, among others. Alonso has compared him to Lionel Messi, and while that is perhaps unwise, the technically-astute, hard-running Wirtz will undoubtedly be key if Leverkusen are to get past Mourinho and Co.

  6. Shared history

    Shared history

    There will, undoubtedly, be a warm embrace between Mourinho and Alonso prior to Thursday’s game, and this will, incredibly, be the fourth time the two have met in a major semi-final. Alonso emerged victorious on each of the previous three occasions, his Liverpool side defeating Mourinho’s Chelsea in two Champions League semis and once in the FA Cup during a remarkable spell between 2005 and 2007.

    “It was like every year we were meant to play against each other four times,” Alonso said recently. “I loved those games. They were super battles.”

    Alonso and Mourinho would later work alongside one another, spending three seasons together at Real Madrid, where they would memorably pip Guardiola’s legendary Barcelona side to the Liga title in 2012, as well as winning a Copa del Rey and a Spanish Super Cup. Mourinho eventually left Madrid after falling out with several key players, but Alonso was not one.

    "The players believe in him - you want to play and to fight on the pitch for him," Alonso has said. "As far as I have had the chance to work with different coaches, Jose has something a bit different. The way he transmits and communicates with the players is different, as is the way he empathises."

  7. Premier League bound?
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    Premier League bound?

    It is not beyond the realms of possibility, of course, that both Mourinho and Alonso will be on the move this summer. Mourinho, reports in France suggest, is in the frame to replace Christophe Galtier at Paris Saint-Germain, having reportedly turned down the chance of a sensational return to Chelsea earlier this week.

    Alonso, meanwhile, has been identified by Tottenham as a potential candidate to take over from Antonio Conte, who was sacked in March. It has been reported that Spurs chairman Daniel Levy would be willing to pay the necessary compensation to land Alonso at the end of the season.

    “Rumours are normal,” Alonso said when asked about the stories last week. “But we still have a lot to achieve. That's why my head is 100% here for the last few months. And my head is also 100% here for next season.”

    Alonso’s former clubs, too, will have a close eye on his progress. Real Madrid could be looking for a new coach next season if Carlo Ancelotti takes up the offer as head coach of the Brazilian national team, while Bayern Munich are banking on newly-appointed Thomas Tuchel overcoming a difficult start to life in Bavaria.

    Liverpool, too, are well aware of Alonso’s development. They do not expect to be in the market for a new manager any time soon, with Jurgen Klopp still contracted until 2026 and under no pressure despite a difficult campaign, but the Reds know that succession planning at Anfield will be key in the coming years, and will be watching with interest as Alonso navigates his way through the early stages of his coaching career.

    Whatever happens, both this week and beyond, it will be no surprise at all to see him go from strength to strength. And no surprise at all to see Alonso coaching in the Premier League before he’s very much older.