Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen are redefining total football one absurd tactic at a time
The latest success in a growing list of holding midfielders who turned into football managers, Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen are taking European football by storm.
Your son’s favourite football team, Leverkusen have suddenly become the club for society’s cropped trousers and tote bag-wearing IPA drinkers.
German football has generally always endeared itself to that sort of crowd between the safe-standing sections, pints in the stands, cool kits and clubs steeped in history, but Leverkusen are taking it to a new level with that handsome bastard on the touchline.
We’re allowed to say all this as we absolutely qualify as the kind of football culture nerds who are suckers for cool clubs, sexy managers who used to be brilliant midfielders, and all things tote bags and nice pints.
The great thing about culture in football is that it doesn’t matter how bad a team is if they’re cool above all else.
Venezia are back in Serie B, but they have brilliant kits, slick graphics and Serie A sides used to arrive to their ground via boat. Who cares what they play like?
What makes Alonso and Leverkusen stand out above the rest, though, is that they’re combining form with function. It’s cool and hip to like them both as a tactico nerd and a football culture nerd.
The strapping Spaniard, his gorgeous beard and his exceptional vision of the beautiful game has created a world where two completely different factions can co-exist, better than a makeshift tag team on an episode of Monday Night RAW.
When he’s not looking all suave or pinging passes on the training ground in a pair of Copa Mundials, he’s putting on coaching clinics in the Bundesliga and Europa League, embracing his nerdy side and quietly ascending to the top of the mountain.
After 11 games in the 2023-24 Bundesliga season, Leverkusen sit top of the table with 10 wins and one draw to their name, having toppled the likes of RB Leipzig and Borussia Monchengladbach, while drawing 2-2 to the ever-inevitable Bayern Munich.
That is obscene.
It’s even more obcene knowing that when Alonso took over the side in October 2022, Leverkusen were second-bottom in the Bundesliga after eight games. What a difference a year makes.
Transforming Die Werkself into a ruthless pack with young Florian Wirtz thriving at the centre of it all, it’s exceptionally impressive how Alonso is able to get such a tune out of his squad.
Wirtz has been stealing the headlines for his glorious displays filled with flicks, tricks and crucially a sickening cutting edge in front of goal, but it’s the revival of a certain Granit Xhaka that stands out just as much.
Since leaving Arsenal in the summer, the Swiss midfielder’s stock has gone through the roof. You can call Bundesliga tax all you want, but that doesn’t do justice to the fact that Xhaka has made more successful passes into the final third than any other player in Europe’s top seven leagues this season.
Alonso has given him the keys and the squad are repaying him.
A key component to succeeding in today’s game is implementing an uncompromising and unrelenting style, but doing that is easier said than done.
Leverkusen are playing dominant and explosive football, but what allows them to do so are 100 IQ moves, such as their tactic to keep play moving as quickly as possible.
Xabi Alonso ball = Leverkusen playing quickly, even when the ball goes out.
Just counted up 29 balls lined up round the perimeter of the pitch. Some of them below. That seems…a lot!? pic.twitter.com/766aC8yVXa
— Archie Rhind-Tutt (@archiert1) November 12, 2023
The most subtle of details, but it makes all the difference. Xabi, you big nerd. We love you.
It’s the little things like this which can go unnoticed at a glance that allows Alonso to implement such a strong style at Leverkusen and drill his players into being ruthless, all-action attackers.
Jose Mourinho rather amazingly claimed in 2010: “He has the quality that a ‘metronome’ must have. I’m sure that when he hangs up his boots he’ll be a great coach if he wants to be. He reminds me of Pep Guardiola when I had him as a player.
“He was already a coach on the pitch.”
Incredible vision from the Special One, who is probably now looking over his shoulder knowing Alonso is leading the pack as the next generation of elite managers look to step up and propel football forward.
As glorious as his Leverkusen side have been, we can’t imagine he’ll be there for much longer. Enjoy them while you still can.
By Mitch Wilks