Elite players do not necessarily make great football managers. We should know that by now. However, the early signs from the relatively short coaching career of Bayer Leverkusen manager Xabi Alonso suggest that the former midfielder may just be an exception to the rule.
Alonso has steered Leverkusen from second bottom in the Bundesliga to fighting for a Champions League place in a matter of months, while his side are also in the hunt for a Europa League semi-final spot after an extremely impressive run in the knockout rounds of the competition.
Since hanging up his boots in 2017, the Spaniard enjoyed spells as a coach in the academy of Real Madrid and the B team of boyhood club Real Sociedad – even achieving promotion to the Segunda division with the latter for the first time in over 60 years. Yet Alonso’s appointment at the BayArena last October was a huge leap of faith given his lack of top-flight experience.
The start of 2022-23 was not pretty for Leverkusen. They suffered their worst ever start to a Bundesliga campaign – winning just one of their opening eight games under Gerardo Seoane – and Die Werkself were also on the end of an embarrassing upset in the first round of the DFB Pokal, knocked out by third-tier side Elversberg.
It was a huge fall from grace for Seoane. The Swiss coach had guided Leverkusen to third place in the Bundesliga last term – the club’s best league finish in seven years. However, defeat to Porto on MD2 of the Champions League group stage saw Seoane handed his marching orders and replaced by Alonso – a three-time Bundesliga winner as a player – at the start of October.
A 4-0 victory over fellow strugglers Schalke in Alonso’s maiden game was the perfect start to his reign. In fact, it was the biggest margin of victory in a manager’s first Bundesliga game in charge of Leverkusen. However, a six-game winless run across all competitions thereafter proved that there was considerable work to be done at the club.
Yet November was a turning point for Alonso’s side. B04 won three consecutive Bundesliga games ahead of the 2022 World Cup break – including a 5-0 thrashing of then-league leaders Union Berlin and an away victory over rivals Köln in the Rhine derby. His charges also sealed European football in the new year via a third-placed finish in their Champions League group, despite losing three of their first four matches in the competition.
Since the turn of the year, Bayer’s form has been nothing short of remarkable. In fact, only Borussia Dortmund (32) have picked up more points in the Bundesliga across 2023 than Die Werkself (26).
After starting the year in 12th and just five points above the relegation zone, Leverkusen have soared up the league table. They now occupy sixth spot and have a top-four finish firmly in their sights – it’s been quite the turnaround for Alonso’s side.
Since the Basque’s arrival at the BayArena, only the top two Bayern Munich (55) and Dortmund (51) have scored more goals than Leverkusen in the Bundesliga (42). Bayer have also conceded just 15 league goals since the turn of the year – giving them the joint-third sternest defence in the division during that period.
Typically favouring a 3-4-3 formation, the Spaniard has transformed B04 into the deadliest counter-attacking side in the Bundesliga. Despite having the fifth-highest average possession in the German top-flight (52%), keeping the ball is not fundamental to their system. Instead, Alonso has implemented patterns of play which allow his side to navigate between the lines and attack aggressively.
Many sides that deploy a 3-4-3 often struggle to apply pressure effectively due to the fact that they retreat into a 5-4-1. Yet this is not the case for Alonso’s outfit. The Leverkusen front three stay very narrow without the ball, confining the space in midfield and forcing the opposition to go wide. Bayer’s backline spread across the width of the pitch which allows them to exert pressure in areas far away from their goal. As a result, Alonso’s side are uber-effective in winning the ball-back and transitioning from defence-to-attack when opponents are at their most vulnerable.
This is reflected in their turnover numbers. While Leverkusen overall pressing numbers are fairly low (their 171 high turnovers are the second-fewest in the league), when they do look to press they’re very effective. Only Bayern (60) have completed more shot-ending high turnovers than Bayer’s 35. In fact, Alonso’s side generate shots from 20% of their high turnovers, which is the highest mark in the league.
At the forefront of Bayer’s fleet-footed counter-attack is France international Moussa Diaby. The 23-year-old has spearheaded B04’s forward line, boasting 15 goal contributions in the Bundesliga across 2022-23 (nine goals, six assists). Five of those goals have come directly following a ball carry, and running with the ball at speed is an area where Diaby excels. The winger has created 51 chances following a ball carry (running with the ball for five metres or so), which is 15 more than the next-best player in the Bundesliga (Marcus Thuram – 36). He leads all Bundesliga players in shots (29) and chances created (22) following carries.
More generally, Diaby is extremely influential in the final third for Alonso’s side and has accumulated the fifth highest expected goals (xG) tally in the league this term (9.8). In addition, the winger has had the third most shots on target (35) and the sixth most shots (64) in the Bundesliga.
The Leverkusen attacker is also equally as effective as a provider, with only Werder Bremen’s Mitchell Weiser (15) creating more big chances than Diaby in the league this season (14). Furthermore, his expected assists total of 5.9 ranks 10th in the Bundesliga – showcasing just how vital the forward is to the way that Alonso’s side wreak havoc upon opposition defences. In fact, if you combined Diaby’s xG and xA totals together, only four players in the league can better his 15.7 total, proving just how much of a dual threat the winger is.
Alongside Diaby, right wing-back Jeremie Frimpong ensures that Bayer boast one of the most potent right-hand sides across Europe’s big five leagues. The 22-year-old has been one of the revelations of the season in the Bundesliga, notching eight goals and six assists. Frimpong has a very different role to the left-wing back in Alonso’s system in possession, as he acts more like a winger rather than a defensive player. The ex-Manchester City player looks to terrorise opposition defenders at every given opportunity – making the most successful take-ons in the Bundesliga this term (82). Frimpong has also made the most progressive carries of 10m+ in the league (162), enabling B04 to advance up the pitch at speed. The wing-back has struck up a terrific understanding with Diaby, with the dynamic duo combining for more goals than any other pairing in the Bundesliga this year (eight).
Another key reason behind Leverkusen’s upturn in form has been Florian Wirtz’s return from the cruciate ligament injury that he suffered at the back end of last season. Die Werkself’s youngest ever player operates as part of the three-man forward line and is central to everything that Alonso’s side does. The 19-year-old has hit the ground running upon his return from the sidelines, scoring once and providing six assists in just 12 Bundesliga appearances. Wirtz also has three goals and two assists in the Europa League – netting the equalising goal in their 1-1 first leg quarter-final draw with Belgian side Union Saint-Gilloise.
The German often floats in between the lines to drag opposition players out of possession, which creates vast amounts of space for Leverkusen’s powerful runners to exploit. Since his return from injury in January, only Randal Kolo Muani (13) has more goal contributions among Bundesliga players across all competitions than Wirtz (12), while only Jonas Hofmann (43) has created more chances than the 19-year-old (40).
Leverkusen are currently unbeaten in 11 games across all competitions (W8 D3), while they last went 12 such matches without defeat in May 2020. Averaging 1.95 points per game in the Bundesliga, Alonso has successfully restored Die Werkself back into the upper echelons of the league table. The Basque also has the highest Bundesliga win rate of any B04 boss to take charge of 10+ games (60%).
Their current league position of sixth would see them seal a Europa Conference League spot for next season, yet there is the sense emerging from the club that a top four-berth is a real possibility. Alonso’s outfit trail fourth-placed RB Leipzig by seven points, with the East German club Leverkusen’s next league opponents on Sunday afternoon. The Opta supercomputer makes them outsiders to sneak into the top four (just a 7.2%) but there’s certainly a world in which it happens.
Prior to that though is the second leg of their Europa League quarter-final clash against Union SG, with the tie finely poised at the halfway stage. The Spaniard is seeking to guide Bayer to the semi-finals of a European competition for the first time since 2001-02, when they were defeated by Real Madrid in the final of the Champions League.
Alonso’s short spell in charge of Leverkusen has been a resounding success thus far, with him already being touted for some of the biggest managerial roles in football. And it’s easy to see why.