Xabi Alonso’s appointment by Bayer Leverkusen was popular. Former bandmate Philipp Lahm insisted that he had all the qualities needed to succeed. Even old coaches Pep Guardiola and Jose Mourinho were united in their belief in his abilities.
But others wondered if it was worth the risk. A coach with no experience in the top flight takes over a team that is still in the Champions League, but only one place away from the end of the Bundesliga. The first relegation from the league was a real fear for Leverkusen.
The mixed start only added doubters outside the club, but Alonso led Leverkusen to five straight league wins on both sides of the World Cup. Beat Ferencvaros in two legs and they too will reach the quarter-finals of the Europa League.
For Simon Rolfes, the club’s longtime midfielder turned sporting director, a decision that seemed optimistic is now seen as ingenious. Speaking to him at the BayArena office, he claims he had to trust his instincts when it came to Alonso.
“It is true that Xabi had no experience as a head coach at this level and also in this situation,” says Rolfes Sky Sports. “But for me it’s always important to consider the quality of the head coach and I just knew he had the quality to improve the team.
“Maybe it would be different if there were three games left until the end of the season. It would be a different situation because you don’t have time. But there are only eight games left until the end of the season. With the World Cup break, we had time to improve.”
Improvement was certainly needed. Despite finishing third under Swiss manager Gerardo Seoane last season, Leverkusen suffered their worst start to the season since the club first gained promotion to the Bundesliga in 1979. Relationships fell apart.
“The starting point was a team without trust, players without trust,” admits Rolfes. “It was a difficult situation, and really difficult situation for Xabi. But I was absolutely convinced that he would improve the quality of the players and the quality of the team.
It was a feeling, really. Alonso was a world-class footballer, Champions League winner and World Cup winner. He played under the guidance of the greatest managers of his era. But his senior coaching experience was limited to a period with Real Sociedad’s reserves.
“You can analyze play style there, but not with a lot of data,” admits Rolfes. “It’s definitely different. But it wasn’t a problem that he had no experience. After all, no one has experience to begin with. Ultimately, it all depends on the person.
“I had good information because he was playing with guys I know. He has always been consistent as a player and as a person. He is a great thinker. Always focused, always thinking about how we can improve and resolve situations. It was obvious. He understands the game.”
Xabi Alonso Football Career
2000 – 2004: Real Sociedad
2004 – 2009: Liverpool
2009 – 2014: Real Madrid
2014 – 2017: Bayern Munich
He hoped his time at Bayern Munich would help him adapt. Rolfes talks to Alonso about ‘German mentality’. Although the fact that his only experience was with young players was considered positive. “There is no other choice for our head coach,” he adds.
“Our style of play is our DNA. Very offensive, very technical. This can be seen in our youth teams. We have technical guys and we try to give them more time to develop. This is deeply rooted here – faith in young players and give them time.
“We always have young squads, so we need a coach who can develop the team, but also develop the players individually in terms of their positions, behaviors and rules. This is Xabi’s big strength. And the first team is also very international too.”
Sunday 12 March 16:20
Start at 16:30
Callum Hudson-Odoi is one of those young representatives. On loan from Chelsea, he was a four-year-old boy when Alonso’s goal for Liverpool in the 2005 Champions League final against AC Milan helped end the return of all comebacks.
“I think the club has someone who has won everything playing football, that’s something huge. It’s a big deal,” says Hudson-Odoi. Sky Sports. And he can still play. “She still has something in her, trust me. In training, you can see how little he does. I think he still could.”
Alonso quickly made an impression. “When he first came in, I think you could immediately see in the first game how he wanted to play and how he wanted to push the boys and everything. He is a very good person off the pitch and a very good manager.
“He wants to play with energy and intensity. As a striker, he tells me to always be a problem, make sure you cause problems for the defence. Whether running from behind or getting up or shooting or whatever, just always be a threat. It’s nice to have that push, to know that he believes in you to do it.
“There are times when he shouts just to get his point across, or you can see on the pitch that he demonstrates what he expects of us. It just shows the passion he has and he is determined to get his point across and help the team.”
Finding a style of play at Leverkusen
Rediscovering the right style of play for Leverkusen has been a challenge. As you would expect from a player who enjoyed success in Spain and under Guardiola at Bayern, Alonso instinctively craves the ball. His team ranks fifth in ball possession in the Bundesliga.
But finding patterns can be elusive in a league known for its crossings and a group of players whose most obvious weapon is pace. While Florian Wirtz prefers complexity, Jeremie Frimpong and Moussa Diaby prefer to have space to fall into.
“We have a lot of offensive power in the team and we want to get back to that,” says Rolfes. “But you always have to see that style of play in context. If you are relegated and our players are not used to it, it has a psychological effect on you.
“You have to play a different way, be compact. These are the basics. You can build on it. We have fast players so if we are compact and work hard we can beat teams in transition. But we definitely want to build a house again. It’s a process.”
Alonso is the man entrusted with the task of rebuilding. It will take time, but only the top four in the Bundesliga have won more games since his arrival, and with the victory over Monaco, their European adventure continues.
Losing 3-2 twice in four days last month shows there’s still a long way to go, but when it clicked, it clicked. It’s the opening win over Schalke 4-0. Demolition of Union Berlin 5-0, which started a five-win streak. Optimism remains.
Indeed, Rolfes is now even more confident than when he was brought in.
“His impact is no surprise. But it’s the same with the players, you make decisions but you never know. With the players, at least you see them play. As head coach, you always have to analyze the events on the pitch and then draw your conclusions back to the coach.”
So what did he see on the field?
“Some patterns in the games. You can see that it’s not just about the quality of the players, it’s been trained. From these elements you create the image of the coach. Sometimes it’s more difficult than with the players, but eventually you’ll see if the image is correct.
“With Xabi it’s clear.”
Sunday 5 March 14:30
Start at 14:30
Therefore, debt collection, but the awareness that this is only the beginning. Rolfes is delighted that the team “will be at the center of everything since Xabi arrived”, but Leverkusen’s ambitions go beyond that with the help of a coach who is set on bigger things.
“We want to go as far as possible in the Europa League. In the Bundesliga, seventh place will be the first European place and we are behind. This bad start is done. You can see it in the table. But we have to focus on the process. We have to go step by step.
“It was a good first step. We’ll try to take advantage of it.”
Watch Bayer Leverkusen vs Hertha Berlin live on Sky Sports Football this Sunday; start 14.30