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.”