Xabi Alonso inspires Bayer Leverkusen revival as they face Europa League test

Spaniard leads Germans into quarter-final second-leg clash with Union Saint-Gilloise

Bayer Leverkusen manager Xabi Alonso. Getty
Powered by automated translation

After barely six months in his first job as head coach of a top division club, it is still accurate to call Xabi Alonso a novice in the profession.

But ask around the managers who knew him as a player and they would tell you he’s been practising the role for 20 years.

“He saw himself as a coach when he was on the pitch,” Jose Mourinho said of the former midfielder, a pillar of the Portuguese manager’s Real Madrid a dozen years ago.

“I would predict him being successful as a manager anywhere,” added Pep Guardiola, who built strategy around Xabi when he was head coach of Bayern Munich.

Quite whether Guardiola would have forecast the extent of the Xabi effect on Bayer Leverkusen, who appointed the 41-year-old in early October, is moot. He came to a club in deep crisis, one place off the bottom of the Bundesliga.

They had lost two of their three Champions League group matches. A 4-0 defeat to Bayern Munich would be the previous head coach Gerardo Seoane’s last domestic assignment.

The improvement since has been steep, almost a mirror image of the slump that opened up the vacancy.

For his first match in charge Xabi, whose apprenticeship in management was served coaching the B and academy teams at Real Sociedad, oversaw a 4-0 win over Schalke 04.

By the time the return fixture against Bayern came around last month, Leverkusen were soaring up the table. They beat Bayern 2-1, causing the latter to create a vacancy of their own by sacking Julian Nagelsmann.

On Thursday evening, Xabi sets his sights on a semi-final place in the Europa League, having steered Leverkusen into the competition by finishing third, above Atletico Madrid, in their tough Champions League group.

They travel to Union Saint-Gilloise, of Belgium, tied at 1-1 from the first leg, with all sorts of tantalising possibilities if they progress. Leverkusen have not reached the last four of a European competition since they were surprise Champions League finalists 21 years ago.

If Roma were also to go through, Xabi could confront Mourinho in the next round.

“We needed things freshened up in our heads, and he has done that,” said Moussa Diaby, the striker whose own change of fortune illustrates the impact of Xabi.

Diaby was still waiting for his first Bundesliga goal or assist of the season when the new coach came in after eight match days. He’s now scored nine and set up eight, ably filling the gaps left by long absences with injury of the club’s more renowned striker, the Czech Patrik Schick.

Another key beneficiary of Xabi’s guidance has been the German prodigy Florian Wirtz who, at 19, has lately been fulfilling the bold predictions made of him since his early teens, creatively influential in the 11-match unbeaten run Leverkusen take into tonight.

To sustain that momentum over two competitions requires strategic nous, a test for a young manager in that he needs to gauge carefully when to rest trusted players, how much to rotate and how to keep motivated those who switch in and out.

Leverkusen, from a small city, do not have a supersized squad. Though they are backed by a major firm, Bayer, they are not a huge-budget institution, and rely on sharp-eyed, worldwide talent-spotting.

It means the group of players Xabi took command of is among the most diverse in Germany’s top division. Look only at the roll-call of the tensest game of his time in charge, the see-saw play-off round of the Europa League settled on penalties after a 3-2 loss at home against Monaco was matched by a 3-2 Leverkusen win in the away leg.

The goals in open play that night came from Wirtz; from Amine Adli, the 22-year-old French-Moroccan winger and from Exequiel Palacios, the Argentinian midfielder who is the Bundesliga’s only resident holder of a World Cup 2022 winner’s medal.

Come the shoot-out, Xabi instructed his Iran international Sardar Azmoun to take the first and Nadiem Amiri, his German-Afghan midfielder the second; Edmond Tapsoba, the Burkinabe defender, was allocated the third. Schick and Diaby completed the roster.

With the list came the instruction, one Xabi is fond of repeating, to keep “emotional control”. All five spot-kick takers did. All five were needed, Leverkusen winning the shoot-out 5-4.

“I didn’t expect us to score all five,” admitted Wirtz, mindful that for the last two years, Leverkusen have developed a notoriety for fluffing penalties.

They used to be taunted as "Neverkusen", too, the club who sometimes came close but never actually won trophies.

They now have a coach who won all the best medals – World Cup, Champions Leagues, Euros – as a player. Used well, that know-how can be inspiring.

Updated: April 20, 2023, 4:48 AM