How would Xabi Alonso fit as Liverpool manager?

This feels weird, doesn’t it? This is the first piece I’ve written since Jürgen Klopp's announced that he will be leaving at the end of the season, and it’s all I’ve been able to think about.

Even 90 minutes of quite excellent football against Norwich was in the backdrop of an overly emotional Anfield. Moving on after nine incredible years is going to be difficult. It raises so many questions. The departures of Pep Ljinders, Vitor Matos and Peter Krawietz raised even more.

There was a train of thought from many that Ljinders was being prepared for the lead role at the club when Klopp decided to call it a day – even if we didn’t expect that day to be so soon. After all, the former NEC manager has taken Carabao Cup press conferences, his influence on the team has increased and he even takes most of the training sessions. But the departure of Liverpool’s talismanic German manager and his staff means it’s a clean slate for whoever comes in.

At the time of writing there is one man on everyone’s mind – Xabi Alonso. It all makes so much sense, especially if you love a good narrative. Alonso spent five years on Merseyside, from 2004 to 2009. He was part of that famous night in Istanbul, scoring the first of his teams three goals. He was adored at the club, before departing for Real Madrid for £30m. That love was reciprocated by the Spaniard.

 

Alonso was an exceptional footballer, one of the best deep lying midfielders we’ve seen in recent times. He might be on the path to being an even better manager. Okay, that might be a bit of hyperbole, but the signs are encouraging.

He currently sits top of the Bundesliga with Bayer Leverkusen (infamously nicknamed Neverkusen due to never being able to win a league title), threatening to end Bayern Munich’s 11-season run as German champions.

Despite an untimely slip up with a 0-0 draw at home to Borussia Monchengladbach on Saturday, they find themselves two points ahead of their Bavarian rivals. They also find themselves as the elected darling of the neutrals this season, thanks to their easy on the eye brand of football (toppling Bayern’s monopoly doesn’t harm their cause either).

Alonso arrived in October of last season, where he took over a Leverkusen side 17th in the table. He quickly changed the status quo, setting the team up in a three at the back system (they had almost exclusively played a 4-2-3-1 before then).

Results quickly shifted and Die Werkself rallied to finish 6th in the league and making it to the Europa League semi-finals. This summer was Alonso’s first, and he was able to bring in players (and have Florian Wirtz return from injury) to shape what he wanted to do. Granit Xhaka, Victor Boniface, Jonas Hoffman, Alejandro Grimaldo and more came in and have made a huge impact.

How do Xabi Alonso’s Bayer Leverkusen play?

Let’s start with how they set up. Alonso favours a back three – with Edmond Tapsoba, Jonathan Tah and Odilon Kossounou the first choices. He then has a four-man midfield with two wingbacks on either side of Granit Xhaka and Exequiel Palacios as the double pivot. In attack Jonas Hoffman and Wirtz play as two No. 10's tens behind Boniface, who leads the line.

It looks a little something like this…

The idea is to overload the central areas with bodies, creating space for Grimaldo and Jeremie Frimpong – two natural full/wingbacks who now operate almost exclusively as wide midfielders (asked to cover their flanks both in attack and defence).

In attack, Leverkusen aren’t particularly reliant on one avenue to create their chances, instead there is a nice balance across the attacking line for their chance creation. Grimaldo is an excellent crosser and passer of the football, Frimpong is one of the quickest players in world football and great in 1v1 situation. Wirtz is incredible in every aspect.

They currently rank third for open play expected goals in the Bundesliga (behind Bayern and Stuttgart) with 32.56 – scoring 34.

There have been suggestions this week that Alonso is a coach who is obsessed with control, in similar fashion to his compatriots Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta, yet that doesn’t really show the whole picture.

Opta’s The Analyst website has a useful ‘team sequence styles’ visual that shows us how teams within a league play based on the direct speed of their attacks and passes per attacking sequence. Leverkusen currently are ranked as the most slow and intricate team in the league (for context, Liverpool are towards the faster and more direct teams in the Premier League).

One thing you’re guaranteed to see if you watch Leverkusen is one-two’s in dangerous areas, particularly between Wirtz and (the now injured) Boniface. These quick combinations can help shift the team’s tempo from slow to fast in an instant, catching the opponent off guard. Wirtz will send a wall pass into the feet of Boniface who is then physically strong enough to hold off his defender and direct the ball into the path of Wirtz who is making a penetrative run.

Florian Wirtz, Jamal Musiala - Pro Shots.

Florian Wirtz, Jamal Musiala - Pro Shots.

Boniface also likes to drift out to wide left areas (much like Darwin Núñez) and receive the ball, from there they also use a similar ‘play’ – Boniface will get it into the feet of the more central Wirtz before making a bending run either in behind the full-back or across him and receive the ball again, bypassing defenders in an instant.

Yes, there is more ‘controlled’ possession in a current Alonso side, but he does also thrive in his side creating chaotic moments. Leverkusen set up with three natural central defenders (although all of them are very comfortable on the ball and bring their own in-possession upside) to create a solid base to the side.

Ahead of them is a relentless high-pressing unit. No team has created more high turnovers than Leverkusen this season with 208 (the next best ranked are Bayern on 184). No team has had more high turnovers resulting in a shot than them, either, with 39 shots and 4 goals scored.

Does Xabi Alonso's brand of football fit the current Liverpool squad?

Yes and no, and that’s fine.

While Leverkusen and Liverpool play different styles and have different ideas, there is some crossover. Liverpool have probably been the best counter pressing team in the world since Klopp came in and have some of the best in class in that department. While pressing triggers may be different, you have players in the current squad who have come from the very specific tactical instructions of Brighton’s Roberto De Zerbi and the Red Bull methods.

In possession is perhaps the biggest question mark. Alonso’s Leverkusen uses a very different method – a narrow central unit with two very wide midfielders – to generate width. That’s in contrast to Liverpool, who use Alexander-Arnold to invert into a double pivot and generate a lot of width by asking their two ‘No. 8’s’ to pull out into wide areas while the wingers make penetrating runs into the box.

Yet if we go back to Alonso’s time in charge of Real Sociedad B (who play in Spain’s senior leagues) then you would see a different side to his Leverkusen one. La Real would favour using a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1, using an aggressive pressing system led by the midfield to win the ball back high and play quick football between the lines and in behind defences.

Sounds a bit more like Liverpool, right?

© Proshots - Xabi Alonso

© Proshots - Xabi Alonso

The truth is although there is a limited sample size of less than two full seasons of Alonso as a manager and what his favoured setup is, there is evidence of him being adaptable to the squads he has and its strengths. Where he could generate width from his wingers in Spain, he wasn’t able to find that in Germany – where he found a squad with an athletic phenomenon of a wide player in Frimpong and excellent central operators – so he adapted.

Alonso has his fundamentals as a coach, there have been common themes of aggressive high pressing, one-two’s, and lots of movement in behind during his career so far. Yet there is evidence that he isn’t married to one system, one way of doing things to make that happen, and that he can adapt to the strengths of the squad.

Sure, if you tried to shoehorn this current Liverpool squad into the Leverkusen system it would be an awkward fit – but Alonso wouldn’t try and do that. He’d assess the squad and adjust – just like Klopp did when moving from Dortmund.

There are risks when hiring a young manager, but Alonso’s current trajectory is on an upward path, and he’d be inheriting a freshened squad with something to prove. To suggest that Alonso or the squad can’t adapt to each other is unfair, and while there may be teething issues, it looks like a good fit.

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