Bayer 04 Leverkusen is currently the team in the Bundesliga that plays the most attractive football – and is also extremely successful at it. The reason for this is simple: Xabi Alonso. But what did the Spaniard do to get Leverkusen on track in such a way?
In Leverkusen they rediscovered something they thought they had lost long ago: a positive basic feeling that something big could emerge in the medium to long term. Since Alonso has been on the bench, the league has climbed from penultimate to sixth place. In the Europa League, the club has reached the quarter-finals and after the 1-1 draw in the first leg against Union Saint-Gilloise on Thursday, they still have good prospects for the semi-finals.
Bayer 04 won seven competitive games in a row and have been unbeaten for ten. Including the deserved 2-1 win against Bayern. Alonso seems to have fully arrived. In just six months, the 41-year-old has ensured on several levels that Leverkusen are taken seriously again – and that they can take themselves seriously again.
But what specifically changed the former midfield legend? And why could he be the coach who finally ensures consistency?
Bayer 04 Leverkusen: Xabi Alonso finds the “healthy middle”
“We watched a lot of games and from the outside we couldn’t shake the impression that anything could happen in the games,” Alonso said in a recent interview with the SZwhen asked about his impression of the team before he took over: “Because there was a lack of healthy control of the games, a healthy middle. Sometimes the team carried the burden of the game without really dominating the game.”
And further: “Or she had problems in transition situations, although the team has really good players for transition situations. Football is always a question of emotional states and this team probably had to deal with the doubt after the good previous season: Oh, maybe I am I’m not as pretty as I was drawn.”
It is remarkable with what precision Alonso names Leverkusen’s problems on the one hand, but on the other hand seems to have solved them in a short time. Meanwhile, the team is able to take the load of the game because it can establish dominance. As in the 3-1 win against Eintracht Frankfurt.
Bayer 04 Leverkusen: Xabi Alonso gives the game more clarity
Clear principles can be seen in all phases of the game. Alonso usually builds up with four central defenders. Piero Hincapié plays a nominal wing defender on the left, but without being particularly active offensively. In possession, the Werkself build up with a flat back four. Before that, Robert Andrich and Exequiel Palacios move into the gaps – but always in such a way that they are not on a line.
With up to six players, Leverkusen always have enough passing stations to cover up the opponent’s high pressing and not to come under pressure. The ball usually circulates through the chain until there is an opportunity to attack via one of the two half-spaces. This is where Florian Wirtz comes into play, who has a very free role on the offensive. The national player moves a lot between the opponent’s defense and midfield, trying above all to establish connections with the outside players.
This positional game is difficult for opposing teams to grasp. On the one hand due to the high individual quality, on the other hand the ball-carrying players almost always have more than one option to free themselves from there to the center. Frankfurt’s pressing almost always came to nothing.
Leverkusen: Why diagonality is so important for Xabi Alonso
Another important aspect is diagonality. The entire team positions itself in possession of the ball in such a way that hardly any players stand on a vertical line. Vertical passes have two major disadvantages: The recipient of the pass usually has a limited field of vision because he has to resolve the situation with his back to the opposing goal. Also, the opposing team only needs to move in one direction.
The defense in particular can remain positioned as it is. A diagonal pass, on the other hand, creates both space gain and a shift in the game. The receiver of the pass can act with an open position that gives him a good field of view. And the defensive line has to shift depending on the pass angle. This can lead to gaps. Especially when it is unclear who should attack the pass recipient.
Leverkusen is almost meticulous about playing as many diagonal balls as possible and using the resulting spaces with the fast attacking players – especially the right flank with Jeremie Frimpong and Moussa Diaby stands out. The former, nominally right wing defender, acts extremely high due to the good defensive protection.
Bayer 04 play refreshing football. Alonso shows the rather monotonous Bundesliga that possession football can also work in Germany. His approaches are neither highly complex nor unique. But the way Leverkusen are currently doing it suggests that the former Champions League winner has found a very good relationship with his team.
Xabi Alonso makes Bayer Leverkusen more stable against the ball
His players not only benefit from the ideas on the offensive. Good staggering and clear principles in midfield mean that Leverkusen are more stable on the ball. When the ball is lost, many players are close to the ball in order to counter press directly. If that doesn’t work, Andrich and the four central defenders provide you with robust protection, which often manages to slow down the opponent’s switching situations. This allows Leverkusen to get the rest of their players behind the ball again.
In recent years, Leverkusen have played different types of football. Extremely offensive, extremely defensive, but sometimes the team just seemed headless. The “healthy center” that Alonso had previously missed now seems to be forming with his ideas.
Nevertheless, he also knows how far the road is. In recent years, Leverkusen has often shown successful football over a short period of time, only to experience a slump again in the end. “We’re in a good moment,” said the ex-FC Bayern professional after the win over Frankfurt: “We have to stay calm and keep our feet on the ground.”
Xabi Alonso is now facing these challenges
As once as a player, Alonso sets the pace for the team. With calm, but also with many good ideas – and the awareness that you are far from the end of development. Against Frankfurt, the team missed an early decision, which brought Eintracht back again. For a short time, Leverkusen seemed more fragile than in the previous weeks. But the game was won. During the week in the Europa League, it was difficult again against strong guests from Belgium. The process is far from over.
It remains to be seen whether the Werkself under Alonso are really as pretty as they are currently portrayed. So far, the coach has had the opportunity to draw on a core of players who are in good form and have not had to deal with injuries.
It will be exciting when he has to replace key players. Then it will become clear whether the tactical plan, which is currently working extremely well, also works with compromises. The same applies to the future. Last summer, Leverkusen managed to keep important players. In the foreseeable future, however, top performers will have to be let go.
That’s why people around Leverkusen have given up on celebrating too early. But the positive basic feeling that Alonso in particular brought back will probably last for a while.