LEVERKUSEN, Germany — Xabi Alonso would rather be playing than coaching Bayer Leverkusen. That hasn't stopped him and his team topping the league.
The former Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich midfielder has taken Bayer Leverkusen from the relegation zone to the top of the German league in 13 months. Videos of his pinpoint long passes to players at training have gone viral.
So does coaching give him the same thrill? No.
“Playing is better," Alonso told reporters when asked to compare his on-field career with his second act on the sidelines. Does he miss playing? “I shouldn't say, but yes.”
Things are moving fast for Alonso. The 41-year-old is widely considered a candidate for his old club Real Madrid when his former coach Carlo Ancelotti's contract expires at the end of the season.
Before then, there's the small matter of trying to break the “Neverkusen” curse. Leverkusen has been runner-up five times in the Bundesliga — and once in the Champions League — without winning either.
As a winner of one World Cup, two European Championships, two Champions Leagues and a host of other titles in England, Germany and Spain, Alonso's personal trophy haul outshines the silverware won in 119 years of Leverkusen history.
It also gave him credibility with his new players when he joined the then-struggling club last year. It was Alonso's first senior head coach role after time with Real Sociedad's reserves. Drawing on his own playing experience, he focused on encouraging his players to believe in themselves again, and to take responsibility on the field.
“I was encouraged to have my own criteria on the pitch, to take my own decisions, and that’s something that I really push,” he said. “It’s not about being robots, it’s not about: ‘We always have to do this, and if you don’t do this, you are going to be on the bench.’”
Alonso was born into soccer as the son of Periko Alonso, a three-time Spanish league winner as a player who was a coach for much of his son's childhood. Alonso played for many of the greatest coaches of recent decades — Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho and Ancelotti among them — and draws on their examples for inspiration.
“There are certain moments when I think: ‘What did happen that day, in that situation?’ And those experiences help me to do something or to think or to have a different approach,” he said. “What I learned from those experiences, they have helped me a lot nowadays. I don’t like to talk about my coaching or manager role with a lot of authority because I don’t feel that I have that authority. I’m so early to talk with authority. I try to listen to the coaches with more years that I respect a lot.”
After years of learning from the best coaches in world soccer, Alonso is putting that knowledge into practice. There's at least one other coach he wishes he'd had the chance to play for, though. “I would have loved to be coached by Jürgen Klopp,” Alonso says of the coach who turned his old club Liverpool back into a force on the English and European stage. “What he's done for the club, it's been unbelievable.”
Alonso's turnaround at Leverkusen started with incisive counterattacking tactics that exploited his young squad's abundance of players with scorching speed. After a slow start, with one win in Alonso's first seven games, a run of wins in the second half of the season saw Leverkusen finish sixth and reach the semifinals of the Europa League before losing 1-0 to Mourinho's Roma.
For Alonso's second season, older players like former Arsenal midfielder Granit Xhaka, versatile left-back Alejandro Grimaldo and Germany winger Jonas Hofmann were brought in to add a core of experience to the team, along with 22-year-old Nigerian forward Victor Boniface up front. With them came a switch to a style of play more focused on controlling the ball, smart passing and waiting for openings.
It's “not tiki-taka, no,” says Alonso, who defines the passing style once favored by Guardiola and Spain's World Cup-winning 2010 team as “defensive possession."
Sunday's 4-0 demolition of Union Berlin left Leverkusen top of the Bundesliga by two points from Bayern and with 31 points from a possible 33. The only other team ever to start the German season that well? Guardiola's Bayern in 2015-16 with Alonso in midfield. The new signings have had a big impact, with 11 goals for Boniface, eight for Grimaldo, who's nominally a defender, and seven for Hofmann.
So can Leverkusen's form carry Alonso and his team to a historic title? He doesn't want to speculate.
“Sure, we are aware that expectations are being created, but we don’t want to be part of that creation," he said. "We want to be part of what we can do, and let’s see how good or how much we can deserve to earn that chance.”