Soccer  

How Xabi Alonso is reimagining Bayer Leverkusen

After Bayer Leverkusen were left second-from-bottom in the Bundesliga, with one win from eight matches, dumped out of the first round of the German Cup by newly promoted 3. Liga side SV Elversberg and a pair of disappointing losses in the Champions League, the club decided to go in a direction Bundesliga teams rarely do. That was to not only sack head coach Gerardo Seoane, but to go for a coach without senior club experience and not from a German-speaking country in Xabi Alonso.

Seoane’s issues came from instability within the structure of the team. He based his attacks on finding the quickest way to progress the ball to create scoring opportunities. However, if his team lost the ball while doing it, opponents would have a quick transition opportunity as Leverkusen weren’t structurally prepared in their counter-press and would end up dangerously exposed. This was also their problem last season, but their attack flourished to hide this weakness. This season, though, especially without the injured Florian Wirtz, they haven’t had the means to outscore their rivals like they once did.

Enter Alonso.

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What has Alonso changed so far?

Like Seoane, Alonso also uses a mix of 4-2-3-1 and 3-4-3 formations as his baseline, but the main difference is the structure of how his players are used. While the former head coach used his wingers to provide width and cut inside later during attacking sequences, Alonso uses his wingers almost exclusively in the half spaces. This is an attribute of his philosophy that is based on positional play (also known as “juego de posición“), a tactical concept that includes a set of strict rules defining the positioning of players and how to progress the ball. Users of this concept include Pep Guardiola and Mikel Arteta, just to name a few, although they have each developed their own different ways of implementing it.

Even with only one full week’s worth of preparation, you can clearly see this structure on the pitch from Alonso. Leverkusen’s positional play is following obvious guidelines of when and where to provide width. Usually, it’s Bayer’s wing-backs that occupy the wings, allowing Alonso’s wingers to stay inside and in between the lines of their opponents. Their centre-backs typically stay back, taking part in their build-up play by spreading out wider. One defensive midfielder keeps closer and better connected to the centre-backs, creating a 2-plus-1 or 3-plus-1 build-up structure.

The other pivot player pushes up higher, which should allow a smooth ball progression. One of the early problems of this system is that it sounds static, and at the moment it is, but with the team getting used to this new way of football, it should improve in flexibility as Alonso adds more rotational patterns.

Another key point: with this new hold on possession, their defence should stabilize over time. Keeping the ball in the manner of Alonso’s principles means they should be at less risk of losing the ball, which means fewer fast transitions from the opposition.

Like any new chapter, patience will be needed

To know if this is working or not, we need to look at it in two ways. Firstly, results — one win against a relegation-battling side, one draw and two losses while conceding 10 goals in this time suggests that no, it is not. The other side of it is how Leverkusen have performed. You can see clear improvements on general structure and stability in possession; they tend to prepare attacks better, which is making them more balanced, while moving the ball around. Their approach is built around finding the open players in the half-spaces rather than on the wings. This allows them to turn and speed up their game with quick passing sequences or through dribbles.

An example of this can be found in the build-up to the first goal of their most recent Bundesliga match against VfL Wolfsburg, in which Moussa Diaby was found in the half-spaces.

How do all these attacking players fit together?

While this hasn’t yet translated in terms of results, Bayer Leverkusen have the advantage of having very talented and skilled players throughout, specifically in attack.

Let’s start with Chelsea loanee Callum Hudson-Odoi, who has been used as No. 10 and as a winger under Seoane, and as a “half-winger” under Alonso. His skill set is made for Alonso’s vision of play as he is technically gifted and has good spatial awareness, which allows him to cut inside and find effective positions in between the lines of the opposition’s defence. Additionally, he can beat opponents in one-on-one duels and is very quick, which helps Leverkusen accelerate their game in offence. He has all the tools to be successful under the new head coach, should he get the minutes.

The primary setup right now includes slightly more veteran Leverkusen players including Diaby, Patrik Schick and Jeremie Frimpong; the latter has been exceptional over the past few weeks. Frimpong’s role as an attacking full-back/wing-back hybrid has greatly developed his style of play, as he can pair his linear and direct runs on the wing with his exceptional skill set. The other two players have been mainstays in this team for a while and are some of the most clinical players of the Bundesliga, with Diaby being played in the same way as Hudson-Odoi, except on the opposite side of the pitch.

Despite the not-so-great results, the tactical arrangement is promising and will need time to flourish, especially as Alonso had no preparation time. It is now time for him to rise up to this challenge, to win with his philosophy. As we say in football, it takes around eight weeks for the old head coach’s tactics to leave the team and the new one’s to be properly adopted, so we may not be able to see what this team is capable of until after the winter break.