Xabi Alonso, the coach who said no to Liverpool and Bayern Munich – The Athletic

Simon Hughes and Raphael HonigsteinApr 2, 2024

It was raining heavily in San Sebastian in November 2019 when Xabi Alonso peered out of his office window and smiled, explaining why he was very happy with his place in the world.

He was more than two years into his retirement from playing and back home, beginning to understand himself as a coach with the B team of Real Sociedad, the club from which he emerged as a teenager.

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Having worked with Real Madrid’s under-14s, there had been some talk about him joining Pep Guardiola’s staff at Manchester City, but Alonso went back to San Sebastian. After so many years travelling around, moving between Liverpool, Madrid and Munich, he wanted his young family to reconnect with the city that shaped him.

At the time, all he really wanted to do was disappear from public view and learn about coaching.

He had earned enough money from football and he did not need to snatch at the first big job that came his way.

Nevertheless, he was as ambitious as a coach as he was as a player. It was his “second career” and he felt he had to prove himself all over again.

“I don’t want to be known for what I’ve done,” he told The Athletic. “I want to be known for what I am doing.”

Alonso tackling Rivaldo during his playing days at Real Sociedad (Firo Foto/Allsport)

Alonso went to Bayer Leverkusen in 2022 but he could have joined Borussia Monchengladbach before. Something, however, was telling him to hold off. The timing didn’t feel right. So, he backed himself to remain in San Sebastian, trusting another opportunity would come along.

In Leverkusen, he has since transformed an underachieving team near the foot of the Bundesliga to impending champions for the first time in the club’s history.

Though not mathematically certain, they are so far ahead of their nearest rivals that Bayern Munich manager Thomas Tuchel “congratulated” Leverkusen for their achievement on Saturday.

A day earlier, Alonso announced his intention to remain in Leverkusen despite Bayern’s determination to appoint him as Tuchel’s replacement. Liverpool were also interested in Alonso, as were Real Madrid.

Alonso’s decision to discourage three of the biggest clubs in world football is more significant because he represented each one of those institutions with distinction as a player.

(Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)

He will appreciate the associated pressures of these roles. Maybe his decision to stay where he is should not be viewed as that much of a surprise. A World Cup-winning midfielder, Alonso always moved at his own pace, seeing things slightly differently.

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Part of this is because he did not necessarily set out to become a footballer. Education came first.

As a child, he spent a summer in the Irish town of Kells on an exchange programme.

As a teenager, he enrolled on an engineering degree in San Sebastian and thought about pursuing a career in economics before he was called up to La Real’s senior team.

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This opportunity was presented by the club’s coach John Toshack, the former Wales centre-forward who had gained legendary status as a player at Liverpool, the club Alonso moved onto at the age of 22.

Off the pitch on Merseyside, he could socialise in student bars, such as La’go, largely because he still looked like one. He felt at home in Liverpool because, like San Sebastian, it has a connection to the sea. This contributed to him living in a Grade I listed apartment near the city centre rather than in the suburbs, like many of his team-mates.

His life was more normal than most footballers — his then-girlfriend and now wife Nagore took a job at the famous Hope Street Hotel in Liverpool’s Georgian Quarter.

Alonso’s heroes as a child were Zinedine Zidane, Fernando Redondo and Ronald Koeman. All were expert passers of the ball, like Alonso grew up to be.

He believed his greatest strength as a footballer was appreciating his shortcomings. He was not the most athletic, and this meant he had to train his mind to make quicker decisions on a football pitch, where he saw his responsibility, as a ball-playing midfielder, to expand the play in possession but to be risk-averse without it.

(Helios de la Rubia/Real Madrid via Getty Images)

He delivered his passes with pace, trusting any team-mate to deal with the ball arriving at such speed. This made him an aggressive footballer, though he believed tackling was a sign of weakness.

“If I tackle, sliding across the floor, it means that I — or someone else — have been caught out of position at the start of the move, and that drives me crazy, because team shape and balance is crucial,” he said in 2016.

Such a view surprised some of English football’s purists, where strength and determination tended to be measured in how a player wins the ball back.

“It’s a different view,” Alonso admitted. “I remember reading the programme in the dressing room at Anfield before a game. There were interviews with young players. There were questions like, ‘What are your qualities?’. Many of them would say tackling. This shocked me. OK, some days you need to tackle, but I’d never aspire to have my main quality as tackling.”

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“Courage can be defined differently,” he continued. “Some fans want to see players up for a fight and when they lose, they ask where the characters are. But there is a lot to be said about­ players who will take possession of the ball when the atmosphere is bad and attempt to take responsibility for the team.”

Liverpool supporters took to Alonso instantly, and not just because he could strike a ball so cleanly. He was streetwise and thoughtful, unafraid to speak his mind. This led to conflict with Rafael Benitez, the manager who brought him to Anfield.

Though they won the Champions League together in 2005, Benitez tried to sell Alonso three years later after he chose to miss the second leg of a Champions League last-16 tie away to Inter Milan because he wanted to be present at the birth of his first child. Alonso’s form had fallen away during the 2007-08 season, and at the end of it he was offered to Arsenal and Juventus.

Alonso and Benitez did not always see eye to eye (Paul Ellis/AFP via Getty Images)

His relationship with Benitez suffered but Alonso remained, though only for one more season, arguably his finest in a Liverpool shirt. These performances led to interest from Real Madrid. Though it was still thought Benitez pushed him out, Alonso later admitted to being both “happy and restless” at the same time.

“I felt that I had new things to learn, new challenges to take,” he said. “You only live once. Life, for me, is about experiences.

“The only thing I regret is not winning the Premier League with Liverpool. I’ll never know how that feels and experience the reaction of the city, as I did after Istanbul. It hurts because I know the people want the league title more than anything.”

Following one league title and a second Champions League winners’ medal with Real Madrid, and three successive Bundesliga titles with Bayern, Alonso wanted time away from the spotlight to decide whether a career in coaching suited him.

Key to that was discovering whether he could find a way to connect to lots of players at the same time. Despite being a leader in each of the teams he represented, he was never a club captain. He wanted to know whether players would listen and believe in what he was telling them.

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Though other former players, such as Steven Gerrard and his old friend from San Sebastian, Mikel Arteta, took top jobs very early into their coaching careers, Alonso wanted to feel fully prepared for such a role; to know for certain that he could be successful. This would allow him to get to know himself better as a coach and learn how to correct mistakes.

Quickly, he saw management as a second career rather than something he just wanted to try.

After three seasons back at La Real, where he rejected several tempting offers abroad, in early 2022-23 he joined Leverkusen, where he has somewhat contrastingly operated at great speed, turning a side who were 17th in the 18-team table at the time into one who are a record 39 games unbeaten this season and favourites to win two, if not three, trophies in the coming months.

(Leon Kuegeler/Getty Images)

Some bounce-back was probably inevitable, considering the quality of players Leverkusen had at their disposal last season, but Alonso has exceeded all expectations in his first role as senior manager.

His first move was to make them more solid without the ball, courtesy of a pragmatic five-at-the-back system. This safety-in-numbers approach restored defensive confidence and created space to hit teams on the break. Moussa Diaby (now at Aston Villa), Amine Adli and Florian Wirtz excelled in transition last season, helping the side rapidly climb up the Bundesliga table and make the Europa League semi-finals.

They could not get past Jose Mourinho’s doggedly defensive Roma, losing 1-0 on aggregate, but that run left little doubt that Alonso was cut out for managerial stardom, and the current campaign has seen even more improvement.

Wing-back Alex Grimaldo has added the quality on the left flank that had been missing and fellow summer signing Victor Boniface has offered a vital focal point in attack. The Nigerian striker has been out injured since Christmas but Leverkusen have found ways to replace him. Czech forward Patrik Schick returned in December from his own fitness issues, Borja Iglesias arrived in January on loan from Real Betis, and many of their goals come from other sources anyway.

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On the whole, Alonso’s style of football has successfully married possession and pace. His team often overrun opponents but are equally adept at forcing openings in smaller spaces. Their lead in the table, ahead of a Bayern side seeking a 12th straight title, is 13 points and their football is much more dynamic and easy on the eye than the often-laboured performances of Germany’s serial champions.

“In terms of public perception, both clubs and coaches occupy different planets at the moment,” German football magazine Kicker wrote in February. Alonso’s charisma is one of the reasons for that. Players and staff members are in awe of his aura, and one official, speaking anonymously as they had not been granted permission to talk, spoke of how “he lights up every room”.

Deeply respected for his success as a pro, Alonso is still arguably the best player on the training pitch, teaching his men valuable lessons in each session.

“He could easily still be playing,” Grimaldo told The Athletic last month. “Few in the world could pass a ball like him. Every time he gets involved in a tactical exercise, a ‘possession game’, he accelerates the rhythm, so the team sees the rhythm we have to play at.”

“He runs more than some of the players,” midfielder Granit Xhaka told The Athletic in December, only half in jest. His winning mentality has also rubbed off on the squad. Leverkusen used to have a reputation for being a bit soft as a team, stuffed with talented players looking for their next transfer in relative comfort.

Alonso’s insistence on discipline and 24/7 peak application has instilled a very different mentality, however. Since the winter break ended in mid-January, they have won four games with goals in the 90th minute or added time. A determination to address reporters in very serviceable German from day one has won him many admirers, too.

No one seemed particularly bothered at his evasiveness about his future concerning links with Liverpool, especially. His charm let him get away with it. Yet there was also a tacit understanding inside Leverkusen and by the wider public that he would be at an elite club before too long.

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Following the announcement of Jurgen Klopp’s summer departure from Anfield, it felt as though the moment had arrived. Certainly, Alonso would like to correct the fact he did not win a Premier League title as a player with Liverpool at some point during his coaching career.

Yet he would use the international break to reflect on the last 18 months in Germany, assessing where he is at in his development. “I have a situation where I feel stable and happy,” he concluded on Friday. “This is the right place for me to develop as a coach.”

It is not that Alonso lacks in belief. Instead, he is self-aware. He has not, for example, even managed in the Champions League yet.

A successful campaign in the competition next season with Leverkusen might change his position.

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(Top photo: Hesham Elsherif/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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