TOne might think that the chronology is just too perfect. As the community surrounding Liverpool Football Club digests the bombshell news of Jurgen Klopp’s departure, the emergence of Xabi Alonso as a head coach with real substance at the top of European football seems just right. Like one of his perfect passes as a player (and even now, occasionally, by discreetly impressing his charges in training sessions), it feels like an opportunity is presented to the Premier League leaders just when he needs it.
His work since his arrival in northwest Germany speaks for itself. It was impressive to take over a Bayer Leverkusen team in the relegation zone in October 2022 and bring them close to Champions League qualification and a Europa League semi-final. But the continuation of this upward trend this season has been overwhelming. After 18 games of the Bundesliga season, his team is still unbeaten and has only lost six points at the top of the table. They have the best defensive record in the league – a particularly remarkable feat considering they have put up some disorganized defensive performances in recent years – without being overly cautious or unattractive.
In Europe, alongside Liverpool, they are one of the favorites to win the Europa League. Many are of the opinion that the Champions League this season, like Klopp’s team, will be worse because they are not there. Alonso is not far away from doing something extraordinary. Not only in defeating FC Bayern Munich, strengthened by Harry Kane, but also in the way Leverkusen does it. It is the journey and not the current position that convinces many that the Basque coach is the right one.
Speaking to the Guardian in November, he told us that his original brief was simply to make Leverkusen “more competitive” as they wanted to show they had the fight to move away from the bottom by relying on their counter-attacking skills left before they made it a style that is more about control. Many young trainers who are among the shooting stars hit a wall on their first big left turn. Alonso, on the other hand, was thrown straight into the deep end. He had to adapt to survive and already had a plan in mind to evolve the style. He speaks passionately about giving players the opportunity to interpret positions rather than sticking to formations. In this context, he seems to have the ideal attitude to tackle the mammoth task of succeeding Klopp.
Bild reported on Friday about a long-rumored release clause in Alonso’s Leverkusen contract that only affects his three biggest former clubs – Liverpool, Bayern and Real Madrid. The club and coach have avoided the issue of an exit clause rather than outright denying it. In his press conference previewing Saturday’s game against Borussia Mönchengladbach, Alonso sensibly stopped short of praising Klopp, reiterating that he was completely immersed in his current work, “an intense and beautiful journey”, and very happy where he was “at the moment”.
It’s fair of him to bring a degree of transience to his current role. Leverkusen is a great place to develop, with lots of great club equipment and facilities, but without the intense scrutiny of other similarly successful clubs. There is a limit to what can be done there. In late autumn it was widely expected that Alonso would be Carlo Ancelotti’s successor at Real Madrid next season. The Italian’s signing a new contract until 2026 may be linked to Alonso’s promise to make his own decisions and do things at his own pace. “I will make my own decisions when I feel it is the right moment,” he said in November.
Although Alonso knew every step of his coaching journey would be closely followed, he remained in his first major role, with Real Sociedad’s B team, for three years. Not because he had to – Mönchengladbach was ready to appoint him in spring 2021 – but because he thought it was right.
And while Alonso may differ from Klopp in many aspects of his temperament, the one thing that definitely unites them is their desire to do things by feel. Klopp’s intuition and quick, instinctive connection with Liverpool helped him through the club’s difficult formative phase.
While it’s hard to imagine Alonso swinging his fist several times in front of the Kop, he’s guided by instinct as much as intelligence. It’s not just that his time at Anfield is behind him. It’s that, like Klopp, he just gets Liverpool.
A move for Alonso makes sense for Liverpool in many ways. He may soon have to decide whether it makes sense for him.