There had been some signs over recent weeks that Xabi Alonso and his Bayer Leverkusen side were starting to run out of steam in their pursuit of the Bundesliga title. They needed last-minute winners against Augsburg and RB Leipzig in back-to-back league matches, there was a disappointing 0-0 draw with Borussia Gladbach and then yet another stoppage-time winner in the DFB Pokal against VfB Stuttgart.
On one hand, their ability to grind out results shows they have the right mentality. But these last-gasp wins just aren’t sustainable. The fear was that having needed to dig deep in so many matches over recent weeks, the game against reigning champions Bayern Munich might’ve just come at the wrong time.
Leverkusen welcomed Thomas Tuchel’s team to the BayArena on Saturday evening. They knew a win would open up a five-point gap at the top of the table whereas defeat would see the Munich juggernauts leapfrog their hosts into top spot. This clash was potentially pivotal in the race for the title.
Few would’ve envisioned what occurred on Saturday evening. B04 romped to a 3-0 win. With just 13 games to play, Leverkusen have a five-point advantage. Not only that, Alonso showcased his tactical nous as a manager to completely nullify the visitors.
Heading into the game, Bayer were ranked first for possession and passes per 90 in the Bundesliga. In this match, however, Leverkusen finished having had just 39% possession while they attempted 344 passes to Bayern’s 579. Alonso likes his team to control matches and while this is usually done via the ball, it can be done without it.
Afterwards, Alonso spoke about this in his post-match interview with ESPN.
"The first thing that comes to mind is not being so dominant with the ball, but to be dominant without the ball. "I think that without the ball, we have been able to control the spaces. For sure, the first goal was really important but the conviction and the determination of the players is what comes to my mind first.
"Today, for me, the defensive work of Nathan [Tella], Flo [Wirtz] and Amine Adli [the team's attackers] has been fantastic, because when they choose the right time to press the centre-back and when they need to cut the pass into the midfielders, they were not jumping to create the space where [Leroy] Sané and [Jamal] Musiala were — they were waiting to find this space. And [Harry] Kane was dropping — he likes to drop, so we have taken many right decisions of when and where to press. Because of that, we have been able to control the game."
🛡️ Unbeaten teams in Europe's top five leagues this season:— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) February 12, 2024
◎ Bayer Leverkusen
That's it. ✅ pic.twitter.com/LeFafuf2ck
It was a commanding performance by the hosts. They limited Bayern, the top-scoring team in the Bundesliga, to just one effort on target.
It is even more impressive when you consider the noise surrounding Alonso’s future. The former Spanish playmaker is being linked with a return to Merseyside to succeed Jurgen Klopp.
While he’s only in his first full season as a manager in one of Europe’s top five leagues, there are parallels between the one-time midfield maestro and the German tactician.
Klopp transformed the top-flight of German football with his gegenpressing style, something adopted by many teams since. Alonso has put his stamp on things this season, playing football that Bayern struggled to do at times under Pep Guardiola.
Both Alonso and Klopp managed to form a natural connection with the supporters and the players. Both are also quick to point towards the importance of their coaching staff. In a recent interview, Klopp highlighted that Pep Lijnders and Vitor Matos were pushing for Conor Bradley to get a chance while Alonso made sure his coaching team were part of the celebrations after the 3-0 win over Bayern.
There’s a clear identity, a clear appreciation of others and a desire to develop players. It is easy to understand exactly why Alonso is seemingly the favourite to replace Klopp at Anfield. They have very different personalities and playing styles but everything else about them as managers is remarkably similar.
If Alonso does guide Leverkusen to the title, he will become the first non-Bayern boss to do so since Klopp with Borussia Dortmund in 2012.
Liverpool often look for marginal gains. They can’t compete financially with some rivals in the Premier League so they look at ways they can eke 10% more out of players. Klopp does it. Alonso is showing he can do it too, and that could well be why FSG are seemingly eager to bring him in this summer.
What Bayer are doing is remarkable. They have conceded just 14 goals in 21 matches and are yet to lose in the Bundesliga this term. They are into the semi-finals of the DFB Pokal and topped their Europa League group with six wins from six. He’s got them competing on all fronts. Alonso is passing every test with flying colours. It is hard to see who else other than him could succeed Klopp as Liverpool manager.