Jamie Carragher provides a tactical breakdown of how Xabi Alonso masterminded a resounding 3-0 victory over Bayern Munich to cement Bayer Leverkusen’s place at the Bundesliga summit – and rubberstamp his own credentials as a future Liverpool manager…
There’s a great chance that Xabi Alonso is going to be the next Liverpool manager.
He seems the standout favourite, and when you think of the great managers and where they start, a lot of them do something pretty remarkable at a slightly lower level perhaps.
When you think of what Jose [Mourinho] did at Porto, winning the Champions League and Jurgen Klopp winning two Bundesliga titles with Borussia Dortmund.
What would Liverpool under Alonso look like?
When you look at Alonso and what it looks like he’s about to achieve with Bayer Leverkusen, and the result they had at the weekend, it is insightful to see if he is in the Premier League next season what is his way of playing and how he goes about it, and how it might be different to what we’re seeing now with Klopp at Liverpool.
At the weekend, it wasn’t a normal Bayer Leverkusen performance in that they didn’t dominate possession. They only had 39 per cent of the ball but they were fantastic defensively.
Compactness key to nullifying Bayern
What I liked about their set-up was how compact they are. We’re talking 15 yards from back to front. The great teams are defensively compact. We’re normally looking at 25 to 30 yards. There’s time on the ball but look at how compact they are.
You also have to look at their set-up. Bayer Leverkusen under Alonso without the ball this season have been a back five. He likes two sitting midfielders, and he likes a front three with Florian Wirtz as the false No 9 as he had one striker out injured who is at the Africa Cup of Nations and Patrik Schick who was on the bench.
The reason they’re so good defensively and are the best in the Bundesliga by a long way is because of this compactness. The thing that really stands out for me is even though we talk about them as a back five defensively, is how quickly they morph into a back four when in possession.
The wing-back role of Grimaldo
Almost every team now plays and sets up differently with and without the ball. The back five play a couple of passes and it becomes a back four. A big reason for this is that they’ve got a wing-back in [Alex] Grimaldo who continually from his position steps into midfield.
We see that in the Premier League with [Oleksandr] Zinchenko and [Trent] Alexander-Arnold where full-backs go into midfield, but they play the deeper role. They come inside like a sitting midfield player.
But he’s almost like an attacking midfielder. When Wirtz bursts through the middle, you can see his options which include the wing-back. You can see Grimaldo on one side and both Amine Adli and Nathan Tella on the other making runs. In this example, Adli should have put them 1-0 in front, but it summed the game up.
Bayern’s reaction to the subsequent throw-in summed them up. It was awful. It didn’t just happen with the throw-in but it also happens with the man at the back post.
Bayer restricted Bayern Munich to 0.56 xG – the lowest they’ve had in the Bundesliga this season. This is another example of just how compact they are from back to front. With the ball on one side of the pitch, all 11 players were not letting Bayern Munich out.
How short passing entice opponents
They actually do get out, but they’ve got to go back. They very rarely penetrated Leverkusen right throughout the game. On several occasions, Eric Dier was forced to play long towards the wide areas but a big part of this Xabi Alonso team are short passes that entice people in.
With two or three, you see the Bayern Munich team get dragged across. It’s a big part of where the game is going in modern football. So many teams now make short passes to entice people on to see if they can break through the lines or if they can switch play.
On this occasion, [Piero] Hincapie is the left-sided centre-back who becomes the attacking left-back. The back five becomes a back four with Grimaldo having moved forward.
Wirtz as the false No 9
Tella is found at the back post and on the rebound, Wirtz almost makes it 2-0. I want to highlight again the role of Wirtz. He’s a young man who is starting to get into that Germany squad.
He’s the flair player and the big name of this team. His role in this game was to play behind the two No 6s for Bayern as Leverkusen normally play with a striker. Eric Dier has gone in tight on him. Again, it is about enticing players in. It leads to Bayer having a two-v-two situation.
Min-jae Kim and Dayot Upamecano are left exposed. The ball is worked wide to Grimaldo, who has his left-sided centre-back [Hincapie] now bombing on his outside. Because he has that option to his left, Grimaldo can make the run inside.
It’s completely different to what we see from other full-backs or wing-backs when they go into midfield, and he finishes it off with a great finish. The third goal is also from a wing-back as [Jeremie] Frimpong comes on but that was from a corner-kick where Manuel Neuer had gone up.
But looking at Grimaldo’s stats, you think of Trent Alexander-Arnold. When you look at his stats, he’s had 10 goals from wing-back and 11 assists. When you talk about spending lots of money to get the best players in, Grimaldo has come on a free transfer in the summer. That’s pretty special.
Would Alonso’s brand of football be successful at Anfield?
For Bayer Leverkusen to be top of anything is pretty special. When you think of the squad they’ve got and the money that’s being spent. When you ask if this is the perfect fit for Liverpool, what stands out for me are the number of passes and the amount that are short.
So far, 646 of their 683 have been short. It comes to 95 per cent which is probably not what Liverpool are right now under Klopp. It’s more reminiscent of what we see from a Pep Guardiola team. It’s interesting when we put that on a scatter graph, and you can see Bayer Leverkusen alongside Manchester City and Paris Saint-Germain [among Europe’s top five leagues].
You can see Liverpool are further behind. We know from watching them that they are a more direct team and use counter-attacks more. From the company Leverkusen are keeping, we can say that Alonso’s own influence is more like Pep Guardiola, which makes sense as he’s been his manager.
But if Xabi Alonso was to become the Liverpool manager, which I think he will, I feel they are quite fortunate given that Jurgen Klopp has chosen this moment to move on. The timing for Alonso to step in is pretty perfect given the job he’s doing.
Would I expect Alonso’s Liverpool to be higher up this scatter graph? Maybe. But I would expect somewhere in the middle – like where Bayern Munich are on the graph – as he has to have his own philosophy and his own imprint.
This team is so used to playing a certain way under Jurgen Klopp, there’s the Anfield factor with the crowd, the energy. Xabi Alonso knows that so I would expect to see a merging of the two styles if he were to get the job.
There is no doubt that right now he’s looking like the brightest young thing as a manager.
View from Germany: What makes Alonso so special?
Sky Germany’s Felix Fischer:
“He does such a tremendous job. He is not only a genius tactician and in terms of how he prepares his team, but he is a gentleman. Everything he does, he does right.
“After the game, the fans wanted to celebrate with him but he spoke with his assistants and coaches to make sure they also joined him in the celebrations. He didn’t want to celebrate it alone which shows the respect he has for his entire team, for the fans and for the entire club.
“I imagine he will be the Liverpool coach one day but Leverkusen sporting director Simon Rolfes said on Sunday that he is really sure that Alonso will still be the coach next season.
“All the top teams do have an eye on him. The boss of Bayern Munich will have an eye on him for some day, as well as Real Madrid. It’s going to be a race for Alonso. I don’t think it’ll take place in the summer, but the season after that.”