“We believe in his knowledge, his potential, his aura, his way of looking at things.”
Alonso was the surprise hire when the Bundesliga side decided to dispense with the services of Gerardo Seoane after a tough start to the season. Alonso, despite being previously linked with top jobs, had only ever managed the B team of boyhood club Real Sociedad. The Spaniard did get off to the best possible start, beating Schalke 4-0, but the team then went winless in six, leading to some increased pressure even though the club preached patience.
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That patience appears to have been rewarded, with three straight wins to go into the extended winter break for the World Cup in a good position. Having once been 17th, Leverkusen are now up to 12th, and are just five points off Wolfsburg who sit at the bottom of the European places. Fourth-placed Eintracht Frankfurt are only nine points away, such is the competitive nature of the league this season.
So, what do we make of Alonso’s stint so far? In order to find out we got in touch with Dennis Melzer of Eurosport Germany.
On the Schalke win, Melzer said, “it quickly became clear that this was mainly due to the weakness of the opponent and less to Leverkusen’s strength. After the successful debut, things went much worse.
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“There were no improvements compared to the game under Gerardo Seoane. On the contrary, Leverkusen created fewer chances than under Alonso’s predecessor.”
So now we come to the three wins. These included beating then-league leaders Union Berlin 5-0, as well as a win away at Koln in the derby. But despite this, Melzer is preaching caution with reading too much into it.
“The three games won are all completely different,” he explains.
“There was the 5-0 win against the then-league leaders Union Berlin – in the first half there were almost no goal chances, and after the break, everything went in Leverkusen’s favour, whose counter-attacking play was reminiscent of the previous season.
Every shot ended up in the goal, it was a game that was played in a frenzy.
“The 2-1 result against Cologne was not deserved at all: Cologne were the better team during the whole match and clearly had better chances (hitting the crossbar twice, for example). A deflected free-kick and one successful attack were enough for Leverkusen.
“So you could charitably say: Efficiency won.
“The 2-0 result against Stuttgart was not exactly a thrilling firework display, but it was a deserved win. However, VfB had to do without about seven regular players and remained impotent for 90 minutes. Leverkusen are in fourth place in the table since Alonso’s start, but the three victories do not yet provide any reason for the very big hype.”
But there are positives, don’t get us wrong. Melzer has been particularly impressed with the way Alonso has strengthened the team defensively.
“The most important thing was that Xabi strengthened the defence (including goalkeeper Hradecky). Leverkusen conceded far too many goals under Seoane – also due to many individual mistakes. So that was the lever that had to be pulled.
“Since Xabi took over, the defence is looking better again. Tah and Tapsoba have largely returned to form and Hradecky is back to his old self and was outstanding against Cologne.
“Xabi has brought back a player who had actually already been written off. Nadiem Amiri, who was supposed to be sold in the summer, is blossoming again under Xabi and is one of the regulars. Amiri is quite popular with the fans because he always gives everything and is extremely committed to the club on the pitch.”
So there are bright spots, and you have to remember that Alonso has barely had any time to try and implement his ideas.
Because of the World Cup causing a condensed schedule, games have been coming thick and fast with Leverkusen also playing in Europe. Teams in the Bundesliga are not used to this so everyone has been struggling, but for a new manager, it has been exceedingly tricky.
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Speaking at his press conference at the weekend, Alonso admitted that he thought the break will be helpful for him.
“I think the Winterpause [winter break] is going to be very good for us. My feeling has been that since I came, everything has been a roller coaster.”
Alonso admitted that the break could act as a sort of pre-season and added, “It’s going to be really, really useful”.
Melzer agrees with that sentiment, and he also adds that it is worth reminding everyone that creative superstar Florian Wirtz should make his return from injury when the teams return for league action.
“I think it was still too early for him to fully implement his philosophy. Xabi took over an unsettled and stumbling team and had to show success right away; he hasn’t had time yet (a game almost every three days) to train properly and convey his idea of the game.
“That’s why I think Leverkusen will benefit from the break now. Florian Wirtz returns in January and Xabi has plenty of time to establish his philosophy.”
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