LEVERKUSEN, Germany (AP) — Xabi Alonso is finally ready for the limelight again.
After serving a three-year coaching apprenticeship with Real Sociedad’s reserve team, the 40-year-old former Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich star was appointed Bayer Leverkusen coach this week.
It’s his first senior management job, though he had plenty of offers before.
As a player, he was revered for his playing intelligence, his ability to dictate games with an understanding matched by few others. He was a maestro in midfield who never seemed hurried no matter the importance of the game. He earned 114 appearances for Spain, a World Cup and two European Championships, Champions League crowns with Liverpool and Madrid, and Bundesliga titles every season he spent with Bayern.
It was natural the job offers would be waiting after Alonso tested his disposition toward coaching when he took over Real Madrid Under-14s in 2018. A return to hometown club Real Sociedad followed a year later and he stayed despite reported interest from Borussia Mönchengladbach, among others.
“I felt that I needed to prepare myself and to find the right moment,” Alonso said in Leverkusen on Thursday. “I feel ready that this is the right moment. And this is a great project.”
Alonso is inheriting a team that has won only two games all season, that finds itself second from bottom in the Bundesliga after eight rounds, and knocked out of the German Cup after a shock loss to third-division team SV Elversberg.
Alonso’s predecessor, Gerardo Seoane, was fired on Wednesday, a day after a 2-0 loss at Porto in the Champions League. Seoane led the team to a commendable third place in the Bundesliga in his first season the season before, but appeared at a loss to halt the team’s current slide.
The problems started in defense, and a lack of confidence seems to have taken hold across the team.
“I have no doubts that the quality is there, the team is there,” Alonso said. “What they’ve done recently, credit to Gerardo Seoane for the job he has done in the last year, they played great football, achieved great things, but these things can happen in football. I’m thankful for the job he has done and the platform that we are working with.”
Alonso spoke English and German at his presentation.
“I don’t speak French but if I have to learn it, I will,” he said, referring to the multinational team he was to direct for the first time in training that afternoon.
The coach said he wants “modern football” from the players, “to play with intensity, with the ball, without the ball. We don’t want to be passive.”
Alonso said good control – which has been lacking from Leverkusen – is vital.
“I was a midfielder, so this is something that’s dear to my heart, for us to build that control.”
He also stressed the importance of maintaining concentration for entire games including injury time.
“You can be great for 80 (minutes) but if you are not strong in 10, or if you fall apart in the bad moments … nowadays, football, it can kill you,” Alonso said.
As a player, Alonso himself was coached by the likes of Vicente del Bosque with Spain, José Mourinho at Real Madrid, Rafa Benítez at Liverpool, and Pep Guardiola at Bayern.
“The main thing I learned from them is that the players need to follow you. They need to believe what you say, and you need to feed them. They need to feel that they improve with your coaching, with your help day-by-day,” Alonso said. “You need to have different approaches. But first is the man-management and later is the knowledge and the tactical. It’s a big question.”
If Alonso can’t pull Leverkusen out of its slump he could find himself in a fight for Bundesliga survival.
“Risk is always there. But if you are shy about taking risks, you don’t achieve things. We take a step forward here today, to have an impact, to work and to show that we can do better,” he said.
Alonso’s first game is on Saturday at home against promoted Schalke, followed by Porto’s return visit next Wednesday then a trip to Eintracht Frankfurt the weekend after. He said he’s not looking any further.
“There’s nothing certain in life,” Alonso said. “If you don’t do it, you will never get there. So I’m here, happy. I’m here, motivated, because I believe that we can do it.”
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