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Xabi Alonso's Bayer Leverkusen: Bundesliga title beyond expectations but management success is no surprise

Nobody could have anticipated Bayer Leverkusen's season so far but Xabi Alonso being a success is no surprise; with insight from Claudio Pizarro, we examine why; watch Bayer Leverkusen vs Bayern Munich live on Sky Sports Football on Saturday; kick-off 5.30pm

Bayer Leverkusen head coach Xabi Alonso
Image: Bayer Leverkusen head coach Xabi Alonso is chasing an unlikely Bundesliga title

When Xabi Alonso retired, the messages from football's great and good poured in. One from Pep Guardiola stood out. "Enjoy your time off," he said. "But I bet that in six months you will be desperate to begin preparing for life as a coach."

Everybody knew Alonso would be a manager.

It was not just the way that he conducted himself - and the game - on the pitch, although that was a clue. It was his unwavering curiosity, as Guardiola put it, coupled with a real seriousness. He made football look like fun but he approached it like it was work.

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A look at how Xabi Alonso's Bayer Leverkusen set up and what makes them so good

Speaking last season to Simon Rolfes, Bayer Leverkusen's sporting director, about the characteristics that attracted him to the idea of Alonso, he narrowed in on the importance of this personality trait. "Xabi is also a Basque and they are workers," he said.

A stereotype, no doubt, but one that is being reinforced, nevertheless, by the presence of Mikel Arteta and Unai Emery towards the top of the Premier League table. Alonso is a worker to his core but he has added layers on his travels. They can all see it.

Claudio Pizarro wore the No 14 shirt for Bayern Munich and that put him on a collision course with Alonso, who had worn it at Liverpool and Real Madrid. It was the subject of their first conversation. "He said that we needed to talk about the number," says Pizarro.

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'The best team in Europe!' | Can Alonso's Leverkusen dethrone Bayern?

Alonso had to wait a year for the shirt but Pizarro remembers their season together fondly. He saw a manager in waiting. "We knew. Everybody who played with him knew. He was always directing people and talking to the players. He was a good leader."

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Now 42, he is an old head on young shoulders. "We call them an alte fuchs here," says Pizarro. Literally, an old fox. "A very experienced person who can see many things before other people can see them." Not the loudest man in the room but usually the smartest.

Everybody knew Alonso would be a manager.

But they did not anticipate this.

If Bayern were ever to relinquish their Bundesliga title, it was supposed to be Borussia Dortmund who would loosen that grip. They had their chance last season. The crushing failure to defeat Mainz at home allowed Bayern to make it 11 titles in a row.

If not Dortmund then Leipzig, perhaps? But not Bayer Leverkusen. When Alonso was appointed in October of last season, the task was to keep the club in the Bundesliga not win it. But here we are, beyond the halfway stage, with Leverkusen leading the way.

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"I am excited that he is doing so well. Xabi is a great guy, a great player and now he is showing that he is a great manager as well. I am really happy for him. The job that he is doing in Leverkusen is something special. It is amazing, for the team and for him."

The results have been remarkable. Leverkusen remain unbeaten in all competitions this season, the only team in Europe who can claim that. But it is the manner in which he has navigated the challenges of this first top-division job that has so impressed.

Alonso leaned on the counter-attack in steering the team away from danger last season, utilising their speed in attack. In time, there has been more emphasis on an intricate passing game but this is still a team that can win in a number of ways.

"Working with young players is key," said Rolfes when asked about the demands of coaching Leverkusen. But when reshaping the squad in the summer, Alonso was not ready to make the mistake of Chelsea and flood the team with youth. He wanted to win too.

It was courageous rather than selfish - it put a bit more pressure on. But it has been the making of those young players at Leverkusen and brought more out of experienced professionals too. Granit Xhaka has thrived in a deeper role since arriving from Arsenal.

"He put him in a position where he could control the game," says Pizarro. "Xabi played in this position himself so he knows exactly what to do. He knew [Xhaka] could play this pivotal role. He took him, put him in this position, and he is doing a great job there.

"He has done this with wingers and strikers too."

Indeed, it is not just Xhaka, it is Alex Grimaldo, who has been a revelation out wide. It is Victor Boniface, the striker whose career has been propelled to new levels. And it is the way that Leverkusen have continued to succeed even in the absence of Boniface.

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Everybody knew Alonso would be a manager.

But they could not confidently predict this career path because he has been so patient in constructing his career. His return to Real Sociedad to coach the club's B team was more than a mere stop-off point, it was three years of his life, a promotion and a relegation.

There were offers from big clubs in Europe before he opted for Leverkusen and there will be bigger ones coming now. The reported clause in his contract that entitled him to speak to his former clubs has been brought into sharp focus by events at Liverpool.

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"He can succeed anywhere he wants to go," says Pizarro. "When you see what he is doing at the moment at Leverkusen, you can see that he is going to be a great coach. He is always talking to the players. He has the experience. We will see where he is going [next]."

Before that, there is the chance to make history with Leverkusen, a club that has never won the Bundesliga before. It is the chance to break Bayern's streak. Even if big things await him in the future, these could still be the defining months of his coaching career.

The Bundesliga title is in the balance but Alonso is a sure thing. "Wherever he decides to go, he will do well. He understands everything about football. That is very important." And just another reason why everybody knew Alonso would be a manager.

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