There was a much bigger than usual buzz around Real Sociedad's Zubieta training facility on July 20, as the club’s youth team's pre-season schedule began.
While Real Sociedad B completed a straightforward 4-0 victory over neighbours Beasain, most eyes kept wandering to the home bench, where Xabi Alonso was taking the next step in one of the most eagerly anticipated managerial careers of recent years.
The sizeable number of reporters attending from the Basque and Spanish press commented on Alonso’s “serious” demeanour and “active” movement on the side-line during the game. While the crowd was boosted by txuri-urdin fans enjoying the return of the popular local lad made World Cup 2010, Euro 2008 and 2012 and Champions League 2004 and 2014 winner.
A couple of weeks previously, the former Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich midfielder was his usual confident self when explaining his return to the club where he also began his playing career.
“There were many reasons, after many years away, it was the moment to come back home,” Alonso said at his presentation on July 9. “A nice project is being constructed here at Zubieta, and I wanted to be part of it. It’s important for me to throw myself into what is being done here.”
Alonso coming back to San Sebastian was a surprise to many, as he began his coaching career in Real Madrid’s La Fabrica youth system just last summer. His under-14 team won 22 of the first 23 games, drawing the other, to win their regional league title in record time, an impressive achievement even given Madrid’s ability to attract the best youngsters in all age groups.
The plan at Valdebebas was to promote Alonso up a few ranks this summer, to the U-18s position left vacant when fellow legend Raul Gonzalez ascended to the Castilla B team for 2019/20. But Alonso instead accepted an offer from Real Sociedad’s sporting director Roberto Olabe, who had coached him as a youngster almost two decades ago.
“It was not easy to leave Madrid,” he admitted at his presentation. “I liked it a lot there, but you always think about what is in front, not what you have left behind. To grow, and even more to do that back at home, is fundamental. I did not see anywhere better than this. Time will tell if it was the right decision, but I am very excited about it.”
Alonso has also persuaded Sebastian Parrilla, his number two with Madrid’s U-14s last season, to move with him. The highly regarded Parrilla had worked within Madrid’s youth structures for the last 17 years, and his exit is a real blow for La Fabrica. Real Sociedad do not usually hire 'outsiders' at high levels in their youth structure, but it was accepted in this case.
“I want to have people with experience, specialists, people with passion,” Olabe said when explaining a major restructuring of the La Real set-up this summer. “Xabi may not have experience, but his club is calling him back at this moment of his life.”
Besides the emotional pull of returning to San Sebastian, Alonso also knows La Real's 'Sanse' youth side has been a stepping stone for many top talents over the last decade, including Antoine Griezmann, Inigo Martinez, Asier Illarramendi and new Spain senior international attacker Mikel Oyarzabal.
Current first team manager Imanol Alguacil is another locally born former txuri-urdin player, who has worked his way onto the senior side’s bench over the last eight years. 13 of Alguacil’s squad have come through the ranks, including winger Ander Barrenetxea, who last December became the first player born in the 21st century to play in La Liga, at 16 years and 359 days.
Such a record suggests that Alonso will have plenty of good material to work with, and providing useful players for the first team is more valued than results on the pitch. Last season Sanse finished in mid-table of their regional third tier division, where their rivals include Athletic Bilbao’s youth side, and other renowned Basque production lines at Barakaldo and Amorebieta.
This was certainly not Alonso’s only option open at this point. Observers were so impressed with his early work last season that there was talk of him joining former manager Jose Mourinho in a ‘dream team’ coaching ticket for the Bernabeu senior side, before Zinedine Zidane returned in March.
Others were also watching very closely. “We’ll have to make an effort to get Alonso back to Bayern at some point,” said the Bavarian club’s president Karl-Heinz Rummenigge in April. “He’s the most tactically intelligent midfielder we’ve had, and also a true gentleman.”
But Alonso now feels it very useful to be able to progress at his own pace, and has also thought quite a lot about the type of manager he wants to be.
“I try to have a team that takes the initiative in the game, that wants the ball, for the players to know how to connect with each other and have good automatisms,” he told the Coaches Voice last year while still at Madrid. “Most of the time we play 4-3-3, but sometimes we can play with three at the back. I want the players to know what to do in different situations. They learn quicker than I thought.”
Asked at his presentation what he himself had learned working under Mourinho, Rafa Benitez, Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola and Vicente Del Bosque as a player, Alonso stated he wanted to be his own man.
“I will have picked up something from all of them, beginning with those I had here,” he said. “Javier Clemente gave me my debut, John Toshack, Roberto Olabe and Raynald Denoueix. I tried to be close to them. But I do not want to be a ‘carbon-copy’, because that always goes badly. The idea is to apply all you have learned to create your own style. As a player I could read a game. As a coach I want a versatile team which adapts to what each game requires.”
Another interested observer at this point is Toshack, the former Liverpool and Wales player and manager who still has a house in San Sebastian, and got Alonso to write the foreword to his 2018 biography.
“However good you were as a player, there is no guarantee you can do it as a manager,” Toshack told the Independent. “But I would say Xabi has all you need. His father was a player at La Real, he worked at top clubs, and he thought an awful lot about the game. He had very good positional sense, a good footballing brain. But there are an awful lot of things that need to go with it - including good fortune.”
The impression now is that Alonso is doing everything possible to remove luck as a factor, as he thinks long term about how to get back to the very top as a manager.
“I don’t look any further, I'm here now, I'm starting out,” he said at his presentation. “But I hope to have a long coaching career. I cannot control how it works out, what happens on the pitch will tell. La Real is the best place for me to be now. You make your path by starting to walk it.”
That path is only just beginning. But this summer’s return to his roots is a well thought-out step in Alonso's clearly carefully planned career.
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