How Xabi Alonso brought Bayer Leverkusen to the edge of perfection

The Europa League final sees Leverkusen face Atalanta looking to complete an unbeaten treble, as Alonso stands on the brink of one of football’s greatest managerial achievements

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer, in Dublin
Wednesday 22 May 2024 12:22
Xabi Alonso stands on the brink of history
Xabi Alonso stands on the brink of history (REUTERS)

As Xabi Alonso arrived into Dublin, he was of course asked whether it was good to be back. The Bayer Leverkusen manager came to Ireland for a summer when 14 years old to learn English, and it only fosters the sense of a figure coming full circle. There’s a personal history here, and there could well be a football history through a series of doubles. Alonso may ensure an unbeaten European campaign in Wednesday’s Europa League final, against Atalanta, to go with an unbeaten league campaign. There’s still Saturday’s DFB-Pokal final to come, and that is against second-tier side Kaiserslautern. The Basque is so close to an unprecedented unbeaten treble, and what would be one of the great football achievements.

It should be stressed he has already done something alchemic, arguably up there with Sir Alex Ferguson’s first Scottish title with Aberdeen and maybe Jose Mourinho’s Champions League with FC Porto. It is not just denying Bayern Munich the Bundesliga title for the first time since 2012, and that after the perpetual champions spent over €100m on players such as Harry Kane. It is doing it with a club that had only claimed one major trophy in their history, and been branded as perpetual losers. This wasn’t supposed to be possible in modern football. It’s not like this team has just played the percentages or strived to get there through some freak campaign, either. The invincible season speaks to the emphatic nature, the emotion of it all amplified by so many late comebacks and winners. It is vintage stuff.

This is why it isn’t an exaggeration to talk about Leverkusen’s campaign in terms of those historic managerial achievements. It has busted right through the usual barriers, and just kept going. Bringing all this down to basic probability, was it less likely that Leverkusen win this title, say, than Brian Clough’s Nottingham Forest winning the English league after getting promoted in 1977-78? The modern game is much more stratified. The very fact there’s even debate about it illustrates the scale of their achievement.

Alonso turned a team once called ‘Neverkusen’ into unbeaten Bundesliga champions (Getty Images)

Supreme modern management has afforded Leverkusen the greatest moment in their history. And yet there might be still more.

“We know we can make this season even more special than it’s been so far,” Alonso himself said.

That’s also why this Europa League final brings a new pressure just as all the emotional momentum reaches its peak. Alonso is so close to this sense of completion that there’s suddenly a tension about doing it now.

It could well be the maximum: a treble including a first-ever European trophy for Leverkusen, and a fully unbeaten campaign.

That would take it beyond Ferguson’s title with Aberdeen to perhaps his Cup Winners Cup against Real Madrid, as well as Mourinho’s full range with Porto. This obviously isn’t to say Alonso would go on to have their careers, but it would be quite a marker.

It’s just as that, as the Leverkusen manager knows from how this entire Europa League campaign has gone, this isn’t going to be easy. Atalanta will feel their own sense of history on the other side. Gian Piero Gasperini has steadily built up one of the most admirable projects in European football. They have almost confirmed a return to the Champions League next season. Atalanta fully deserve a landmark moment of their own. It is almost a shame their first-ever European final has to be this, as they aim for only their second-ever trophy after the 1963 Coppa Italia.

Gasperini’s side knocked out Liverpool on their way to a first European final (Getty Images)

They very much aren’t the villains here, but there has been a sense of being cast opposite the star. There shouldn’t. Atalanta are a model for the European game in how intelligent recruitment and adventurous football have kept elevating them. So many ceilings have been smashed.

“We are proud of it,” Gasperini said, “but I think we can also do more.”

Both clubs have done so much with relatively little. The admirable modesty of the approaches can be seen in how this is largely going to be Ederson and Charles De Ketelaere against Victor Boniface and Alex Grimaldo. While a talent like Florian Wirtz elevates this, and these are good players, the point is they are not stars but are being taken to a maximum.

That is why this Europa League final could be great as a game as much as an occasion. It will be two teams giving their all in the hope of victories that mean everything. The contrasting tactical approaches will only enrich that. It is Gasperini’s extreme of man-to-man football and adventure against Alonso’s “third way”. The Leverkusen manager has almost developed this synthesis between prevailing tactical schools, especially with regards to pressing and position, that has only further played into this sense that he is, well, a special one.

"Football is so dynamic,” Alonso himself said. “The system is just a picture and the game is a movie.”

Alonso speaks to his Leverkusen players in Dublin ahead of the Europa League final (REUTERS)

Gasperini wasn’t so cinematic, but is clearly entertained.

“They have a number of different options in terms of their shapes, how certain players break forward. We have to be switched on and precise, spot on in terms of shape and organisation.”

This is why everyone – including senior figures at Leverkusen – believe Alonso is destined for Real Madrid next season. It’s also why it’s difficult for this entire final not to be made about one man and his journey. There is a grander sense of narrative about it. Atalanta just have to concentrate on the many positives of their own story. They’ve already defied so much.

“That we can be the first team to beat them is added motivation,” Gasperini said. “They appear invincible at this moment in time, but maybe we can change things… when it comes down to a final, you need to come out in the big moments.”

Alonso preached the same message. “Now it’s the moment this last week to give our best.”

It might be perfection.

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