Xabi Alonso surprised a lot of people when he became Bayer Leverkusen manager in October 2022. After a fruitful spell with Real Sociedad's second team, the Spanish coach made the jump to first-team management with a move to a club floating just above the Bundesliga relegation zone. It was unquestionably a high-risk gamble that Alonso made to get his first experience in the dugout at an elite side.
Within half a year, having had the World Cup break to establish his playing style, the former Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich midfielder had turned Leverkusen’s 2022/23 campaign around. The season could yet earn them a return to the Champions League, and they have also made good progress in this season's Europa League. It has been a sensational turnaround based on a number of key tactics that Alonso introduced when he became manager. Here, we take a deeper look at the five most impactful tactical changes behind Leverkusen’s improvement.
Under Alonso’s predecessor Gerardo Seoane, Leverkusen usually played in a 4-4-2 formation, with variations to at times include a 4-2-3-1 or 4-4-1-1. In the second half of some matches, they also sometimes used the 3-5-2 shape that, crucially, laid the foundations for Alonso’s Leverkusen.
Alonso uses that shape as his primary system, sometimes adapting it to use a 3-4-3 (below), with his side dropping back into a 5-4-1 or 5-2-3 out of possession. However, the most important thing has not been the change of formation, but rather the way the players interpret the system.
The way the five defenders operate depends on the objectives the team has with the ball and on their pressing at any given moment. What remains consistent is that Alonso’s Leverkusen have a bold approach in both phases of the game; the intention is to play in the opposition’s half for as long as possible.
One weakness has been in their use of a mixed-marking out-of-possession approach. With this, players take responsibility for an opponent who has entered their zone and follow them until the move is over. This has resulted in space behind the Leverkusen midfield, in dangerous central areas for the opposition to exploit.
The 5-2-3 (below) or the 5-4-1 has helped to correct this defensive problem, with better balance on the flanks. If Alonso has defensively strong players on one flank, he will go for a more offensive approach on the other, meaning his side is rarely caught with too many players on the wrong side of the ball. He also picks players who have good tactical awareness and know when they need to move central to strengthen that area, rather than leaving the team exposed through the middle.
Alonso wants his Leverkusen team to dominate the ball and play through the lines from back to front. They used to build play with four defenders and two pivots, but now they start with a line of three, one pivot player looking to receive centrally, and two wing-backs stretching the pitch almost like wingers. These two wide players help create space for the central midfielders and the two number 10s to receive in space centrally.
The role the centre-backs play in the build-up is crucial to Leverkusen finding their central midfielders and number 10s. They are comfortable driving out to draw an opposition midfielder out of position with the aim of creating space in the central channel for a teammate to receive. Meanwhile, the wing-backs pin the opposition’s full-backs with high, wide positions. This has the added benefit of pulling the opposition’s wide players further out towards the touchlines, which helps create passing lanes inside (below).
Alonso’s players are set up to play a positional game that creates space centrally for the most creative players and makes as many passing lines as possible for each player when they receive. The aim is to find the number 10s, who will know that they have teammates on the outside – the high wing-backs – available after receiving. If they can turn inside with their first touch, the number 10s will look to attack towards goal directly and quickly, either by feeding a pass through to the striker making a diagonal run in behind, or by looking to work an opportunity to shoot.
Although Alonso's team likes to control possession and build slowly, they can also be direct – especially when they get into the opposition's half. When the opportunity presents itself, they attack directly towards goal at pace.
Alonso's impact at Leverkusen is probably most clearly understood through central midfield, where Kerem Demirbay, Robert Andrich and Exequiel Palacios have been most often used. The use of these three players before Alonso's arrival came with mixed results, with Seoane struggling to find a combination of two that worked in a double pivot.
The use of an offensive central midfielder in Palacios or Demirbay to play alongside Andrich has been a regular feature since Alonso’s arrival. The structure in central midfield can either be two defensive midfielders and a number 10, or a single pivot with two number eights. There have been times when he plays with two in central midfield, such as in the 3-4-3. Whatever the shape, however, two of his favoured three central midfielders will always play (below).
Alonso hasn't just produced an improved collective performance; he has also helped players improve on an individual basis. Piero Hincapié is one such player. Under Seoane, he was used as a defensive left-back in a back four; now, he has freedom to get high up the pitch. Even when playing as a left-sided centre-back in the back three, he can contribute in the attacking third, often looking to providing penetrative runs from deep in the manner of a winger. He also has the perfect profile for the pressing and positional demands of Alonso's system.
Jeremie Frimpong's performances have also stood out. He was previously used mostly as a right winger or a number 10, but since Alonso's arrival he has played as a right wing-back who gets up and down the flank impressively. This change has helped Alonso pin the opposition’s full-backs and create space inside for his number eights or wide forwards to operate in (below). When Leverkusen build on the right, Frimpong stays high up the pitch in wide attacking positions he is more than comfortable in.
Moussa Diaby is another Alonso success story. The French forward is making the most of the attacking freedom his coach has given him, ending up almost as a lone striker despite starting on the right. His work without the ball also stands out; he has been crucial to Alonso’s preferred high press.
On which note, Leverkusen have gone from being a team that mainly dropped into a mid-block out of possession, with players making recovery runs to slow the opposition down, to pressing their opponents from the start of their build-up.
They do so with three players pushing up high on the edge of the opposition box. The wing-backs push up to press the opposition’s full-backs/wing-backs (below), and the two remaining central midfielders remain ready to shuffle to support the press on whichever side the opposition play. The three centre-backs defend on the front foot, ready to jump out and compete for any direct balls into midfield.
If they fail to win the ball high, Leverkusen look to lock play over by the touchline, with the wide players aggressively pressing the ball and the striker doing his best to prevent play being switched. When Alonso’s side do win the ball back, this approach means they are closer to goal and have a better chance of scoring following a turnover. In all, Leverkusen appear a far better team at both ends of the pitch with Alonso at the helm.
To learn more about football tactics and gain insights from coaches at the top of the game, visit CV Academy
Author: The Coaches' Voice