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Sunday, June 16, 2024

Xabi Alonso’s Leverkusen tactics and Liverpool’s squad are not a natural fit

As a player, Xabi Alonso would have been ideal for Jurgen Klopp’s Liverpool. Just close your eyes, crank up some YouTube highlight beats and picture those trademark long, driven diagonals flying off a right boot so cultured it belonged in the Prado. If he’d had Mohamed Salah or Darwin Nunez running onto the end of those, good night.

As a manager, though? Maybe he’s not such a perfect fit. Before we rush to anoint him Klopp’s natural successor based on a quick glance at the Bundesliga table and fond memories of how good he used to look in red, it’s worth taking a closer look at how Alonso’s current Bayer Leverkusen side actually play.

The main problem for Liverpool, ironically enough, is that Alonso the coach doesn’t believe in long passes. He wants his team to play it short, on the grass and straight up the middle so fast it’ll make your head spin.

Only a handful of managers have been as ideologically committed to short passing as Alonso at Leverkusen. He’s got less in common with Klopp than with Maurizio Sarri at Napoli (2015-2018) or Roberto De Zerbi at Brighton — good managers and great teams, sure, but not at all like the current Liverpool.

Leverkusen’s build-ups start from a flexible back three that can swing one outside centre-back wide to become a back four when the situation calls for it. In front of them, a pair of defensive midfielders play very narrow at slightly staggered heights, a la De Zerbi’s Brighton, for quick combination play between the lines.

Here’s a characteristic sequence against Bayern Munich in September:

Third-man patterns like these are the basic building block of Leverkusen’s short passing game. By dropping one midfielder below another as he receives, they set up a lay-off to a player facing forward who can play another short pass between the lines with one or two touches, creating a lightning-quick ladder up the middle of the pitch.

Unlike Brighton, who use close combinations in midfield to put Kaoru Mitoma one-v-one on the wing, Leverkusen’s primary playmaker is the central attacking midfielder Florian Wirtz. Short third-man passing in the half-spaces pulls apart the opponent’s lines so Wirtz can turn and dribble straight at the back line while the young Nigerian striker Victor Boniface runs ahead of him to finish the move.

Leverkusen’s rapid-fire style is as attractive as it is effective — their 1.97 non-penalty expected goals per game in the Bundesliga is up more than 30 per cent since last season. Their perch atop the league more than halfway through the season isn’t a fluke.

But the way Alonso’s side attack is very different from Klopp’s Liverpool, and with good reason. It’s not just about ideology — it’s about the players.

Like all elite modern sides, Liverpool are comfortable building from the back, pushing their defensive line high up the pitch and patiently picking apart compact opponents. Klopp’s secret weapon, though, has been deadly long diagonals from his back four, especially Trent Alexander-Arnold at right-back.

While Leverkusen use their midfielders to force the ball through the centre of the pitch, three of Liverpool’s top progressive passers in the Premier League this season are defenders: Alexander-Arnold and the centre-backs Virgil van Dijk and Ibrahima Konate, all of whom are comfortable spraying long balls to runners on either wing. The fourth is Salah, who’s spent the last couple years receiving wider than he used to and dribbling in from the side of the box to break down defences.

Alonso’s style at Leverkusen doesn’t encourage high balls to the wings or wide creators like Salah. Comparing the two sides in the Europa League group stage, where Liverpool weren’t even using their first string half the time, it’s easy to see the difference.

The genius of Klopp’s Liverpool has been finding ways to back up those killer long balls with a high-octane pressing game. Thanks to all their short passing that keeps players close together, Leverkusen are excellent at counter-pressing to win the ball back in the moments after a turnover — according to The Analyst, they’ve created 36 shots from high turnovers this season, top in the Bundesliga — but they’re much less aggressive against an organised build-up.

Pressing out of a 3-4-3 that looks a little like Chelsea back when Thomas Tuchel was around, Leverkusen allow 13.8 passes per high defensive action (PPDA), a popular pressing metric that puts them seventh in the Bundesliga. Liverpool have a PPDA of 9.2, the fiercest high press in the Premier League.

This season’s Liverpool can be a little chaotic. Backing off the offside trap that caused problems in recent seasons has pulled open space between the lines for opponents that crack the first line of pressure to run free through midfield, making games more end-to-end. Still, doubling down on their old heavy metal identity has been a winning strategy for Klopp.

Playing like Leverkusen would change all that. If Alonso cut-and-pasted his current game model onto Liverpool, the high press would drop off into more of a Man City-style mid-block. In possession, the creative players at the back would have less freedom to pick out runners over the top and Salah might have to abandon his wing to create between the lines. Even Alisson would see his role diminished in a back-three system that discourages the goalkeeper from venturing out of his box to join the build-up as a keeper-back.

All of this could work, and it’s certainly done wonders for Leverkusen. But a manager’s first job is to fit the team’s tactics to the strengths of the squad, which is part of why it’s very hard to predict whether coaching success will carry over to the next job. Alonso doesn’t have a long enough managerial record to suggest how he might handle the transition.

Then again, this is the same guy who used to drop 50-yard diagonals within a shoelace-width margin of error and who might soon be the first manager in over a decade to dethrone Bayern Munich. When has he ever missed?

(Top photo: Getty Images)

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