Alonso has soaring Leverkusen dreaming of title
With 16 wins and a draw in 17 matches in all competitions, Xabi Alonso's Bayer Leverkusen could scarcely have had a better start to the season.
A serial winner in a club career which included stints at Liverpool, Real Madrid and Bayern Munich, Alonso was a key member of the Spain team which broke through for a first World Cup victory in 2010, bookended by two European Championships.
Alonso retired in 2017 and moved into coaching, masterminding Real Sociedad B's promotion to the second division for the first time since the early 1960s.
He came to Leverkusen in October 2022, with the club wallowing in the relegation zone.
Despite some early wobbles, winning only one of his first seven games, Alonso took them to sixth place by the season's end and a Europa League semifinal.
Leverkusen's brilliant start to 2023-24 has fans dreaming of a first-ever Bundesliga title.
But even away from Germany's football-mad industrial Rhine-Ruhr region, plenty believe one of the game's premier players is becoming the next elite manager.
In the Bundesliga, Leverkusen have picked up 31 of 33 points, equalling the record set in 2015-16 by Pep Guardiola's Bayern — where Alonso featured in midfield.
Alonso told AFP and other media there is no secret behind his approach.
"I talk, work, show, improve, do collective training, individual training, I don't know the name of the techniques: it's face-to-face conversation."
The coach said he knew his side had "big potential" when taking over.
"With a little bit of good work or change of mood and confidence, we could do better".
While Leverkusen's pass-heavy style recalls that of Guardiola, Alonso rejected simple comparisons.
"Not tiki-taka" Alonso said, explaining "many times tiki-taka is a little bit defensive possession. I have played in it, but we have other things."
Alonso's footballing philosophy might be well-defined, but the coach was careful to emphasise it is not rigid.
He understands the importance of player agency, saying "I'm not a fundamentalist that demands we have to play a certain way."
"No, because you (the coach) are not the most important person. The other guys (players) are more important than you."
"I was encouraged to have my own creativity on the pitch, to make my own decisions.
"It's not about being robots… They have the knowledge and the quality to decide what is good."
Viral videos show the 41-year-old firing perfect passes across the pitch with all the control of his playing days.
The former central midfielder smiles when asked if he is the team's best passer and admits he misses playing the game.
"I shouldn't say it, but yes. I miss (playing).
"It's not the same" Alonso said of coaching "playing is better, playing is much better."
Former Arsenal captain Granit Xhaka, 31, arrived in summer and said the coach has already improved his game.
"Alonso is showing me many, many small details on the pitch. It's something special".
'NEVERKUSEN' NO MORE?
Leverkusen's five second-place finishes, along with losing the 2002 Champions League final to Real Madrid, have given rise to the unwanted 'Neverkusen' moniker.
Alonso, however, shot down talk of pipping perennial Bundesliga winners Bayern to the title.
"The challenge now is not against Bayern. It's against what we can do, how far we can reach, and whether we deserve to be in that position.
"If we are here in this position in April, for sure, we will see, but for now it's too early. The challenge is to prove we can be consistent."
The last coach to upend Bayern's Bundesliga dominance was former Borussia Dortmund, and now Liverpool, manager Jurgen Klopp.
Former Red Alonso describes Klopp as "unbelievable", saying the manager had returned Liverpool to its place among the "top, top clubs in the world".
"I would have loved to be coached by Jurgen Klopp.
"How he's able to deliver one message (clearly) and I have the feeling that behind closed doors it must be even better."
Describing himself as "Basque, total Basque, but with a big German influence", Alonso backed Klopp to coach Germany one day "when he's finished at Liverpool, I'm sure he'll have the chance if he wants".
'100 PERCENT HERE'
Alonso's success in Leverkusen has not gone unnoticed, with speculation linking him to former club Real.
"I don't know when that moment will come," Alonso said of leaving Leverkusen, explaining "my feeling right now is here and my mind is 100 per cent here.
"I'm enjoying it here and have many reasons to be positive about the future."
Known for adept decision-making as a player, Alonso said he would "not be pushed" by others into a decision.
"I will take my own decisions when I feel it is the right moment."