Data-driven Manager of the Month: Xabi Alonso - Bayer Leverkusen's master tactician

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Data-driven Manager of the Month: Xabi Alonso - Bayer Leverkusen's master tactician
Xabi Alonso (right) with Alejandro Grimaldo
Xabi Alonso (right) with Alejandro Grimaldo
Profimedia
After five wins in February, including a thumping triumph over title rivals Bayern Munich (3-0), and setting a record of 33 straight Bundesliga games without a loss, our data-driven Manager of the Month for February across Europe's top five leagues simply had to be Xabi Alonso (42).

In recent weeks, Alonso has once again demonstrated not only his tactical nous but also his ability to motivate his team to perform beyond the expectations of fans and experts alike. In a superb demonstration of his coaching skills, he came up against his biggest rivals in Germany's title race, Bayern, with a novel system, stunning counterpart Thomas Tuchel and romping to a statement victory.

To properly demonstrate how Alonso outsmarted his main rivals, it is important to first understand his plan in other league games. On paper, Leverkusen's formation appears to be a 3-4-3. However, when transitioning into attack, right wing-back Jeremie Frimpong moves up the wing and the right-sided centre-back, which is most often one of Josip Stanisic or Odilon Kossounou, moves to a right-back position. This creates an aggressive 4-2-4 formation, with the free 10s operating between the lines behind a striker while Frimpong stretches the play on the right side.

This leads to several advantages, especially in possession. The team controls the ball well on the left side of midfield due to their structure, looking to find Frimpong, who often has a huge space to attack on the right. The key players in this system are the wide defenders - Alejandro Grimaldo and Frimpong - who are also Leverkusen's most dangerous players.

Leverkusen's standard formation
11Hacks

Tuchel and Bayern sought to disrupt Alonso's system. As a result, Joshua Kimmich, Raphael Guerreiro and Thomas Muller were left out of the starting lineup. In addition, to match up well, Tuchel switched from his traditional 4-2-3-1 formation to a 3-4-3.

However, while Tuchel sacrificed some creative players in favour of defensive types like Sacha Boey and Aleksandar Pavlovic to counter Bayer's plan, Alonso read his intentions and switched to a completely different template.

For one game, Alonso completely changed his approach. He didn't field a power forward in Patrik Schick, depriving his team of its most dangerous finisher, and benched Frimpong and Jonas Hofmann. The latter two are key to Leverkusen's standard game, which of course was not Alonso's plan in this match.

The use of Grimaldo proved to be the most important aspect of the new gameplan as he would come inside from the left-back zone to outnumber Pavlovic and Leon Goretzka in midfield. What's more, Florian Wirtz, who couldn't be tracked at all by Eric Dier, would drop into central areas as well. These duel movements created four-on-two situations in the middle of the pitch, making it easy for Leverkusen to get into the final third and generate chances from almost every possession.

A four-on-two in the middle of the field
11Hacks

In practice, it is very difficult to switch between the standard tactics that the team uses from game to game to a completely new system, especially against an elite opponent. However, the execution of Alonso's new plan was excellent. With only 38% ball possession, Leverkusen generated 1.0 more expected goals (xG) and also seven more shots than Bayern in the match.

In Alonso's still young coaching career, this was a significant demonstration of how much potential he has from a tactical point of view. He outsmarted Tuchel in the battle for the title and showed that he understands perfectly what another side might expect from a match and what strategy they will go into it with. Moreover, in the key match of the season, he managed to change his lineup and system and still execute his plan perfectly. This says a lot about the Spaniard's ability to communicate tactics to his charges.

Leverkusen now have a series of games against opponents outside the current top six and are likely to put even more pressure on Bayern, who are currently seven points behind them in second place (with Sunday's game in Cologne to come). Although the league leaders should still be missing their top scorer Victor Boniface for at least another month with a muscular tear, Schick is a proven and sufficient replacement. And then, of course, there is Alonso himself and his ingenious and unexpected plans.

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