Bocsak: Xabi Alonso Can Transform Liverpool 2.0

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Jurgen Klopp’s Departure: A Seismic Shift at Liverpool

There can be no question about it, Klopp’s decision to leave Liverpool is seismic. It’s an utterly devastating blow. The reality is there is no one like him in football. No one with the same charisma, the same style or ability to conjure miracles. He is as unique as they come.

But the world doesn’t stop. It mustn’t stop. Just as the flowers bloom in the spring, and caterpillars turn into butterflies – Liverpool will go on.

As Klopp said, FSG will have known about his decision back in November. This means a plan must already be in place, and there may already be a shortlist drawn up of potential candidates.

The Xabi Alonso Question: Potential Successor to Klopp

Alonso should sit highly on the list of potential candidates. He has transformed a Bayer Leverkusen side – who were near the relegation zone when he took over – into one of the best sides in the league.

His experience in management has been brief. At the top level at least. But he’s got so much experience at the highest level as a player. And the experience of working with some of the best managers in recent memory. From Pep Guardiola to Carlo Ancelotti and Jose Mourinho.

Having that experience means he won’t just be thrust into this high-level environment. He already knows and understands the pressures of elite football. The fact that he is already Liverpool cult hero as well makes him the natural successor to Klopp’s throne.

Analysing Alonso’s Tactical Approach at Bayer Leverkusen

At Bayer Leverkusen, Alonso has incorporated a modern mix of two of the most popular styles in football at the moment. He’s implemented Klopp’s gegenpressing, but has imbued Pep Guardiola’s possessional tiki-taka style as well.

Alonso’s side like to form triangles – draw the opposition in and then move the ball quickly into space. His side averages around 17.9 passes per minute of possession – which is the best in the Bundesliga.

This season in the Bundesliga, Leverkusen have also completed the most passes (627 per 90) as per FBref. For context City’s Guardiola averaged around the same sort of numbers at 625 per 90 this season in the Premier League. Out of those passes, Leverkusen averages 360 short passes per 90 – again similar to City (310 per 90).

But there is an element to them that is reminiscent of Klopp’s gegenpressing as well. Off the ball, Leverkusen will push high up the pitch. And they’re quite aggressive in pressing opponents.

This season in the Bundesliga, Alonso’s side averaged the most recoveries per 90 (58.7). This is comparable to Klopp’s Liverpool who average the most recoveries in the Premier League (55.8 per 90) this season.

So essentially, Alonso has implemented the best of both worlds. And it’s a system that is clearly working to great effect. His side are top of the league with four points and are still unbeaten.

Leverkusen’s Defensive Strategies Under Alonso

At Leverkusen, Alonso has been playing with a back three. As mentioned above, his team does press quite high up the pitch – similar to that of gegenpressing. In defensive transitions, Leverkusen will press aggressively and try to regain possession. They are ranked 5th for intensive runs in the Bundesliga (13079) and third for sprints (4382).

Alonso’s back three, like Klopp’s back four, play with a high line. They like to force the opposition to play out wide and concede as few chances as possible. In this sense, there is a bit of Ancelotti’s pragmatism that Alonso has incorporated as well.

Leverkusen have currently conceded the fewest goals (14) in the league and have conceded the second-fewest shots (34). They also have the best defensive duel success rate 65.5% in the league. Impressively, Alonso’s side achieved this while conceding the fewest fouls in the league as well (7.94 per 90).

Alonso’s Potential Fit at Liverpool

As stated above, Alonso’s Leverkusen like to play quick and short passes in possession, draw the opposition in, and then switch the play into space.

To make this system the most effective, there is a special emphasis on Alonso’s midfield – and his double pivot. In his 3-4-2-1 formation, the two central midfield players often interchange with one dropping deep to pick up the ball during the build-up, and the other running further forward into space.

It’s a simple pass and move system. In possession, Alonso’s goal is to break the opposition’s lines, and create space on the width and in the final third of the opponent. His system doesn’t necessarily rely on the crossing, it’s more aimed at through balls and penetrative passes – or players running into the box. When it comes to crosses into the penalty area Alonso’s side are ranked second from bottom in the league (1.39 per 90). But they are ranked the second highest both for key passes (14 per 90) and carries into the penalty area (7.78 per 90).

One of the key roles in Alonso’s system is played by the wing-backs, who essentially play a bit like the wingers in Klopp’s 4-3-3 system. Both Grimaldo and Frimpong hog the lines, and their job is to push forward as high as possible, before cutting into central areas. For comparison take a look at Frimpong’s (right) and then Salah’s (left) heatmap this season in the pictures below.

Meanwhile, in the front three, the two wide players act more as number tens, who drop back and support the attack in central positions. For demonstration take a look at Florian Wirtz and Jonas Hofmann’s heatmaps.

Transitioning Alonso’s Tactics to Anfield

So how could all this work at Liverpool?

Naturally, all of Liverpool’s centre-back options will be more than capable of being used in a back three. Andy Robertson – depending on how he comes back from injury could potentially be used in a similar role as Grimaldo at Leverkusen this season.

The big question mark will be over Trent Alexander-Arnold. In Alonso’s system, he would probably be better suited to playing in the middle as a double pivot – alongside someone likes Alexis Mac Allister, Wataru Endo or potentially even Stefan Bajcetic or Curtis Jones – who has shown he can be effective playing in deeper areas.

That leaves Salah as the potential player who could be used in Frimpong’s role – but that’s asking a lot of a 32-year-old who will want to sustain his body for as long as possible. In Alonso’s system, Salah could be a lot more effective in the Wirtz or Hofmann role – which he has recently played for Egypt.

So, if Alonso were to come in, one priority for him could be bringing in a player like Frimpong – or even Frimpong himself.

In other areas of the pitch, players like Dominik Szoboszlai, Harvey Elliott, Diogo Jota and Cody Gakpo would be more than capable of playing the Wirtz and Hofmann roles as well. Meanwhile, up top, someone like Darwin Nunez could be just as effective as Victor Boniface in Alonso’s system. Although, that’s another area where Alonso could look to bolster his options.

Is Alonso Worth the Risk?

Bringing Alonso to Liverpool would not offer a like-for-like system. It will mean a change. But the reality is no one can play Jurgen Klopp’s football as well as the German does. Alonso has his ideas and methods, and they are in some ways an evolution to Klopp’s gegenpress by incorporating Guardiola’s pass and move philosophy.

The change in style won’t diverge too much. Fans can still expect to see exciting fast-paced football with plenty of goals and chances created. It may be a little bit more pragmatic rather than heavy metal, but it has the potential to be just as successful.

Meanwhile, off the pitch, Alonso is someone who is already loved by the club’s supporters. He understands what Liverpool stands for, and that could help make his transition easier.

For all those reasons, even though the Spaniard doesn’t have a lot of experience in senior management – he is worth the risk.

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