‘Absolutely exceptional’: Jurgen Klopp backs Xabi Alonso as top choice in next generation of managers

Jurgen Klopp had branded himself one of the managerial dinosaurs when he identified who he believes is the outstanding coach of the next generation. It is a choice many a Liverpool fan may hope their board will echo. Because while Klopp was not anointing Xabi Alonso his successor at Anfield, a glowing tribute was an endorsement of the work the Spaniard is doing with Bayer Leverkusen.

Klopp would, he said, have been effusive in his praise a couple of months back. If one fundamental change since then is the German’s announcement that he will leave Liverpool, another came on Saturday. Leverkusen’s 3-0 win over Bayern Munich put them five points clear at the Bundesliga summit, making Alonso on course to become the first manager to make any club other than the Bavarian superpower the champions of Germany since Klopp himself. Time will tell if the Spaniard replaces Klopp in another respect.

For now, a manager who has retained a keen interest in the Bundesliga is impressed. As he prepares to consign himself to Liverpool’s past, he is looking at football’s future. “Xabi is doing an incredible job,” he said. “If there would not be the rumours around, that’s completely independent. If you would have asked me eight weeks ago about Xabi Alonso, I would have gone ‘Oh my God’.

“The dinosaurs if you want, [Carlo] Ancelotti, [Jose] Mourinho, [Pep] Guardiola, maybe me, we will not do it – OK, maybe Mourinho, but all the rest will not do it for the next 20 years – [but] the next generation is already there and I would say Xabi is stand-out in that department.”

Jurgen Klopp claims Xabi Alonso is the stand-out candidate of up-and-coming managers (Reuters)
Jurgen Klopp claims Xabi Alonso is the stand-out candidate of up-and-coming managers (Reuters)

Klopp outlined the ways in which Alonso seems to tick every box. A player whose trophy cabinet includes the World Cup, European Championship, Champions League and league titles in Spain and Germany can command instant respect, but it helps that Alonso was a cerebral footballer, a thinking midfielder. His education began early: his father, Periko, managed six Spanish clubs. “A former world-class player, obviously coaching family as well which helps a little bit, he was like a coach already when he was playing,” Klopp noted.

But Alonso’s 16 months at Leverkusen have offered ample evidence of his excellence in the dugout. They are the only unbeaten club in all competitions in the top divisions of Europe’s 54 leagues this season. They have dropped only eight points but Klopp has looked beyond results. Alonso has played a progressive brand of football and Leverkusen have completed the most passes in the Bundesliga while registering the best defensive record and only failing to score once.

Alonso inherited a side in 17th, introduced a 3-4-2-1 formation and has made some catalytic signings, in top scorer Victor Boniface, the influential Granit Xhaka and Alex Grimaldo, the wing-back brought in on a free transfer who has scored eight Bundesliga goals and made nine more.

“The football he is playing, the teams he sets up, the transfers he did, it was absolutely exceptional,” Klopp added. “I played a long time in my life in the Bundesliga, that is super-impressive. Not only the points tally but the way they play.”

The speed of Alonso’s impact has taken the Liverpool manager aback. “How quick his team is that well-tuned,” Klopp marvelled. “For the time it’s taken, he’s put his proper stamp on it. Nobody knows if that is always the way he wants to play or if it’s the way this team specifically plays, he is not long enough in the business to tell, but obviously the coaching part is exceptional. That is clear.”

Alonso celebrated with his team after orchestrating Bayer Leverkusen’s 3-0 victory over Bayern Munich (Reuters)
Alonso celebrated with his team after orchestrating Bayer Leverkusen’s 3-0 victory over Bayern Munich (Reuters)

Finishing ahead of Bayern tends to require beating them. Klopp’s Borussia Dortmund did a double over their title rivals in both seasons when they were champions. Leverkusen drew 2-2 in Munich in September before Saturday’s emphatic victory and Klopp felt Alonso’s performances were better.

“Leverkusen was clearly the better side in the first game and that is rare,” he said. “To be honest, when we beat Bayern at Dortmund, it was a bit of very well defended, counterattack and taking the momentum. Especially at the beginning, it was defending better and trying to be brave at certain moments. But Leverkusen was better. That was probably the real surprise given the short time he was there and it’s a young team. He has super signings for this team – exactly what they needed – and that’s really a very special job. Everybody would say exactly the same. In Germany, they talk like this. Wow, that is really impressive.”

As he has noted, Leverkusen are chasing a treble. They face second-division Fortuna Dusseldorf in the semi-finals of the DFB-Pokal. “So Leverkusen has a very good chance to win the Cup,” Klopp said. “Obviously when you look through the Europa League, Leverkusen is one of the favourites there as well so that could be the season for Leverkusen. Really crazy.”

What he did not mention is that one of the other favourites for the Europa League is his Liverpool. It could yet be Klopp against Alonso. But if it could be Klopp followed by Alonso at Anfield, it might be a decision that meets with the departing manager’s approval.