At the press conference last month to announce he would leave Liverpool at the end of the season, Jürgen Klopp was sitting next to the Anfield CEO Billy Hogan, who was trying very hard to project an air of business-as-usual. Asked how the club hoped to replace their brilliant manager, Hogan said: “We’ll go through the same process that brought us Jürgen nine years ago.”
That process had obviously included in-depth analysis of the contenders’ records: Liverpool’s analysts pored over Klopp’s disappointing last season at Dortmund to confirm that the bad results had been down to bad luck rather than some deeper dysfunction. It even included spying missions by the then sporting director, Michael Edwards, who would hang out incognito in hotel lobbies eavesdropping on candidates to get a sense of their personality.
One hesitates to criticise any club for doing their due diligence but you feel, looking back, as though some layers of that process might have been redundant. Imagine Liverpool had done all that homework and ended up not hiring Klopp, who any casual football fan could have instantly identified as the outstanding available coach in Europe in the autumn of 2015. Sometimes the obvious answer is also the correct one.
As the new process is now under way, one hopes for Liverpool’s sake that they had someone following the events at the BayArena in Leverkusen on Saturday evening, where Xabi Alonso’s Bayer 04 faced Bayern Munich.
With Leverkusen two points clear of Bayern at the top of the league, ancient Bundesliga tradition dictated they would now crumble, allowing Bayern to ease past them and commence the cruise towards the inevitable title number 12. We’ve seen this movie before.
Instead, Alonso’s team comprehensively thrashed Bayern, who were made to look sluggish and ordinary. For the first goal, they attacked from a quick throw while Bayern’s defenders were taking a breather after scrambling the previous attack clear. The second, shortly after half-time, was an incisive move down the left that capitalised on lazy defending from Bayern’s midfield. The third, by ex-Celtic right-back Jeremie Frimpong, was a glorious counterattack after Bayern keeper Manuel Neuer had stranded himself at the wrong end of the pitch after going up for a corner.
Afterwards there was an extraordinary pitchside interview from Mr Bayern, Thomas Müller, who had been left on the bench by Thomas Tuchel until Bayern were already 2-0 down, and thus could consider himself largely blameless for the defeat.
Müller, steeped as he is in Bayern lore, referred to a famous interview Oliver Kahn gave following a defeat in 2003, when he answered the question “what was missing today?” with the single word “eier” – “eggs”, ie balls.
“We’re great in training, we’re brave, we play with freedom,” shouted Müller over the noise of the celebrating home stadium. “Then we come here and, I have to quote Oliver Kahn, we lack balls, and we lack this freedom, this mentality in our game, especially when we’re in possession. Look at Leverkusen, they just gamble, they play football, they look for solutions. It’s not like every move is planned. Like say, when Grimaldo pops up on the right even though he’s a left-back . . . we do that too – in training, but not in the match when the pressure is on. We’re playing from A to B, from B to C, and nobody plays with freedom or takes risks.”
Prodded by the Sky Germany interviewer to blame Tuchel for Bayern’s weakness and inhibition, Müller gallantly insisted that it was the fault of the players. He is too astute to stab his coach in the front, in full public view. The interview – so much passion for this club! – had been a pretty convincing audition to be a future Bayern coach, he can leave the speculation to others.
Despite the critics currently laying into Tuchel, Bayern aren’t actually doing that badly this season. When you take 50 points from 21 matches you will usually be top of the league. It’s just that Leverkusen’s form has been incredible. Their record in all competitions is 31 matches, 27 wins, four draws.
There is every chance Bayern could still win the league – the gap is just five points – this is already an astonishing coaching achievement by Alonso. There is simply no way that Leverkusen should be in this position. Of the 30 best-paid players in the Bundesliga, 17 play for Bayern. Leverkusen have none. When he took over in October 2022 they had lost eight of their first 12 matches and proceeded to win only one of his first seven. They were a nothing team, going nowhere. A little over a year later, they are having the best season in their history.
As a player Alonso was distinguished by his beautiful ball-striking technique and his superb vision of the game. Like his successor at Real Madrid, Toni Kroos, he always understood where the ball should go next. Unlike some of his playing contemporaries, he has demonstrated the ability to communicate that understanding to his players.
The coaches Alonso played for include Pep Guardiola, Jose Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti, Vicente del Bosque, Rafael Benitez and John Toshack . . . but he says the main influence on his coaching style was his father, Periko, who had excelled as a midfielder for Real Sociedad, Barcelona and Spain, but worked as a coach throughout most of Alonso’s childhood.
“He had the ethic of teamwork, something that belongs to the character of La Real [Sociedad],” Alonso told El País in an interview last year. “Know that the priority is generosity. As a midfielder, you are generous with the team, you don’t play for your own personal glory. As a player, what did I want? Better players than me around me, and to help them become better. Because if I was the best, then the playmaker, the number eight, the winger were not as good. I wanted to give them good balls so that they could do the things I couldn’t do. If I can make the players improve, then I’m a better coach.”
Liverpool should see his emergence as an extraordinary stroke of luck: just as their legendary manager of nearly a decade decides to leave, a beloved former player emerges as a star of the new generation of coaches. And Real Madrid have just extended Ancelotti’s contract until 2026.
Is it a risk to entrust the team to a coach with fewer than two seasons of experience at the top level? It might be, but when the task is to replace Jurgen Klopp, all the options are risky. Hiring a young coach who has already given clear evidence of brilliance, who has spent his whole life in top-level football and won every major trophy, who also happens to be a playing legend at your club and a hero to your fans as he has been to the fans of all the clubs he represented? It might not quite be no-risk, but it undoubtedly is a no-brainer.