I loved being on the pitch with footballers. My former coaches Carlo Ancelotti, Pep Guardiola, Jupp Heynckes and Felix Magath were world champions or European Cup winners as players. As practitioners, they know what makes a dressing room tick. They recognise with which players triumphs are possible. They use the natural hierarchy of a team. Footballers can smell it when their coaches lack this instinct.
I could have imagined Xabi Alonso as my coach. He knows football inside out. He played for Bayern for three years, and in 2017 we finished our careers together, again with the Bundesliga trophy in our hands. That he is now the coach at Bayer Leverkusen does not surprise me. He was working towards that during the last years of his active time.
Xabi has the decisive prerequisites to become a great in the coaching arena as well, because he has won everything: the Champions League with Liverpool and Real Madrid, the World Cup and twice the European Championship with Spain, and he was also national champion in Spain and Germany.
Already as a player, Xabi was an intellectual who was wonderful to talk shop with and who took responsibility for the whole. For a decade, he defined the position of the defensive midfielder. With him, the defence did not open up any spaces for the opponent, and in the buildup he was always aware of the risk of losing the ball. He gave his teams stability, order and security.
He has the advantage of having asserted himself in the three strongest leagues in the world: the Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga. The best coaches counted on him as a leader: Guardiola, Ancelotti, José Mourinho, Rafael Benítez, Vicente del Bosque. You can tell what a strategist he was by the fact that he held his own at top clubs even when the game became more dynamic and the opponents faster.
Playing football defined his life from the age of five to 35. It goes without saying that these intense experiences help when you later guide footballers. In England, Italy and France, it is the common rule that the coaches of the top clubs used to be professionals in the first or second division. In Spain, all three big clubs are coached by former national players.
The Bundesliga, on the other hand, takes a special approach. With his trophy collection, Xabi is the exception. Niko Kovac of Wolfsburg is the only one of his competitors to have won a major league title as a player. Oliver Glasner (Frankfurt) and Urs Fischer (Union) were cup winners in Austria and Switzerland, André Breitenreiter (Hoffenheim) in Germany with a second-division club, and Bo Svensson (Mainz) was champion in Denmark.
In Germany, people have been relying on coaches without noteworthy careers for years. Some of them were footballers in the seventh league or lower, are 35 years old or younger. But they have a very good academic degree. They follow Ralf Rangnick, who once said that footballers and coaches are two different professions.
I think this approach is wrong. Of course, a world-class footballer does not automatically become a good coach; there is a lot of evidence for that. And of course I know the Sunday league footballer Arrigo Sacchi, who invented ball-oriented defending. But this exception does not mean that theory can replace practice.
In any case, one cannot say that the Bundesliga is successful. Although there are many big clubs and cities in Germany, Bayern have always finished top for the past 10 years. Apart from them, German teams in international competitions almost invariably fall far short of their potential.
Where are the German former footballers who want to learn the coaching job? Without them, immense intrinsic knowledge is lost to German football. The expertise of what the player has to do to steal the ball from the opponent or to marshal him out. The expertise of when to step forward or backward in a duel, how to turn, where to run and all the other details that are particularly important. Also the expertise on how to put together great teams. Alex Ferguson is right: this is a work of art.
Xabi has always been reliable on the pitch. That’s why I trust him to get his second job right. A coach must be allowed to experiment in order to find his style. What many ex-professionals overlook is that they face the difficult task of learning a new trade. Plans, organisation, preparation, office work – the theoreticians have all that ahead of them. That’s where football federations should start in coach education.
Xabi started cautiously. Unlike many others he didn’t start too high too early, but tried out in the youth of Real Madrid and with the B team of Real Sociedad. He has four years of apprenticeship behind him, which is a quick run-through, and he will still make many a mistake. Now he is coaching a club where he is immediately under pressure. That involves a risk. A coach doesn’t mature overnight.
His playing career is no guarantee that Xabi will become a great coach. But he definitely has everything it takes: the charisma, the age, the qualifications and the character to want to keep developing. And the knowledge that you can only acquire on the pitch.