To Leverkusen

Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune

I think there is a moment when every young football manager stands on the sidelines completely helpless and looks around the stadium and asks themselves the question, “What am I doing? How did I get here?” 

For me, that moment was my third game in charge here, when Frankfurt smashed us 5–1. 

Remember that? Feels like a long time ago now. We were third from bottom, and I don’t think anyone watching that match would have predicted a trophy for us any time soon. We had lost the previous game 3–0 at home to Porto, and the team was really struggling to come together. But I believed that there was a lot of talent. So before the Frankfurt game, I honestly thought, “Hey, we can only improve.” As always, I worked hard to come up with a good gameplan. 

But once the match started, all my “ideas” went into the trash. All of my research and my notebooks filled with tactics, all the hours of video I watched…. 

The score never lies. 



I am sure after that result at Frankfurt, there were many people who were thinking, “Why have we hired this guy from Real Sociedad B?” 

I don’t blame them. Lucky for me, we had an amazing group of players and staff who stuck together and believed in me and in our vision. But if I am honest, that day, when I walked back to the tunnel, I had the thought that every young manager has: “What am I doing? How did I get into this crazy profession?”

Well, actually, it is in my blood….

There is a very simple picture I have in my mind when I think about what football means to me.

I can vividly remember gathering around the dinner table at night when I was young. My father would always have his notebooks and pencils scattered on the table, and he would be scribbling his tactics and lineups while my mom cooked dinner. To be honest, I remember my father more as a manager than as a player. His job was to always worry about the next match, or the next training, and this was in the days before the internet and laptops and advanced statistics, so he would map out all his ideas with his pencil while my mom tried to put out the plates and the forks. 

“Periko, please….”

She was fighting a losing battle! After a while, she just accepted it. She really had no choice. We were lucky, because we even had a little chimney in our living room — and in a football family, a chimney is not a chimney. It’s a perfect goal for me and my brother. Every night before dinner, we were playing football by the chimney. Every night during dinner, we were talking about football. For dessert? More football. 

(And my mother? She became more passionate about the game than all of us.) 

When I think about football, I think of this simple image of us around the dinner table. When you were dreaming, but really it was more like a joke. 

Xabi Alonso | To Leverkusen | The Players' Tribune
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune

“One day, I will play here.” 

“One day, I will win this trophy.” 

“One day…….”

My brother and me, we actually used to practice our “post-match interviews” after we would play our chimney games. It was the early ’90s, so we had one of those old videotape recorders, and one of us would film and ask the interview questions and then just make a fist as the microphone.

“Yes, well, it was a tough game today. But we worked very hard in training all week. The boss had us prepared.”

And then we would switch. 

“Xabi, man of the match today…. How does it feel?”

“Well, first I have to thank my teammates….”

I was lucky to have a friend in our neighbourhood who was also crazy about football. His name was Mikel. Every day, we were taking our skateboards down to the beach to play tennis, to surf, and of course to play football. This kid, he was maybe even crazier than me about football. He was a little bit younger than me and my friends — just a few months maybe. But you know how you always push your “little friends” at that age? Well, we tried, but he was a competitive monster. He wanted to win so badly, even if it was just a game on the beach. It was a love for the game that you cannot teach. You are born with it, I think. It bonded us very closely. And it still does, to this day. A few months ago, I got a call from my old friend Mikel. And as always, we talked football….

He said, “We’ve got Bayern Munich in the Champions League this week, what do you think?”

And I said, “We’ve got West Ham, what do you think?”

Xabi Alonso | To Leverkusen | The Players' Tribune

If you would have told us back then that we would be managing Arsenal and Leverkusen in 30 years, I think we would have been very happy, and very shocked. Of course, we probably would have said, “Wait, we made it as players first, right? OK, thank God. Just making sure….”

My journey here to Leverkusen, and my journey to becoming a football manager, is something that I can only fully appreciate now that this incredible season has come to an end. 

Was it perfect? No, not perfect. 

We lost a game. I wish we could play it again. 

But it was certainly magical. 

To be completely honest, when I got the phone call a year-and-a-half ago from Simon Rolfes asking me if I was interested in coming here, I had no idea about this word, “Neverkusen.” 

I was naive, in a good way. I had never been a manager in the top division. I had been coaching young players at Real Sociedad’s second team, in my hometown, completely out of the spotlight. All I knew of Bayer Leverkusen was from my time as a player, and I knew that they had a great stadium and were always playing in Europe. Then of course, I had a look at the squad, and I said, “Wow. OK. There is something interesting here.” 

When you win a trophy, I think that it always starts the season before. 

Xabi Alonso | To Leverkusen | The Players' Tribune
Ina Fassbender/AFP via Getty Images

For us, it all goes back to the ’22–23 season. By the time we fought back for the draw against Atlético Madrid in the second leg in the Europa League, I could just sense that we had a special group. There was a look in the players’ eyes — belief. If you have ever been a coach, then you know that you can look your players in the eyes in the first two or three minutes of a match, and you just know if it’s going to be a good day or a challenging day. The belief is either there, or it’s not. We had a belief, even in defeat. 

At the end of that season, I asked many of our players who had offers from other clubs to stay. I said, “Please just trust me. If you come back, we will have a great season.” Some needed more convincing than others, because it was a risk, let’s be honest. But in the end, they all trusted me, and you can see the results. 

From the first game against Leipzig this season, I knew that we had a chance to compete for trophies. It is an interesting feeling going from a player to a manager, because you have to stand on the sidelines for 90 minutes, and you feel very powerless. The game used to be played with your feet, and now it is only played in your mind. You are always thinking one decision ahead. You are standing there watching the decisions of your players, saying, “Right. Right. Good. Right. Right.”

Then one bad touch and you think, “Noooo. Come on guys, make it right!”

Sometimes, you want to run out onto the pitch and play, just to have some control. 

But from the first kick of the ball against Leipzig, in my head, it was: “Right, right, right, right. Yes. Right.” For 90 minutes. 

Over the first few months, I could see everyone coming together and trusting one another. But for me, the goal that made me really start dreaming a bit was Jonas Hofmann’s against Köln. Because it was not Jonas’s goal, it was a total team move. They were pressing us hard. Tah passed it out from the back to Palacios, who got it wide to Kossounou. Then we shifted the ball back to the middle to Xhaka, who accelerated the game with Wirtz and Boniface in between the lines. We were building bit-by-bit, attracting their press. And once we reached the space behind their sixes, we accelerated the game and attacked with many players in the box. Boniface played the ball out wide, and after a cross from Grimaldo, the back-heel pass from Wirtz gave Jonas the space to score. 

It was a perfect summary of our ambition for how we want to play. We had a good change of tempo between the “stability moment” and the “acceleration moment” and then a ruthless finish. As a manager, it gives you as much pleasure to see this kind of team goal develop as when you were playing the game yourself.

Well, no. That is a lie. When you are on the sidelines watching it, you still think, “I wish I was out there doing what they do!” As any child can tell you, football is about playing. I have to enjoy it now in another way. That means hearing many “rights” in my head.

For a manager, there is nothing more fulfilling than a team playing together like an orchestra. To see your “paper ideas” become real on the pitch. But every player will tell you that there are also times during the course of a season when nothing is going right, and you need a moment of individual genius. It’s funny because in my first season, when we were struggling to make everything click, everyone around the club kept telling me, “Just wait until Florian comes back from injury. Just wait for Flo … wait for Flo….”

I thought, “OK, I know Florian. Good player.”

But I have to admit, I did not know how great he was until he came back and I saw him with my own eyes. Against Freiburg, it was a nil-nil, tough match in the first half. They were defending deep, and Florian dribbled one, then two, then three, then four, then five defenders and scored that beauty. It was one of those goals where you can just stand and admire. Clap your hands and say, “Wow.” 

It was another reminder to us as managers that we should never take too much credit for what happens on the pitch, because our job is simply to provide a platform for this kind of genius. It is the players who make history.

What I have learned in my short time as a manager is that this job is not something that is written in a notebook. What I saw my father do at the dinner table is only a small part of it. Football is not just tactics, but also “intuition.” A group feeling of trust. This is something that my mother had when we were kids. She would be the one who could tell if something was wrong with you just by a look in your eye after a match. For me, one of the greatest joys has been to get to know my players, and to get them to trust me when I ask them to do something out of their comfort zone. To do whatever is necessary in that moment, even if it is not their normal job. 

I can not think of a better example of this than our second match against Bayern Munich. That was our big test, mentally. 

Listen, we are not robots! At that point in the season, we were all thinking just the same as everyone. “OK, we have done well so far, but still, it is Bayern…. We are only two points ahead. And they will be coming….”

Our first match against them was positive, a 2–2 draw in Munich, but we knew that we had not passed the test yet. If we cracked under the pressure of that moment, we would keep hearing the word “Neverkusen.” 

Before the second match, we made a change to our system, and all the players bought into the idea. We wanted to control the game without the ball and wait for our moments to counter — which is not normally our approach, but it worked. At halftime, when we were up 1–0, the important thing was that I looked around the dressing room, and nobody was interested in just sitting deep and defending the 1–0 lead. Everybody wanted to score more. There was no fear. 

If we did not have that collective mindset, who knows what happens? If we sit back and defend, who knows? Maybe a 1–1 draw, and the momentum changes. But we didn’t. We stayed disciplined and attacked when we had our chances, and in the end, we won 3–0. 

We passed the test. 

Xabi Alonso | To Leverkusen | The Players' Tribune
Sam Robles/The Players' Tribune

After that day, there was no power in the word “Neverkusen.” We had a conviction that we were going to make history. It was not just about winning the title. It was about winning every game, as they came to us. 

The next, the next, the next….

As a player, you always want to celebrate. You want to relax, just for a moment. But as a manager, your job is to be obsessive about the next match. I probably learned this from the great managers that I played for — Pep, Mourinho, Rafa, Ancelotti, Toshack, Aragonés, del Bosque, and more than I can even name. 

But I think it is also deep in my blood. I saw it every night with my father around our dinner table. It was always, “OK, but what’s next?” 

The next training session, the next injury crisis, the next set of problems….

He would get out his notebook and start scribbling. For me now, it is the same. Maybe I am turning into my father! But this season, I can honestly tell you that I came home from a victory, and all I could think about was the next match. 

To some people, maybe that sounds depressing. But to me, it was pure happiness. A “happy obsession,” I guess you could call it. 

At home, instead of “Periko, please….

It was “Xabi, please….”

The circle of life, you know?

Thankfully, my own wife and kids are just as in love with football as I am. We lived this amazing season together, and my kids were absolutely thrilled. In football, and in life, happiness is precious. 

You know, it can be very hard to find something that you love when you are done playing football. Something that can replace the joy that you have when you are playing in front of 50,000 fans. For me, I simply traded football for football. I live it in a different way now, and I am very happy. Happy to be teaching what I know. Happy with my players. Happy with our fans. Happy with everything we have achieved together. 

And I am happy we never have to hear the word “Neverkusen” ever again.

Xabi Alonso | To Leverkusen | The Players' Tribune
Ralf Ibing/Firo Sportphoto via Getty Images

To be able to win the Bundesliga and the DFB-Pokal in my first full season as a manager is incredible, and something I do not take for granted. For that, I really have to thank the club for trusting me with this project. But most of all, I have to thank my players and staff for all their hard work. (And I hope that you are all coming back, because you know how much more we can achieve.) 

So … “what’s next?” 

A title defence. 

The Champions League. 

More history? Hopefully. More memories? For sure. 

Until next season, 


Footage provided by ESPN+