Jit was his. The start of Xabi Alonso’s history as a coach, where one of a midfielder’s most natural schemers would prove dexterous and capable against the backdrop of the touchline. If there was any speculation that his former Liverpool team-mate Steven Gerrard would be some type of manager based on his assurance as a player, perhaps that will double for Alonso after three seasons of flaunting his philosophy in the club. Real Sociedad B team.
For a time, the opinion has been that Alonso is so cerebral that he should be on an inexorable path to familiar ground at the top, with a possible return to Bayern Munich planned by Karl-Heinz Rummenigge in 2020 (“he will be a coach who may be of interest to Bayern at some point in the future”) and has changed flag since joining Bayer Leverkusen.
He seemed to have found the perfect ramp in that direction. There are few Champions League level clubs where the pressure is softer than Leverkusen. Alonso will have time, space, less fervent fans around his neck than at many clubs in the club Bundesliga peers (just think down the road at Borussia Mönchengladbach, a role Alonso could have easily found himself in), plus plenty of talent and a budget to hone his squad within reason.
We could consider – perhaps especially in light of Gerrard’s current struggles – if we shouldn’t be talking about throwing someone the keys to the Maserati before they’ve passed their driving test, especially considering of the climbing of the opening days of Alonso in situ. His Bundesliga debut was a breeze: a 4-0 win over Schalke at the BayArena, with Alonso’s lightweight autumn jacket still dangling lightly on the coat rack in his new office. Subsequently, the real magnitude of his task became more apparent.
There was an argument that Porto’s Champions League loss in midweek was unfairly harsh against tricky opponents. Saturday was another story. Leverkusen were visiting Eintracht Frankfurt, emerging from their own Champions League efforts and less accustomed to the rotation of the schedule, with fewer resources to deal with it than The worker.
Dear Xabi, meet a rude awakening. “If you lose 5-1 and the opponent’s coach not only speaks of a ‘deserved’ victory for his team”, wrote Stephan von Nocks in Kicker, “but also criticizes their ‘lost chances’, like Markus Krösche did to Sky, then it’s red alert.
Players of the quality of Patrik Schick, Moussa Diaby and Jonathan Tah, to name just three, are far from their best, which is a problem for Alonso, who replaced Gerardo Seoane. “The problems don’t go away with the coach,” insisted Robert Andrich. “It’s always those on the ground who are responsible for it.” Fellow midfielder Kerem Demirbay put it more succinctly: “We’re in deep shit.”
There is no argument there. If you wanted the juxtaposition of talent versus form in a tidy individual package of this latest setback, take Piero Hincapie. The defender created an equalizer 10 minutes into the second half with a Van Persie-style diving header and from there was the protagonist of a streak that torpedoed Alonso’s afternoon in less than 15 minutes. Two minutes after his goal, Hincapié was caught dozing when Randal Kolo Muani beat him through a Christopher Lenz cross to relegate Eintracht ahead. Then his misjudged header on the halfway line allowed Jesper Lindström to run away and earn a trick finish for third.
To top it all off, Hincapié brought down a raging Kolo Muani with a final challenge to (possibly, after VAR consultation) hand the hosts a second penalty of the afternoon, which Daichi Kamada shook off as he had the first, at which point Hincapié had received a second yellow for the foul. The time that elapsed between his header hitting the net and his desperate lunge at Kolo Muani was 11 minutes and 52 seconds.
This is, so far, one of those seasons for Leverkusen. Hincapié, 20, is a player with considerable potential but, like his team, he is currently in free fall. When former Leverkusen striker Lucas Alario scored an apologetic fifth in the dying minutes, every good job they had done against Schalke had been undone, goal for goal.
If they were in the game before this quarter-hour implosion, it was only in theory, not in practice. Leverkusen had been hanging on by the nails until then, given the run of Good Eintracht (you never really know if they or Bad Eintracht, distant relatives in the guise of the same team, will show up this season), with the reunited duo of Kolo Muani and Mario Götze pulling their guests to one side then the other. The terrible truth for Leverkusen is that they did well here.
Today they sit in 16th place, synonymous with the relegation play-off spot, with just eight points from 10 games and with only Schalke and Bochumbelow, so far desperate. Wolfsburg’s other wrestlers are next at home, and questions of philosophy and perspective will wait. Alonso and his team already need points, and fast.
The first installment of the Bundesliga’s Super Sunday saw Union Berlin stay ahead by comfortably beating Borussia Dortmund 2-0, sidelining them with economy and ruthlessness that have become their trademark. A first-half brace from Janik Haberer did the job – the first taking advantage of an overhead kick from Gregor Kobel, and the second a stinging shot from the edge of the box. Their huge second-half defensive streak was even more impressive when you consider they had two fewer rest days than BVB, having battled to the bitter end to beat Malmö late in the Europa League on Thursday. What would Edin Terzić give for a team with the structure and personality of Union?
The second game was great for Bayern, who gave us their most convincing domestic performance since matchday one with a 5-0 win to overtake Freiburg. Eric-Maxim Choupo-Moting’s excellence in a centre-forward role will continue to fuel debates over replacing Robert Lewandowski as an equal – although Julian Nagelsmann was delighted with their renewed bluster, the Choupo-Moting’s involvement with Serge Gnabry, Leroy Sané and company was undeniable.
In the week they finally fired Pellegrino Materazzo, Stuttgart secured their first win of the season, eventually overcoming Bochum 4-1 with Silas’ brace recalling happier times under the fallen coach.
Marcus Thuram’s excellent brace for Mönchengladbach wasn’t quite enough for a victory at Wolfsburg, but he’s now down to seven for the season and offers their campaign real hope of reaching the top. “Thuram is a world-class striker,” enthused Wolfsburg sporting director Marcel Schäfer, although his own coach, Daniel Farke, hinted “he’s still getting used to the role central”. Gladbach fears they’ll get used to a new club before long; Thuram is out of contract this summer and will be a hot property.
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