When things come full circle in football, it feels just right, doesn’t it? Players coming back to boyhood clubs, underperformers coming good, football coming home (maybe one day). It’s like things are restored to how they’re supposed to be, like in the good old days. Xabi Alonso, one of the most accomplished midfielders of his generation, is the latest example. Having taken the reigns at Real Sociedad B in 2019, the club where his playing career began two decades before, he’s showing all the signs of a master tactician in the making.
Few will ever come close to reaching the heights of Xabi Alonso’s playing career. Having established himself at Real Sociedad in the early 2000s, Rafael Benítez took the baby-faced 22-year-old to Liverpool in 2004, where he helped the Reds to their famous Champions League triumph of 2005. With a reputation as a hard-working midfielder with supernatural passing vision, Alonso joined a Real Madrid revolution in 2009, winning one LaLiga title, two Copa del Reys and La Decima, Los Blancos’ tenth Champions League. La Barba Roja (the Red Beard, as he was affectionately known at the Bernabéu) saw out his career by linking up with a long-time admirer, Pep Guardiola. He anchored the midfield of a Bayern Munich side that won three straight Bundesliga titles before retiring in 2017. On the international stage, Alonso won all that there is to win, playing an important role in Spain’s 2010 World Cup triumph and the European Championship wins of 2008 and 2012.
But unlike some former players, Alonso isn’t relying on his reputation and achievements to land him a top managerial job. In 2018 he completed a UEFA elite coaching course alongside former international teammates Xavi, Victor Valdés and Raúl, before learning on the job at youth level. He took over at Real Madrid’s under-14s soon after, before joining Sanse, the Basque name for Real Sociedad’s reserves, in 2019. Much like in his early playing days, Alonso wants to walk before he can run; he’s in no rush to plunge headfirst into top-level coaching, ignoring speculation of headline moves to focus on honing his new craft.
However, the foundations of Alonso’s tactical and technical education were laid long ago. Antiguoko, from the Basque city of San Sebastián, is one of the best amateur youth sides in Spain and a revered producer of talent.
Alonso played for the club between the ages of nine and 18 alongside childhood friend Mikel Arteta and other future professionals, including Aritz Aduriz and Andoni Iraola. Speaking to The Coaches’ Voice, Alonso admitted the significance of his grounding in the game. “At Antiguoko, everything was about the ball, about technique, and about understanding the game. That good foundation is one that stayed with all of us for the future. It gave us good principles and good habits to help us advance and grow as players,” he explained.
Alonso’s interest in the tactical side of the game was clear during his time at Liverpool. Former teammate Luis García claims that everyone at the club “knew Xabi would become a good coach. He was already coaching when he was playing.” The Basque himself admitted that his idea of football was to “control, to organise, to make my teammates play better.”
Throughout his career Alonso adapted his central-midfield role to various tactical systems. At Real Madrid he kept the ball moving and slid through incisive passes during quick transitions, while at Bayern Munich he was required to sit in front of the defence as a deep-lying playmaker. But when asked by L’Équipe if he has a specific system or ‘philosophy’, he was clear; adaptation is his strategy.
“Do I have a trademark? No. What’s important is what my players feel, that’s what I tell them,” he said. “If I feel something but my players don’t, my ideas are useless, I have to change and be at their service.”
Even coaching at youth level, Alonso saw the importance of pragmatism and flexibility. “When I first started coaching with the youth team at Real Madrid, it was a challenge for me because I had spent so long playing at the elite level. Adapting to the kids, to their level of play, to their way of being – that made me change my message and my way of communicating.” The young coach credits his experience of playing in different leagues for his ability to adapt. It’s a skill that will stand him in good stead, should a big move materialise down the line.
Fast forward to the present day, and Alonso’s work at Sanse is drawing attention. After the RFEF recently ruled all non-professional seasons over, his side will finish fifth in Group 2 of Segunda B, an agonising three points off the play-offs. Performances have borne the hallmarks of an inexperienced manager; a leaky defence and a lack of ruthlessness. But as the second-highest scorers in the division with 47 goals in 28 games, his team is playing attacking, attractive football. That, Real Sociedad fan Jon Alonso tells La Liga Lowdown, is something in the DNA of both La Real and the Sanse coach.
“La Real has a unique style in all its teams, from the first team right down to the youth. They are quick teams that create lots of chances but always play good football, and the midfielders are really important as the team look to control possession,” Jon told us.
As Jon explains, the opportunity to coach a Basque reserve team is a unique one, a chance to continue working with young talents in an almost professional environment. “He understands that as the coach of Sanse, he is in charge of training players for the first team. Every year, three or four of his players will make their professional debuts. They’ll perform well, as they follow the same style from when they’re young until they make the first team.” It’s a role that suites Alonso down to the ground because, as Jon puts it, “his ideas about football are very similar to La Real’s. It’s a big step in his coaching career.”
While the role may well act as a stepping stone to bigger things, Alonso is clear as to why he made the switch to coaching. “That is the wonderful thing about football. It gives you big surprises, great joys. When I finished playing, I could not leave it behind,” he reflected.
In June 2019, at Alonso’s unveiling as Sanse coach, Real Sociedad president Jokin Aperribay spoke of the full circle. “This is one of my most important days as president. Your return joins the past with the present, history with emotions. That a football figure like you comes back is an honour for us.” Imanol Alguacil is doing a fantastic job in the Anoeta dugout at present, but La Real fans can rest assured that when the time comes, one of their own is lying in wait.
To learn more about Xabi Alonso’s journey, and other world-class players who’ve gone into coaching, check out our podcast here to see how the likes of Diego Forlán, Raúl, Guti and Xavi Hernández are getting on with their own coaching journeys.