Xabi Alonso: Future Real Madrid head-coach?

Words by Kiyan Sobhani Illustration by Philippe Fenner
April 27, 2019

Xabi Alonso has just finished his first season as a football manager, guiding Real Madrid’s Infantil A side – the under-13s – to a league title, going undefeated with 22 wins and 1 draw from 23 games.

Real Madrid are excited at the idea of grooming Xabi Alonso as a manager, and perhaps keeping him in their back pocket for a future head-coaching position with the senior side. Usually, there would be caution for such an inexperienced young manager coming up through the ranks, but there is an almost unanimous feeling within the organisation that Xabi will succeed.

The optimism is understandable. As a player, the Spaniard possessed a high tactical IQ, was a supreme organiser as a deep-lying playmaker, could read the game at an elite level, and used his intelligence and technique to control things without being the most athletic player. He’s charismatic, and has the ability to command the respect of a dressing room.

Xabi has had coaching on his mind for a while and the last few years of his playing career were a subtle transition into this new chapter of his life. He left Real Madrid in 2014 rather surprisingly and abruptly, after he learned there was an opportunity to play for Pep Guardiola at Bayern Munich and to learn from him. Guardiola, it should be noted, treated the end of his career in similar fashion, by heading to AS Roma to learn from Fabio Capello; Dorados in Mexico to learn from Juanma Lillo; and eventually went on a pilgrimage to learn from one of his biggest mentors, Marcelo Bielsa.

It didn’t take long for Xabi to start his coaching experience. Less than one year after retiring as a footballer, he began and completed his UEFA Elite coaching course alongside former teammates and Spanish colleagues Xavi Hernandez, Raul Gonzalez, Victor Valdes, and Joan Capdevila. Not long after, Real Madrid welcomed Xabi to the club as manager of the under 13s. Both Xabi and Raul are now coaches at the Real Madrid youth level, with the latter coaching Cadete B (the U-15s). Both will likely be promoted to higher levels within the club after successful coaching debuts.

Real Madrid have quietly built an academy of coaches consisting of former players who understand the club’s ethos, with hopes that they can find the next Zinedine Zidane and promote him if and when needed.

But it’s not easy keeping everyone in their ranks if the top level job doesn’t open up. In 2017, Guti won a historic treble with Real Madrid’s Juvenil A side, and was praised for his tactical scheme and identity – one which played with supreme directness, quick, surgical passing, cross-field switching, counter-pressing, overloads from full-backs, and movement in the half spaces.

When Zidane left the club in the summer of 2018, many touted Guti as his successor, but once Julen Lopetegui was brought in, Guti left to take on an assistant role at Besiktas. Despite being a better tactician than Santiago Solari, he wasn’t chosen when Lopetegui was sacked due to Solari’s next-in-rank role as Castilla manager.

It’s not inconceivable Xabi moves on like Guti did if Real Madrid don’t promote him. He will likely be even more touted than Guti by other European clubs; Bayern Munich, for one, would welcome him into their coaching hierarchy if given the opportunity.

Bayern CEO Karl-Heinz Rummenigge is a huge fan of Alonso, both as a player and potential coach. In 2018, he said: “[He will be a] fantastic head coach. Xabi radiates a natural authority, he has had great coaches, he speaks several languages. I would like him to return to Bayern sometime.”

From a tactical perspective, it’s difficult to fully assess what kind of scheme Xabi Alonso will implement once he hits his managerial career full stride. While his Infantil A side steamrolled the league, the sample size is small, and the rest of the teams in the division are well below Real Madrid’s level of talent. When asked about his coaching after the season ended, Xabi deflected the question, which also shows signs of his humility and man-management skills:

“First of all, the stars of this are them (the players),” Xabi said. “The ones that deserve it is them. They’re the ones that are on the pitch and fight, play, know how to suffer, and have made us enjoy it very much. Generally speaking it’s been a very positive, very good season.

I believe the kids have been very mature, they’re learning many things and at this stage, that’s what it’s about.”

Xabi Alonso is a Real Madrid legend. Fans will never forget his contributions to La Decima, nor will they forget the image of him running down from the stands to celebrate Sergio Ramos’s famous goal in the 2014 Champions League final. He now has the opportunity to build on his Real Madrid legacy as a coach – but there will be competition for his name.

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