When Xabi Alonso moved to Liverpool in the summer of 2004, there were many doubters in the industry. Will he be able to do it in the Premier League? Isn’t it too slow? Xabi actually wasn’t the fastest, and he came from Real Sociedad in the Spanish league, where they didn’t play fast-paced football at the time, but rather played a small-scale, short-passing game.

After a few training sessions together, it was clear to me that this Xabi was a very exceptional footballer. And that he is very fast – namely in his head. Xabi always knew where he was going to pass the ball before he even had it at his feet. He was one step ahead of the game. Amazing for a 22-year-old footballer, because this orientation in space, this overview of the game, this feeling for the pass at the right moment, that is usually the thing of older players. It takes experience, maturity and clarity. Xabi, however, had all of this as a young professional. He was an early finisher.

I liked him straight away, this humble, down-to-earth guy from the Basque Country who didn’t say many words. Above all, I liked what he did on the pitch. As a player, you can immediately tell whether someone wants to focus the spotlight on themselves and only want to shine for themselves. Xabi would have had the technical skills to do this. But I never saw him play exhibition football. On the contrary. He set a stage for others with his passes and pushed his teammates into the light.

That earned him a lot of respect in the team, and it also shaped the spirit in our team. We were a real collective. One for all, all for one. It may sound trite, but it was true for us in Liverpool.

Football teams often suffer from what is known as group formation. At the time we had a Spanish coach, Rafael Benitez, and some players from his home country, Fernando Morientes, Luis Garcia, Josemi and Antonio Nunez. That made it easier for Xabi to get started in Liverpool. His English wasn’t the best, but we didn’t have a Spanish community that he could have retreated to. There was only Liverpool FC, the one big team.

I don’t want to romanticize this time, but there was actually a strong sense of community in the 2004/05 season – and this until we won the most important title in club football. How else could we have won the Champions League final? We were 3-0 down against AC Milan, against this world selection with people like Cafu, Kaka, Seedorf, Pirlo and Schewschenko. We turned the game around with force and determination. Xabi scored the goal to make it 3-3 in the 61st minute, later it went into extra time and then into a penalty shootout. It was 3:2 for us at the end. I also scored one of the penalties, the first one to make it 1-0.

It was a great evening at Istanbul’s Ataturk Stadium. An evening that probably also influenced Xabi. When I see him coaching in Leverkusen today, I recognize the Xabi from his Liverpool days. At Bayer he has built a team of excellent individual players, but none of them claim a special role, no one is on an ego trip. Everyone works for one goal: to win the next game. Like back in Liverpool.

It’s an art to get an entire team, including reservists, behind you. Xabi succeeded. He trusts his people and they trust him. You sense that he understood the game in all its ramifications like no one else. And they feel that he likes them. Such a combination is rare: expertise and empathy. Xabi has both. That’s another reason why I believe he can have a great career; he can become the coach of the next decade. He has everything it takes. The full package, as they say in England.

Some in the industry were surprised that, despite his great success, he stayed in Leverkusen and did not go to FC Bayern or become Jürgen Klopp’s successor in Liverpool. I, however, am not surprised by Xabi’s decision. He is a loyal person, he knows that he owes a lot to Bayer Leverkusen. He was entrusted with the professional team there, even though he was a nobody as a coach when he came in 2022. Xabi has grown with Leverkusen and, conversely, the club has grown with him. That brings us together.

Bayer Leverkusen’s title win will not remain a snapshot, I am sure. Bayern will initiate a major change with a new coach and new players – but it will still be very difficult against these Leverkusen players. You’ll play the most exciting football in the league, led by one of the smartest strategists in world football. Who will stop them? I’m already looking forward to next season.