If ever there was a time when a coach and his team needed a win, it was this past Sunday when Bayer 04 Leverkusen hosted Union Berlin at the BayArena. Bayer 04 was mired in a six-game winless streak (0-3-3) after new coach Xabi Alonso debuted with 5-1 victory over an abysmal Schalke 04. The club—and coach—seemed to be stuck in the same crisis that had resulted in the dismissal of Gerardo Seoane.
Union Berlin, meanwhile, was on top of the table and a very uncomfortable guest.
The first half of the game looked like more of the same for Leverkusen: the hosts dominated possession but could not elude Union’s pressing and break their blockade. That all changed when Bayer 04 emerged from the tunnel for the second half. The same team that seemed helpless in the first crushed Union 5:0 in the second half.
At the press conference after the game, I asked Alonso if he would reveal what he said to the team at halftime. “There’s no magic or deeds to tell,” he replied. “We did much better, but there are no magic words, there are no words of wisdom. We changed our mentality to be more aggressive, not too passive, not wanting to hold [the ball] on our foot.”
In the first half, Bayer had indeed dominated possession but did little with the ball, circulating it outside of Union’s penalty area for long stretches at a time yet seldom finding a shot. “[Union’s] center-backs,” Alonso explained, “have a very clear idea that when someone appears between the lines they need to move forward to press. They keep a very good balance, and that’s why in the first half hour or so we were static.”
That changed when the team took the field in the second half. Union conceded a corner, and Robert Andrich tapped Kerem Demirbay’s kick into the goal. That goal opened the game and with aggressive pressing Leverkusen piled it on. But Alonso emphasized that it was the team’s mentality that had effected the game the most.
“In the second half, we were better not because of the goals, but because we wanted to be more aggressive in attacking the spaces. And when a good team has to defend backwards instead of forwards, it’s normally more difficult.”
The initial goal, on a set-piece, broke the ice; the second was exactly what Alonso had wanted from his players: Jeremie Frimpong pressured Union’s goalkeeper Lennart Grill in his own half and stripped the ball off him. He passed to Moussa Diaby, who did the rest. At the very moment before Frimpong caught Grill, Alonso waved violently to his attackers to drive up the field to pressure the wayward keeper.
“For sure we have players who have this power to run,” Alonso said, “but we were stable. We started with the runs from the strikers, with the duels, and that’s the basic element that we need for each game.”
Citing the team’s “control” and “capacity to score goals,” Alonso said, “We want to build on” the result against Union. “Of course, we need time. We have the last week [before the break]. Today was important and we want to keep going.”
Alonso and Bayer 04 Leverkusen face their local rival FC Köln away on Wednesday and Stuttgart at home on Saturday. During the international break, the team will play a friendly against St. Louis CITY.