Xabi Alonso; the next great Celtic manager, or an expensive risk

By Euan Davidson

March 2, 2021

When it comes to Celtic manager chat, props are due to 67 Hail Hail’s Hamish Carton.

The man knows his stuff. In the video just linked, Hamish suggested a litany of excellent names. Managers both experienced and inexperienced, all of whom have an ethos that would fit the Celtic Way.

You see, in our collective rush to name names, it’s so important to remember that a new manager is an investment.

If you want prolonged success over a long period, with an attractive style and creative flair, it’s not a decision to make in haste. It’s especially why names like Sean Dyche, Mick McCarthy and even Steve Clarke seem so discordant with the usual expectations of supporters.

One name really pops out from that video, and it’s ex-Liverpool and Real Madrid man Xabi Alonso. The stubbly midfield magician was a virtuoso of a footballer. Few passers exceeded him in his era, a period of utter Spanish dominance. Alonso won two European Championships, two Champions League, a World Cup, 3 Bundesliga titles with Bayern Munich, and many other accolades [Transfermarkt].

In terms of modern midfield greats, he is overshadowed by compatriots Xavi and Iniesta. Europe-wide, Andrea Pirlo is held with more reverence. In fact, Pirlo’s reputation in large part won him the Juventus job, as a rookie. Alonso has had to earn things the harder way.

Let’s look at the pros and cons of Xabi Alonso, the coach.

World Cup winner: Xabi Alonso / (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Celtic and Xabi Alonso: a potentially successful match

Alonso didn’t jump straight into a top job. In 2018, the ex-Real Madrid man joined Los Blancos in a coaching role, leading the U-14s. He wasn’t there for long, jumping to his first love, Real Sociedad in 2019 [Marca], where he made his debut and nearly won La Liga in 02-03 [FCTables].

With La Reales, Alonso has coached the B team, a role he still has today. They’re currently third in Segunda División B – Grupo II [Transfermarkt], a league we all know and love. But it’s his style of play and his connections that are particularly interesting. As a disciple of Pep Guardiola and Rafa Benitez, Alonso can call on the world’s best coaches for advice.

In 2019, he told the BBC:

“Occasionally I call them [his former managers]. I try to keep in touch with some of them that I have a good relationship with. That’s the good thing that you have after 18 years playing football, I have been lucky to have contact with John Toshack, with Jose Mourinho, with Pep Guardiola, with Vicente Del Bosque.

“It’s early stages for me in terms of my philosophy but my idea is not so far from what I was as a player. I was a midfielder, I liked to control the game, to understand the game and that’s what I’m trying to do.

“I rely on the players but I am trying for them to have that encouragement to understand the game and read what’s going on in the game. That’s my job.”

A master of tiki-taka, Alonso has had to refine his approach. In modern football, Spain’s early 2010s tactics have become passé. Today’s game involves higher pressing and intensity, keeping the ball under pressure and using pace and width to create opportunities. Few teams aspire to play how Spain did in their most successful era, these days.

So, you’d have to expect a possession-based, high intensity model under Alonso, with hard workers off the ball.

Xabi Alonso, coached by Pep / (Photo by Alexander Hassenstein/Bongarts/Getty Images)

Alonso’s comments from playing in England are very interesting

There’s something Alonso once told the Guardian that’s always stuck with me.

Alonso said [Guardian]:

“I don’t think tackling is a quality.

“It is a recurso, something you have to resort to, not a characteristic of your game. At Liverpool I used to read the match-day programme and you’d read an interview with a lad from the youth team. They’d ask: age, heroes, strong points, etc. He’d reply: ‘Shooting and tackling’.

“I can’t get into my head that football development would educate tackling as a quality, something to learn, to teach, a characteristic of your play. How can that be a way of seeing the game? I just don’t understand football in those terms. Tackling is a [last] resort, and you will need it, but it isn’t a quality to aspire to, a definition. It’s hard to change because it’s so rooted in the English football culture, but I don’t understand it.”

How many times have you applauded a strong challenge? Yes, Scottish football and English football are different, but not that different in terms of defending. You’d have to expect Alonso to prioritise organisation and shape off the ball if he were to arrive at Celtic Park.

Narrative alert / (Photo by Ian Walton/Getty Images for adidas)

The case against Xabi Alonso at Celtic

There are obvious drawbacks, though.

Firstly, Xabi Alonso seems the quieter type. We’ve got to concede, as we search for a manager, that there’s baggage that comes with managing Celtic. Not only is the pressure immense, there’s so much to the life that comes with the job. In reality, the extraneous stuff attached with the culture of the west of Scotland isn’t for everyone.

Alonso strikes me as a person who might find all that disillusioning. Especially for his introduction to first-team management, when the pressure is on right away.

And on that point; the Celtic job is massive. Sure, we’ve given rookie coaches a chance before, but at this moment in time, the pressure is enormous. It might not be the job for a guy who’s only 3 years into full-time coaching. Two years ago he was teaching an U-14 side. There are steps up, then there’s this.

For how likeable he is (Xabi Alonso is a noted Pavement fan [JOE], much to me and some of The Cynic’s utter approval), it might not be a job that suits the World Cup winner. His temperament as a coach is yet to be seen at a top level. There’s a possibility he’s too nice for this job at this time.

And would Xabi Alonso even want the Celtic job? It’s so much responsibility for a rookie coach. Yes, there’s the obvious intrigue of him going up against his former teammate in Steven Gerrard. Also, if he hits the ground running, he can add European football and trophies to his CV.

Still, it seems unlikely, but then…

…Celtic and Xabi Alonso? You just never know.

READ MORE: The latest in the ongoing battle between the Government and Scottish Football.