Where Does Xabi Alonso’s Season Rank Among the Greatest Managerial Debuts of All Time?

It’s been a triumphant first full season in charge of Bayer Leverkusen for Xabi Alonso — he’s overseen an unbeaten domestic league title along with a just-missed treble opportunity. But has it been the greatest debut season we’ve ever seen from a manager?

In his first full year in charge of Bayer Leverkusen, Xabi Alonso led his side to a feat seen only three times prior in European football — an unbeaten title win. A continental treble was on the realm of possibility, but a 3-0 loss to Atalanta in the Europa League final nixed any hopes of that coming to fruition. A spot in the DFB Pokal final looms this weekend as well, and the club will look to secure at least a double.

While Leverkusen didn’t end up going unbeaten across all competitions, their season has nonetheless been incredibly impressive. Alonso’s efforts have put him in the conversation for one of the greatest full-season debuts ever, which got us thinking — what are some of the best debut managerial seasons that aren’t talked about enough?

5. Bruno Lage: Benfica, 2019-20

bruno lage benfica

Speaking of unbeaten runs, Bruno Lage was appointed as Benfica manager halfway through the 2019 season. In the remaining 19 games after his arrival, Benfica defied incredible odds at the time and went on to win the Primeira Liga, doing so in dominating fashion; 18 wins and one draw.

The key change that Lage made was to the system, quickly implementing his 4-4-2 formation, which was a massive catalyst. It allowed a then 19-year-old João Félix to move into a strike partnership rather than being shoehorned out wide. This worked wonders, as Felix notched 15 league goals and nine assists and helped Lage secure an unlikely title win.

4. Will Still: Stade de Reims, 2023-24

will still

This is undoubtedly the most interesting story on this list. Will Still made headlines in the 2022-23 season when he took over at Stade de Reims, then aged just 30, with an unbelievably bare managerial CV.

After moving up from his assistant role, he guided Reims to an eye-opening 0-0 draw with reigning champions PSG. Shortly after, he was appointed as manager on an interim basis and his team went on to rattle off 17 games unbeaten in the league including another draw with PSG. As Still didn’t officially have his proper coaching license yet, Reims were fined considerably every time he took the touchline. A price they were willing to pay for victories.

Still’s story is what made this season so much more impressive. While the narrative at the time was that Still went straight from playing Football Manager to being an actual manager, he had been in the game for nearly a decade. He took up video analyst and assistant coaching roles in his native Belgium before being thrust into his first managerial role in the Belgian second division at 24 years old.

His rapid rise to stardom caught the eye of many in the football world, and from being an avid Football Manager player to living his dream, the story remains amazing to this day.

Reims went on to finish comfortably mid-table on 51 points in 2022-23, after just one win in their opening nine fixtures before Still’s appointment.

3. Armin Veh: VfB Stuttgart 2006-07

armin veh

When Armin Veh took the helm at Stuttgart, he was a well-respected coach with over 15 years of experience in the game. Those years were largely uneventful compared to his 2006 season, however. Veh was appointed midway through the 2005-06 season and did well to steady the ship with Stuttgart eventually finishing ninth in the table.

This set up an unreal run from the German side the following season.

With a then 21- and 19-year-old Mario Gomez and Sami Khedira, Veh put together a masterclass of a Bundesliga campaign which came down to the final day. Khedira would snag the game-winner in their victory over Cottbus, meaning Stuttgart won the league by two points over FC Schalke 04.

Veh, of course, won the German Football Coach of the Year award in 2007 and his Stuttgart side has gone down very well in the history of the German game.

2. André Villas-Boas: FC Porto 2010-11

andre villas boas

A man who, in his first season at FC Porto, completed the task that Alonso nearly missed out on; a treble in his first season.

Porto’s shrewd signings of João Moutinho from Sporting, Nicolás Otamendi from CA Vélez Sarsfield, and James Rodríguez from CA Banfield for a combined €23 million were huge for Porto, and made the losses of Raul Meireles and Bruno Alves much easier to take.

With these new additions to a very deep squad, Villas-Boas, or AVB, aged just 32, made history as the first Portuguese coach to lead a team through a Liga season without a loss. Despite the fact Porto won the league with five games to spare, they refused to let up in the final five games. An incredible league campaign saw them finish 24 points higher than runners-up Benfica, with a ludicrous +27 goal difference on the second-place finishers.

Thirty games played, 27 wins, and just three draws is quite ridiculous.

Villas-Boas became the youngest coach to win a UEFA club competition, as Porto won the UEFA Europa League against Braga, and later that same week claimed the Portuguese Cup in a typically dominating fashion. A 6-2 demolition of Vitória SC was the perfect ending to a near-perfect season for Villas-Boas and Porto.

At the end of the season, AVB remained humble and credited his success to both the structure of the club and the wonderful squad he had. However, we’ll continue to give him his flowers.

1. Xabi Alonso: Bayer Leverkusen, 2023-24

xabi alonso bayer leverkusen

Since taking over Leverkusen midway through the 2022-23 season, Alonso’s side has been transcendent. It didn’t take long for him to implement his style at the club, and additions to the squad definitely helped.

The summer transfer window of 2023 that he oversaw may go down as one of the best windows in history and set Leverkusen up perfectly for their historic title push. Victor Boniface, the Bundesliga Rookie of the Year for 2023-24, Jonas Hofmann, who came with a wealth of league experience, and Granit Xhaka, who brought steel and composure to the midfield. Those three were all mainstays in their league title campaign. The most important may have been Alejandro Grimaldo, on a free transfer from Benfica, bagging 10 goals and 14 assists in 33 league games from wingback.

The squad was practically perfectly built for Alonso’s style of play. Grimaldo and Jeremy Frimpong played more like wingers than wingbacks and contributed greatly to the side’s aggressive counter-press. Alonso largely set his team up in a 3-4-3 and his side flat-out dominated, with the league’s second-most goals scored, the best defensive record with only 24 goals conceded in 34 games, and only six draws.

An invincible title win in your first full season would be enough reason to put you atop this list, but Alonso and Leverkusen have gone a step further. They saw an unprecedented run without a loss that lasted 51 games across all competitions, and nearly completed an unbeaten treble.

Regardless of the results from the final fixture, this Alonso and Bayer Leverkusen season will be remembered for generations. From the style implemented, squad built, and results gained from the brink of defeat; it had everything you could ask for and is undoubtedly the best full debut season we’ve ever seen from a manager.

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