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That’s why he’s so good at the upcoming champions Leverkusen

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That’s why he’s so good at the upcoming champions Leverkusen

Under coach Xabi Alonso, the Swiss is the undisputed leader of the designated Bundesliga champions. He is writing a success story in Leverkusen that not many people believed in except him.

Things are also going well in the Europa League: Granit Xhaka celebrates with his teammates about Leverkusen’s win against West Ham United.

Mika Volkmann / Imago

Maybe you have to start with Harry Kane to get to Granit Xhaka. At first glance, the two footballers have relatively little in common. In terms of position – one a striker, the other a strategist in midfield – they differ as much as they do in appearance.

What the two have in common, apart from their advanced football age of more than 30, is the timing of a move from the English Premier League to the Bundesliga – and also the aspirations with which they came. When Harry Kane came to Bayern from Tottenham last summer for an impressive 100 million euros, he wanted to finally win the first title of his career. Granit Xhaka, signed from Arsenal for a relatively inexpensive 15 million euros, had big plans for Leverkusen.

While Kane’s claim with the German record champion did not seem to require any further explanation, some may have smiled at Xhaka’s ambitions with Leverkusen. But now, before matchday 29, it is the Swiss who can celebrate the championship with a win against Bremen on Sunday evening. Kane, the world star from London, was literally outclassed by Leverkusen with his Bayern team.

Leverkusen is 16 points ahead of Bayern

Leverkusen, who have so far been unbeaten in all competitions, are 16 points ahead of the series champions. For Xhaka it would be the first championship since he left Basel in 2012. He won the FA Cup twice with Arsenal – that is by no means to be underestimated. But triumphing over Bayern with Leverkusen, the club that earned the depressing nickname “Vizekusen” because of numerous second places, is in a different price range.

Xhaka is well aware of this. He talks about being able to “make history” with the team he directs. She follows his commands, his instructions, and she plays football so impressively well that the verdict on him has already been made: There is no better defensive midfielder in the Bundesliga this season. Not in Munich, not in Stuttgart, especially not in Dortmund.

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Xhaka impresses in all competitions; In addition to the championship, Leverkusen is also successful in the Europa League and the DFB Cup. Leverkusen’s biggest concern was and always is that the 31-year-old could get injured. Losses like that of center forward Victor Boniface had to be overcome. An injury to Xhaka would have been a catastrophe.

Why does someone of his caliber go to Leverkusen? To that club that is many things except glamorous? That question was the subject of much speculation when he signed last summer. One interpretation was: because his wife Leonita wanted to return to the Rhineland, where she grew up. The two met when Xhaka played for Borussia Mönchengladbach and she worked in the office in Gladbach.

This interpretation is controversial; The tabloid claims to have learned that Ms. Xhaka had a great time in London. Rather, the change was motivated exclusively by football, as Xhaka told the “NZZ am Sonntag”: “I made the decision solely as a footballer and athlete. I came to a top club in Germany that has a plan and wants to achieve something.”

Xhaka exceeds expectations

A top club: Leverkusen wasn’t exactly that when Xhaka came there. Rather, coach Xabi Alonso had turned a team that had crashed spectacularly under his predecessor Gerardo Seoane into a very respectable team again. The potential of the team was evident, but it speaks primarily of Xhaka’s self-confidence to use such a label in order to give him the appropriate weight afterwards.

When Granit Xhaka arrived in Leverkusen, nobody wanted to talk about the championship.

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Leverkusen’s sports director Simon Rolfes explained that Xhaka was drawn back to Germany. That’s another reason why it wasn’t that difficult to win him over to the ambitious Leverkusen project: as an on-field adjutant to Xabi Alonso, the former midfield leader who quickly became the most sought-after coach in world football.

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But no matter what the motive was for joining Leverkusen: the club got what it had hoped for with Xhaka, and possibly even more. They wanted to sign a key player, an outstanding footballer, but also a leader, says sports director Rolfes: “If you also place demands on the player such as experience and, in the best case, that he can communicate well in both German and English », says Rolfes in the NZZ interview, «the selection is no longer that big. Granit has all of these components at the highest level.”

Rolfes and Xhaka know each other as opponents from Bundesliga duels; Rolfes played in the same position as Xhaka and also Xabi Alonso. The manager praises the 31-year-old’s maturation, who has long since had a “completely different stability” than he did back then. Ultimately, however, it is almost fantastic how coach Alonso and Xhaka harmonize. Everything fits together: the coach’s claim to have a leader on the field, Xhaka’s claim to be that same figure, and the idea of ​​football, which is the same.

Xhaka admires coach Xabi Alonso

When the coach and the player met for the first working meeting, the main issue was whether Xhaka should play more defensively or offensively. Both came to the conclusion that the Swiss could best develop his qualities as a defensive midfielder. When asked whether the coach saw him as the player that Xabi Alonso once was in Madrid, Munich and Liverpool, he was humble: “If it looks like that from the outside and you compare me with him, that’s for me a great honor. In my eyes, Alonso is one of the best six in football history.”

The notoriously self-confident Xhaka is not in awe of the great man from the Basque Country, who has won every title imaginable in football – “except the Europa League”, as Xhaka eagerly noted, since Xabi Alonso was never in the Europa League, but always in played in the Champions League. But the respect for Alonso is enormous. And perhaps this will also clarify the question of why the strategist Xhaka impresses in Leverkusen with the consistency that he sometimes lacks in the Swiss national team. It’s true that he likes the duels in which he pushes himself to the limit of his endurance.

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However, it is noticeable that in Leverkusen he manages without this sometimes self-damaging friction. Rather, he controls his temper to such an extent that it no longer poses a risk. The four yellow cards he has received this season are a piece of cake for someone with a criminal record who has been sent off nine times in his career.

Especially since the position itself sometimes forces even the most disciplined players to make tactical fouls. This also reflects the maturation process of a player to whom former Mönchengladbach manager Max Eberl gave an exquisite certificate of quality back in 2016: “We are talking about a world-class player here,” said Eberl, when Arsenal offered a remarkable 45 million euros for the Swiss national team captain.

So it’s not new that Xhaka has enormous qualities: calm, overview, holding the ball even in great distress. As well as the urge to drive a team forward. Ideally, this could be observed in the match against Bayern, when Leverkusen, winning 3-0, did exactly what Bayern coach Thomas Tuchel had asked for: “Put the cards on the table.”

Anyone who sees Xhaka after such performances will not see a player triumphantly clattering through the catacombs of the stadium. Rather, someone who enjoys the moment for a moment and knows that the next test is already approaching.

He has now developed a sense for when it is time to formulate demands. More subtle than before, without losing any of his self-confidence. A few days ago, Xhaka spoke of the triple – and by that he means the championship, victory in the DFB Cup and success in the Europa League. Three titles in one year: For once, that would even satisfy Granit Xhaka’s demands on himself.

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