Real Sociedad have only won two Premiera Liga titles – both of which came during Periko Alonso’s prime. He was a deep-lying midfielder; a distribution master. As a growing force in the Spanish game it was only a matter of time until the giants stepped in to prise him away from the Basque area and offer him a playing chance that his career would gracefully accept – the prospect of 90,000 Catalans screaming your name in the Coliseum-like Nou Camp.
His son, Xabi, though, has an entirely different view about where his loyalties lie. Costing Los Blancos a staggering £30 million; he was the key piece to an intricate puzzle that Florentino Perez was making. A puzzle that had only been made over a decade ago – when the Galacticos were in power.
Guardiola and his Guardians
Barcelona has had an incredible dominance over the modern game. With an abundance of talent intertwined with experience and the correct balance of youth, they have managed to create a fabric for what is the epitome of the perfect club squad.
Their reign as the world’s elite has been due to the massive role the club legend, Pep Guardiola, has played. In his first season, his first move was ridding the squad of the likes of Ronaldinho, Deco and Thuram – which included former Balon d’Or winner and World Cup winners. Even with this loss of invaluable experience, the Catalans went on to win the Treble. All in Pep’s first season. Child’s play.
The following season was even more of a success than the last – despite them only winning the league. The artistry of their football was alluring. It was exquisite, it was genius, it was unbelievable. Their midfield ran with flowing dexterity and complete competence. The authority they inflicted over opposition was torturous even to the eye of a neutral. There was a telepathic understanding; they could’ve played blindfolded.
This development of inventiveness and eloquence on the pitch grew as they embarked on another campaign under the guidance of their masterful tactician. With a strengthening force in the shape of José Mourinho’s Real Madrid side, Barça only managed to add the Champions League and La Liga to their well-stocked trophy cabinet. What a tragedy.
They were feared world-wide. Players went into games against the Catalans with a mind-set that was ready to accept defeat; a mentality that would have to have the fortitude of coping with chasing the ball for nearly 70 per cent of their time on the field. The opposition saw the players as diminutive demons. However, this season, they haven’t managed to emulate that success. That is down to the resurgence of Los Blancos; and the influence of one player – Xabier Alonso Olano.
Alonso’s never really had an idol, and so he drew his footballing regality from his father. Periko Alonso’s position and the role he played on the field was directly transferred into his youngest son. And the world couldn’t thank him more.
The 30 year old Spaniard’s philosophy has always remained the same. He has always played the same position. With this, a huge level of maturity was built.
Even as a child, Alonso concentrated on perfecting his passing, rather than focus on glory-hunting. That’s what has made him the player he is today: his willingness to make chances, as opposed to converting them.
At eighteen, he was sent to Eibar on loan – being forced to see his team struggle at the bottom of the Spanish top-flight. Sociedad being in dire straits prompted the introduction of the Welshman, John Toshack. It was he who decided to recall Alonso from his loan-spell and make him club captain. The club eventually finished a respectable fourteenth that season. Masterstroke.
This was the push Xabi needed to realise his potential. Guillem Balague described Alonso as the sort of leader ‘that did not need an exaggerated outburst of anger to be heard or respected’. He lead by example – and that’s all Sociedad needed. Two seasons after being threatened to the doldrums of second-tier football, they finished in an incredible second place, mustering an unprecidented points tally and qualifying for the Chamions League. On a personal level, he recieved the best Spanish player award. Impressed? I thought as much.
In the summer of 2005 he was whisked away to the coast of England, to play for a little club called Liverpool. The Merseysiders profited greatly from this £10.7 million deal. He scored the equalising goal in that dramatic night in Istanbul; and he scored a goal from 70 yards out that The Independent called ‘one of the most audacious goals in Anfield's rich 115-year history’.
During his time in England, Alonso rediscovered the sheer importance of his position. He was instrumental in the build-up and imperative on the break-down. His defensive duties were carried out with imaculate efficiency. In the 2008/2009 campaign, he won six out of every ten fifty/fifties he competed for; and had an immense tackle-success rate of 70%. However, there was the part of his game that was flawless, the passing part. He racked up an astronomical 2,300 successful passes and created an astounding 66 chances.
These are the sort of figures that drew him to the Bernabéu. This has put him on a stage for all of the world to view his exceptional talent. Since making his move back to Spain, he has become a World Cup winner, and has winners’ medals from the Copa Del Rey and La Liga.
Since playing closer to home, we have been able to appreciate the true precedence of his position. He is the puppeteer in the team. He is their key to success. His job description entails having to put in the most effort and receiving the least notable reward for it; yet he does it with great passion.
Attacking-wise, Xabi Alonso is the most important part of Real Madrid’s build-up play. Be it a quarterback-style long ball to release the terrifying pace of Ronaldo or Di Maria; playing an intricate ball through the middle to feed the ingenuity of Ozïl; or directly creating chances for the likes of Benzema and Higuain, Madrid scored an amazing 121 goals in the league and achieved a 23-game unbeaten sequence of dominance.
Defensively, he puts in colossal shifts, week in, week out. This season alone he has recorded 9 ‘steals’ per game; has won 80% of his aerial challenges, more than Pépé; and has accumulated a century of interceptions. This makes the job for his defence a lot less strenuous, and that has told in the miserly two games they have lost in Liga BBVA.
All this doesn’t just come with the former Liverpudlian playing within the centre circle. Against Bayern Munich, Alonso ran an incomprehensible 11.8km. And that was after having already made 50 appearances in the prestigious white jersey.
The slump in Madrid’s form elucidated Alonso’s incontrovertible importance. As the season wore on, so did Alonso – and along with that, Madrid’s success and statistics. Playing 36 of 38 games in a season, and running nearly 10km every game could have any man in tatters. The haggard midfielder’s pass-completion fell by 10% and his total passes dropped by nearly a third compared to the beginning of the season. This period mounted unwanted pressure on the Madrid giants, bringing three of their four draws all season, domestically.
Catalans Playing Catch-Up
It has clearly been a season which Barça fans would quick want to forget. Losing to a very unimpressive Chelsea side, dropping very crucial points, and most excruciating of all: playing second fiddle to José’s heroes.
Agreeably, they suffered massive losses in the form of David Villa, Spain’s all-time highest scorer, Eric Abidal, and the untimely injuries on Puyol and Piqué. Based on that, it would seem that their defensive statistics would have faltered - but no, they conceded the least goals in the league all season.
Going forward they fortified with £65 million worth of recruits. Yet they were outdone in the scoring charts, and shockingly, there was only one representative from the Barcelona team in the top five goal-creators.
This has certainly loosened the stranglehold Barça had over European football. They are no longer the team that struck absolute terror into teams. They no longer run rings around whomever they want. They no longer dictate the terms that the opposition would forcibly agree to. This lets the world of football breath free; the commandeering Catalan dominance is one that is diminishing.
This is testament to the Special One’s team, his tactics and his trusty midfield governor – Xabi Alonso.