Xabi Alonso

Xabi Alonso
Image from: rediff.com

There are many holding midfielders, of various sorts, in the world today, some great, some good, some not so good but none can really compare to Xabi Alonso in his pomp. In fact many managers today look to play a playmaker at the base of their midfield, believing wrongly that just putting a playmaker in the holding role will replicate what Alonso has been doing all his career.

Sadly that is completely ignoring just what made Alonso special, that little bit of magic that lifts him from the herd of playmakers and made him the best in the world at what he does, though age is finally catching up with him now. Quite simply he can defend, he does not just think about attacking, he also makes sure to position himself to block runs, to cut out passes, to cover gaps in the defence.

This short one minute video, if you watch Xabi Alonso only, highlights what I mean about his defensive responsibility:

You can see him constantly looking round, always checking to see where the major threat is, looking to cut out passes, moving to close off potential areas for players to run, handing over a player to the defence when he is better left to them. He is constantly communicating, telling players where they should be going.

Ok, so he did give away a pass in that clip, but we all know that there are very few players in the history of the game that can pass the ball as well as Alonso. It is his communication and defensive responsibility that truly sets him apart though, he is the epitome of a team player.

This video from Spanish TV (it has English subtitles) just highlights how effective Xabi Alonso was in Real Madrid's title winning season, with Madrid conceding half as many goals with him on the pitch than without him! Just think about that, one player is that good defensively he can cut the goals conceded by his team in half. That is incredible.

There are not many players in the world who can make such a difference to a team defensively, Claude Makalele at his peak is one that springs to mind in recent years. Though Makalele could not pass the ball like Alonso, nor score goals (from his own half on more than one occasion), nor was able to strike a dead ball with the same precision that Xabi has displayed throughout his career.

Alonso does have a major weakness to his game, namely a lack of pace, not that he is slow, he is just not fast either and does not have the lightning acceleration that many players use to create themselves pace. Instead he is clever, he uses his body strength well and reads the game to get himself time and space or to stop an opponent getting any.

His lack of pace is a weakness, but the old adage of the first few yards being in the head are true when it comes to Alonso, he is very often tactically ahead of everyone else on the pitch, moving to cover a threat before it has shown itself to anyone else. Aerially he is good as well, not Tim Cahill good, but certainly good enough to cause even the best headers of a ball an issue when defending them or them defending him.

On the ball Alonso is technically skilled, his first touch is excellent, very rarely do you see the ball bounce off him as you often see from some other players I could mention. You will never hear it said that he has the first touch of an elephant or his second touch is a tackle, as we often say to decry other, lesser players.

As you can see from this video, Alonso has a very good range of skills which allows him to create space. Usually a player with that range of passing and shooting you would want your players to press and put under pressure, but he can just do a quick pirouette to make himself room, or just play a quick flick rather than taking the ball down and the press has been wasted.

Worst of all for the press, he can play a first time ball, with pinpoint accuracy, that completely bypasses the press, and opening up the pitch for an attack from another angle. This makes him almost impossible to nullify as a player by pressing him, you instead have to cut out his options, pressing the team as a whole, which can be a much harder job.

Then there is his shooting, particularly from long range, which is a real problem for the opposition, as they have to drop off to defend against the pass and push out to block the shot. Usually it leads to an extra forward dropping deep, which in turn leaves less options for an out ball, which creates more pressure.

How many other players have scored multiple times from their own half into the right net? I will have to leave this profile here, because I am beginning to feel like a fan boy, but this is one of those players that is very difficult to criticise.

He lacks pace, he doesn't score as many goals as he should, but really those two things are connected to his strengths. If he had more pace, he probably would have developed to be more attacking and not gained that defensive awareness as his pace would make up for positional errors.

If he scored more goals, he would probably cost his team a lot more, because he would be getting forward too much. All in all it is easy to see why John Toshack was raving about Alonso when he managed Real Sociedad, telling anyone that would listen that Xabi would go on to be a great of the game.

It is also easy to see why his career has seen him pick up the European game's top trophy, the Champions League, more than once, with both Liverpool and Real Madrid. Even easier to see why Pep Guardiola took him to Bayern Munich, despite being in the twilight of his career, and why both Real Madrid and Liverpool have struggled to fill the huge gaping hole in their midfields he left behind.