Life After Alonso
How Real Madrid have fared since the sale of the Spanish midfield maestro.
Amidst the celebrations of Real Madrid’s comprehensive Champions League semi-final victory against Pep Guardiola’s Bayern Munich last season, one man was understandably distraught. Xabi Alonso, like Roy Keane before him, had been instrumental in his team’s journey to the final but picked up one booking too many and missed the showpiece event. Few would have predicted that following that victory over Bayern, Alonso would never again pull on the famous white shirt of Los Blancos.
Last season, Real Madrid struggled to maintain any sort of consistency in the league and deservedly lost out to city rivals Atletico in the race for the title. They reserved their best form for the Champions League as they tore team after team apart in the seemingly unstoppable march towards La Decima. At the heart, quite literally, of this triumph was Alonso. Granted, Ronaldo scored an astonishing 17 goals, but the experienced, diligent and hugely talented Basque born defensive midfielder was just as important to their progress. He was rightly rewarded for his performances with a place in the UEFA Squad of the Tournament.
Having just retired from International football following Spain’s disastorous World cup campaign in Brazil, it might have seemed logical to believe that Alonso would have more time and capacity to focus upon Real Madrid and help to provide balance to a team, and indeed a club, that seems irrevocably slanted towards attacking at all costs. The clichéd ‘Galacticos’ brand has indeed enjoyed a recent resurgence under Florentino Perez, and appearing as it does, that he decided to purchase two of the best players at the World Cup in the shape of James Rodriguez and Tony Kroos, despite having Alonso and Champions League man of the match Angel di-Maria in their positions, suggests that Perez has failed to learn the lessons from his first period in charge.
Perez’s first spell ran from 2000 to 2006 and during that period he signed a raft of superstars. One such signing was an unparalleled success in the shape of Zinedine Zidane, who famously volleyed home at Hampden Park to deliver Real their ninth European Cup. Another man on the park that night was a certain Claude Makelele. As part of Perez’s desire for superstar signings Makelele was to last only one more season at the Bernabeu, during which Real only lost four league games on their way to winning La Liga. Yet he was to be replaced that summer by David Backham with Perez dismissing the impact of Makelele’s exit, stating ‘He wasn’t a header of the ball and he rarely passed the ball more than three metres. Younger players will arrive who will cause Makelele to be forgotten.’ Perez was to be proved spectacularly wrong, as it took another twelve years and the presence of someone playing the ‘Makelele role’ before Real Madrid again tasted success in the Champions League.
Will Real suffer from a comparably long period without success following the exit of Alonso? It is doubtful given the sheer quality of their squad and the fact that Tony Kroos should in time settle into Alonso’s role. However, with the loss of one of Europe’s best holding midfielders, who at the same time was one of the most experienced and well respected members of their dressing room, Real will undeniably take time to adjust. Just how long this process takes is debatable but the early signs have not been positive. In three league games so far, they have lost twice already, conceding six goals in the process. The loss at home against Atletico was particularly poignant, given that towards the end of the game Real looked leaderless and it was from a position that Alonso would normally have been patrolling, that Arda Turan stroked home the winner. In comparison to his former team mates travails, how has Alonso settled in at Bayern?
In his first game for Bayern away to Shalke (the day after he had signed and having trained with his new team mates only once) Alonso ran nine kilometres and had a pass completion rate of ninety per cent, during his sixty seven minutes on the field. He was even more impressive in Bayern’s two nil victory over Stuttgart where he provided the assist for Mario Goetze’s goal and also hit the post as part of an imperious display. Daily German newspaper Abendzeitung summed up the beauty of Alonso, after the Stuttgart game, ‘He’s like a magnet, attracting everything; he is the helmsman, the conductor, and the player of set pieces.’ On Wednesday night against Manchester City his excellent form continued as part of a midfield which comfortably dominated the champions of England, in a one nil victory.
It would not be fantastical to predict Bayern Munich beating Real Madrid to the Champions League this year. Bayern have a stronger squad than last season and better protection for an improved back four in the shape of Alonso. Real Madrid have committed the same mistake as they did with Makelele in 2003 and as George Santayana is speculated to have said, ‘Those who do not learn from their mistakes are doomed to repeat them.’
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