For Real Madrid, it’s like seeing an ex-girlfriend doing well after a breakup. Xabi Alonso denies that the arrival of Toni Kroos from Bayern Munich compelled him to go the other way, but such was the bombastic hype that surrounded the German, and James Rodriguez, Alonso can’t have felt particularly appreciated by Real. He signed a two year deal with Bayern Munich, effectively replacing Kroos in the line up, and I really mean effectively replacing him. Drowned out by the fanfare of Real’s incoming transfers, Alonso’s departure was still mourned by the fans and he has, in a handful of games for Bayern, already set a Bundesliga record for touches in a match (206) and, in that same match, made 185 successful passes. He has slotted into Guardiola’s system seamlessly and, while Madrid figure out how to cope without the Spaniard, he seems to be thoroughly enjoying life in Munich.
It was a strange period, post-World Cup, with every member of that champion German team bathed in the warm, amber glow of victory. Kroos was so effective during the World Cup and, along with James, was the hot player of the tournament; a young, emerging Galatico-in-the-making apparently. Real Madrid, as they had done after Gareth Bale’s breakout season, instantly jumped at the opportunity to add him to their collection of footballing jewels. One suspects, though, they perhaps didn’t quite think it through; the German is indeed a fine player, with attacking senses as finely honed as any central midfielder. He is able to trundle forward and impose himself on the defence, but is also able to pass fairly well from deeper areas, a vital skill for Madrid, who need a skilled quarterback to release Bale and Ronaldo.
But Kroos, unlike Alonso, is less disciplined defensively, and is less in tune with the flow of the game. If you look at Kroos’s first goal in that 7-1 rout of Brazil, his attacking instincts brought him all the way up to the edge of the box, with the ball in the wide right area. As well taken a goal as it was by Kroos, Alonso would never be venturing that far forward for Real, or Spain for that matter, and Kroos risks exposing the defence if he does the same when playing alongside Modric at Real. Alonso was a master of controlling the tempo, of being in exactly the right position as an outlet for his colleagues, and then playing exactly the right pass. When he combined with Luka Modric at Madrid, Alonso was a perfect foil, allowing, nay, facilitating the Croatian to greasily turn away from markers, like he does so well, and to scurry forward. Alonso was, for Real, the much better version of what his countryman Mikel Arteta does for Arsenal; collecting the ball from the centre backs, either finding the more elusive and direct Ramsay (playing the Modric role), or passing from deep himself, rarely charging into attacking areas. Alonso’s defensive positioning is much better than Arteta’s however, and evidently better than Kroos’s, as Madrid are finding now. Madrid, with Kroos in Alonso’s area, are much less balanced. Currently, they are 4 points off the La Liga leaders, Barcelona.
So, Carlo Ancelotti’s off-season loss, more damaging than expected, could have been the gain of any team in Europe. But it was Pep Guardiola, and his Bayern Munich project that benefited from Alonso’s arrival. Turning down an offer from Manchester United, Alonso must have valued the chance to work with Guardiola, after having seen his Barcelona side dominate Spain for so many seasons. Benitez, Pellegrini, Mourinho, Ancelotti, del Bosque and now Guardiola, Alonso will have worked with arguably the world’s most dazzling list of managers when he ends his career.
It was against FC Koln that the record for touches, previously held by Bayern’s Thiago, was broken by Alonso. Munich had nearly 80% possession, and won the game easily, 2-0. Looking at Alonso’s individual highlights (above), he was constantly an open option, for both the attack and defence. Whenever either became bogged down or pressured, Alonso was there, in space and available. He was given the license to mix up his passing range all day; it comes as no surprise that such an intelligent footballer has been given the responsibility of choosing whether to be more incisive or more cautious when recycling the play. Incredibly, his performance wasn’t flawless at all; he still could have been more accurate with a few of his direct balls. His astonishing passing map (below) more resembles a plate of German spätzle than a football diagram.
Though they strolled to the Bundesliga title last season, Guardiola would have been disappointed by his team’s failure to excel in the Champions League. Stagnant was a word too often used to describe the play of the Bavarian giant, and, as the reputation of possession-above-all-else football has been eroding since Spain’s loss to Brazil in the Confederations Cup final in June last year, grumblings about whether Guardiola’s style could still work were audible. Alonso’s addition might just kickstart the team back into contention in Europe, offering them even more control of the ball, but also a sudden piquancy in attack. The knife-edge trio of Robben, Ribery and Shaqiri will be eager to chase the swift diagonal balls that Alonso can masterfully deliver, and the Raumdeuter, Thomas Muller will want to foster a symbiotic relationship with the canny pass-master behind him, drifting into subtle spacial pockets to receive a pinpoint delivery. This new dimension can only improve Bayern.
At 32, and with their shiny new Kroos arriving, Madrid might have misjudged how important Alonso was to them. With Cristiano Ronaldo scoring hat tricks seemingly at will, their midfield instability has been obscured a little recently. But the more tactically astute onlookers, as well as Ancelotti, will be throwing remorseful looks at Bayern’s new record setter with every one of his imperious passing performances.