Xabi Alonso has been the metronome of every team he’s played for in the last 15 years, but it seems that the grand clock will soon stop ticking.
It emerged today that the 35 year old is set to hang up his boots in the summer after an illustrious playing career, and he will be remembered as one of the finest midfielders in modern football, as stylish on the pitch as he is off it.
Alonso was the cornerstone of the Spanish national side which dominated international football from 2008 to 2012, and redefined what it means to be a holding midfielder.
“Tackling is not really a quality, it’s more something you are forced to resort to when you don’t have the ball,” he believes. “I can’t get into my head that footballing development would educate tackling as a quality.”
While no stranger to a tackle, Alonso’s strength comes from his excellent reading of the game. He was regarded as the slowest player at Anfield during his time at Liverpool, but the 35 year old’s positioning and anticipation has masked his lack of pace over the years.
The Spaniard dictates play from his deep-lying midfield role, and his vision and range of passing helps his teams transition from defence to attack in one pass. He is a quarterback, a deep-lying playmaker, the chief orchestrator.
He breaks up play, uses the ball with purpose and style, and is capable of scoring spectacular goals. Yet, the classy midfielder remained underrated for large portions of his career.
Alonso was relatively unknown outside of Spain until Rafa Benitez signed the Real Sociedad skipper for just £10.5 million in 2004.
He won the Champions League with the Reds in his first season, and scored the equalizer from a penalty rebound in the dramatic victory over AC Milan in the final.
The Spaniard made Benitez’ Liverpool side tick, and later performed a formidable partnership with Javier Mascherano in the middle of the park.
He was a fan favourite at Anfield, and it’s no coincidence that his stay on Merseyside coincided with the best years of Steven Gerrard’s career, who was instantly blown away by the likeable Spaniard:
“It was clear Alonso was royalty after our first training session together in August 2004, and Rafa Benitez, who had been so clever to buy him in the first place, was equally stupid to sell him to Real Madrid five years later. He was, by some distance, the best central midfielder I ever played alongside.”
Alonso’s distribution and underrated contribution was instrumental to the Reds’ ultimately unsuccessful title tilt in the 2008/09 season.
Bizarrely, Benitez conspired to replace Alonso with Gareth Barry in 2008, and this betrayal would eventually convince Alonso to answer when Real Madrid came calling a year later. Los Blancos signed the influential midfielder for £30 million in August 2009, and Liverpool never replaced him.
While adored by Liverpool fans, the wider Premier League community – fans and pundits alike – only recognized the influence and importance of Alonso after his departure. There weren’t many passers of is ilk in the Premier League before his arrival in England, and there hasn’t been one since.
At Madrid, Alonso screened the defence, and allowed the players around him to press forward and play with freedom, knowing that Xabi was behind them to offer protection to the back four. He kept things ticking over in midfield, and further exhibited his stunning range of passing on a weekly basis.
He won La Liga with Madrid in the 2010/11 season, and the Champions League in 2014, after Real’s 4-1 victory over their local rivals Atletico. Alonso was forced to watch the final from the stands, after his yellow card in the semi-final victory over Bayern Munich ruled him out of the final.
Despite his clear influence at the Bernabeau, there was a feeling that Alonso’s importance was once again overlooked. Madrid decided to sign Toni Kroos – who they viewed as a younger model of Alonso – in July 2014. A month later, Alonso went in the opposite direction, and signed for Bayern Munich for an undisclosed fee.
Several of Alonso’s managers are obviously oblivious to that old cliché, ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.’
There was certainly plenty left in the tank, and Alonso immediately became a key figure in Pep Guardiola’s possession-based midfield. His assured, purposeful short range passing and stunning crossfield balls were key to how Pep wanted his team to play out from the back.
In September 2015, he completed 196 passes against FC Köln, setting a new Bundesliga record in the process. Alonso won back to back league titles with the Germans, as well as a German Cup and the German Super Cup.
He’s now in his third (and final) season at Munich, and you wouldn’t bet against him securing a hat-trick of successive titles before he hangs up his boots.
Alonso retired from international football after Spain’s disappointing performance at the 2014 World Cup, with 114 caps to his name. He formed part of a mouth-watering midfield triumvirate, completed by Xavi and Andrés Iniesta, which contributed to Spain’s world dominance from 2008-2012.
His trophy haul to date includes two European Championships, two Champions League’s, two Bundesliga titles, one La Liga title, and one FA Cup amongst other triumphs.
He has spent the majority of his career allowing players further up the field to flourish, but that does not mean his own qualities should be overlooked.
And while the clock may be winding down, Alonso’s contributions to Spanish football will be timeless.