The Camp Nou. The Gamper Trophy. The 25th of August 2010. A night of flowing narratives. Ronaldinho returns to Barcelona with Milan in what was a sense of what used to be. Zlatan Ibrahimovich plays against his future club, Milan — a sense of what would be.
But hidden on that night was a sense of what might have been.
That was the night Pep Guardiola almost signed Andrea Pirlo. As explained in Pirlo’s book, I think, therefore I play (an extract of which can be found in The Guardian), this was the night Guardiola played his hand. Andres Iniesta, Sergio Busquets and Xavi Hernandez were already at Barcelona. The most imaginative and effective midfield trio in the world. Guardiola desired Pirlo to play alongside them; rotate with them.
It did not happen. After that, Barcelona went on to have an incredible season, winning five trophies and utterly dominating nearly every final they were in. Within a year, Pirlo would leave Milan on a free, joining Juventus at a stage in his career when it seemed he had stagnated. Instead he kicked on.
But that night at the Camp Nou, that setting in Guardiola’s office remains the embodiment of an idea.
That idea seems to have been fulfilled — or rather, partly fulfilled — when Guardiola signed Xabi Alonso to Bayern Munich.
Alonso is not Pirlo, but their characteristics are similar. Forget the seemingly flowing hair and the nicely groomed beards; both have a wide range of passing skill set and magnificent vision. The two are what could be termed as deep-lying playmakers — midfielders sitting deep and dictating the pace of play with a unique style. Both are not the best of tacklers — (Alonso missed last season’s Champions League Final due to suspension after going in late into a tackle in the semi-final win over Bayern). However, the number of interceptions these two make in midfield aids a possession based team in much the same manner tough tackling aids an aggressive one.
Tell Pirlo and Alonso to take care of a football and the ball will most probably refuse to ever return into your care. There is a delicate balance to their possession — not too hoarding to slow down moves but managing to release the ball when it should be released. Tactical intelligence, tactical awareness and technical ability reigns supreme in these two.
Over and above that is the sense that much like Pirlo, Alonso is an intelligent man. A thinker, almost philosophical in his mannerisms and that — if Zlatan is to be believed — puts him in good stead with Guardiola.
Many may think that Alonso has been bought by Guardiola on the evidence of how important he was in those two legs in that semi-final of the Champions League last season. But beyond that, Guardiola has actually gone about strengthening his side.
Without the services of Javi Martinez for a huge chunk of the start to the season, and after having lost Toni Kroos to Real Madrid, Xabi Alonso can now become Bayern’s metronome. Watch Xabi Alonso in any game and you can expect to see him conducting from midfield; directing; issuing instructions, arms moving, swaying his head side to side. Assessing the options.
Playing him in midfield strengthens the Bavarian club in various ways. It allows Phillip Lahm to return to right back and as evidenced by the German team at the World Cup, Lahm’s leadership qualities makes a whole world of difference to a somewhat shaky looking defence. At the same time —and as is Guardiola’s ability to constantly surprise — Alonso can be played as a center back in a three man defence. His role, as expected by the Bielsistic instinct in Guardiola, is to maintain possession at the back and an ability step out of defence with the ball.
That does not mean he is an assured starter — and at his age, that would be stretching his physical capabilities. But Alonso has the intelligence and discipline to keep himself in shape for when he is needed. Much in the same manner, or even in a better way than how Paul Scholes and Ryan Giggs saw out their Manchester United careers.
In Alonso as well, Guardiola has a natural leader. A leader who is not self-centered and goes about doing his work with minimal fuss. The Spanish midfielder is also determined and submits to the coach’s cause no matter the circumstances (he was tough whenever Jose Mourinho required him to be but subtle under Carlo Ancelotti and Vicente Del Bosque for Spain. Also, his last season at Liverpool came at a time when the Merseyside club were looking to replace him with Gareth Barry. When they could not secure Barry, Alonso stayed on. He went on to have his best season in the Barclays Premier League, leading Liverpool to second). The Spanish midfielder is also an all-round likeable guy.
Over and above all, his quality enables him to play in virtually any midfield on the planet. Even after supposedly falling out with most of the Spanish squad — a consequence of having taken Mourinho’s side during the clasico wars — it was difficult to justify any removal of him from the Spanish starting line up.
Such is his importance, such is his dependability. Predicting Guardiola’s mind however is an uncertain endeavour. How he plans to use Alonso in totality remains to be seen.
Signing the Spanish midfielder is also in a way a surprise in itself. Alonso is a Basque (not a Catalan as many assume is Guardiola’s preference), signed from Real Madrid and one of Mourinho’s defenders in the clasico wars that eventually contributed to Guardiola’s departure from Catalonia.
What is certain however is that Guardiola wants to move to another level with Bayern Munich. That requires new things and new thinking — such as his use of 3-4-3 this season. Signing Alonso gives him a calm experienced head with whom to lead Bayern into that new vision.
In that sense therefore, it is a reprise of the idea of Pirlo for Barcelona in 2010. Only that now, he actually has the idea of Xabi Alonso to work with at Bayern Munich.
[images courtesy of zimbio]