23rd December 2016. By Edward Stratmann.
After steering Chelsea to their eleventh Premier League win in a row by defeating Crystal Palace 1-0, a victory that equaled the club's best ever streak, Antonio Conte was justifiably delighted with his team's achievement.
"The run is fantastic, and congratulations go to my players. They deserve this. I see them in training every single moment, every day, and their commitment and the way they prepare for the games and fight. I'm not a person who loves statistics but I'd be dishonest if I said I wasn't pleased with this run of 11 wins," he gleamed.
"In this league, if we'd arrived here today without the right concentration and focus, the will to fight and go into battle with our opponents, we'd have lost this game for sure. Instead, we have great quality but the players are putting that quality into the team."
Since adopting his 3-4-3 formation following defeat to Arsenal in September, which served as the catalyst for their tremendous run of form, Conte's Chelsea have been phenomenal. While it's been unsurprisingly that the likes of Eden Hazard, Diego Costa, Thibaut Courtois and N'Golo Kante have been instrumental in their success, the form of the defence and especially the wing backs, Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso, have been particularly pleasing.
To shine the spotlight on Marcus Alonso, and it's been incredible to observe what an immense impact he's had from his left-wing back role. And his typically robust, athletic showing against Palace epitomised precisely why he's such an important cog in Conte's wheel.
The £23 million summer signing from Fiorentina oozed enthusiasm and energy from the outset, as his efforts on both sides of the ball were first rate.
Shaping up against the Eagles' dynamic right winger in Wilfried Zaha is never an easy task, but Alonso's physical, no nonsense approach to stopping the trickster worked a treat. To start with, the fact Alonso pushed forward at every available opportunity forced Zaha to track him deep into Chelsea's half, which gave the Englishman a deep, less than ideal starting position to instigate any potential counter attacks from.
When Zaha did get on the ball, Alonso's ability to match him up physically also helped hugely. Possessing solid pace and being stronger than his adversary, in combination with his excellent body positioning whilst defending 1v1 situations, saw Alonso nullify the former Manchester United man very effectively. In addition, his aerial dominance ensured he was never challenged in this regard too.
In scenarios where Zaha would look to drop deep, Alonso gave him little respite here too, for he'd astutely respond to pressing triggers, such as when Zaha received the ball with his back to goal or had a sloppy first touch, to relentlessly apply pressure to his marker.
Although Zaha got the better off him on the odd occasion, there could be no doubting that Alonso was the winner of their fascinating duel.
In the attacking phase of the game, the 25-year-old's superb understanding with Hazard provided him with a terrific platform from which to have a profound impact, just as it's done throughout the streak. With Hazard persistently drifting infield and taking his man with him, this created a whopping space for Alonso to charge forward into. And he duly did, with Alonso assisting greatly in giving his side essential width in advanced areas.
Furthermore, the pair's strong relationship and knowledge of one another's game saw them play some brilliant one-twos to manipulate and unlock Palace's defensive unit. These combinations ran like clockwork and were performed notably smoothly, something that also served as a testament to Conte's work on the training ground.
Alonso would crucially cover in behind Hazard if the situation callled for it, just as Gary Cahill would occupy the space in behind Alonso when he pushed forward, which gave the side structural stability and made them more resistant to any Palace breakaways.
Hazard recently gave an insightful view on how he's relishing working in tandem with his Alonso, saying: "I play this way with Belgium, too. Defensively, with the national team I have [Yannick Ferreira] Carrasco close to me. Here I have Alonso just behind me who defends a bit more, and has those responsibilities.
"That allows me to concentrate more on hurting teams going forward. And it's worked. I've managed to make a positive impact in games, and my form is there."
After another tremendous body of work for the multifaceted Alonso, the win also amazingly represented his 15th Premier League victory in a row. The eye catching streak of his own, which dates back to his loan spell at Sunderland 2014, sees Alonso sit in third place on the all time list of players who've won the most consecutive Premier League matches. Having now drawn level with the likes of Gary Neville and Nicky Butt, only Park Ji-Sung (on 16) and Arjen Robben (on 20) stand in his way of claiming the record.
Even though there's a long way to go before he reaches Chelsea's former flying Dutchman, the way Conte's men are playing at present, there's every chance the record could be his.
In the meantime, the reliable, tireless Spaniard, who's been a real revelation this campaign, will be working as hard as ever to ensure his team's and his own personal records can continue for as long as possible.
He may be one of the less heralded members of Chelsea's scintillating season so far, but his role in the side is just as important as any of his more illustrious colleagues.
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Marcos Alonso a revelation in the Chelsea Defence
23rd December 2016. By Edward Stratmann.