13th May 2016. By Edward Stratmann.
Following his record 17th Champions League semifinal, a landmark that Cristiano Ronaldo also achieved this week, Xabi Alonso could be satisfied that he did everything in his power to help Bayern Munich overcome Atletico Madrid.
Ultimately, despite playing a tactically excellent game, Pep Guardiola's side cruelly bowed out against Diego Simeone's dogged outfit 2-2 on aggregate due to away goals. But in the wake of the sheer disappointment attached to the result for Bayern, Alonso's incredible showing only served to highlight just what a sensational player the now 34-year-old still is.
He played an absolutely vital role for his side, both with and without the ball, in a match where his tactical intelligence and technical gifts shone brightly throughout.
With Guardiola knowing Atleti would be playing in their customary 4-4-2 formation, he made the shrewd decision to split his centre backs, Javi Martinez and Jerome Boateng, to the left and right respectively, so Alonso could drop into the central space between them when Bayern were passing out from the back. This meant, seeing as Atleti's two forwards, Fernando Torres and Antoine Griezmann, could only mark two of the three men, that one of Martinez, Boateng or Alonso was always free to receive possession.
With Bayern's fullbacks, David Alaba and Philipp Lahm, occupying the attentions of Simeone's wingers, Koke and Saul, Guardiola's setup worked wonders for Bayern's ability to pass out from the back in a systematic and effective fashion.
As the Munich giants worked the ball up the field, inherently Alonso ventured upfield, but his role was ostensibly as a sweeper for the most part, as he was often positioned deeper than the centre-halves to either side of him. This worked nicely, for it allowed him to dictate and orchestrate so many of Bayern's forward passages and have a great view of the entire field to put his magnificent range of passing to great use. And his sublime passing, which consisted of countless excellent switches of play, many precise through balls and some intricate one and two touch combination play in tight saw him be a continual thorn in the opposition's side.
In situations whenever he was placed under heavy duress by Los Rojiblancos' vigorous pressing, he used his razor sharp ball control and smarts to shimmy away from any impending challenges to ensure he maintained possession.
Moreover, by taking up this deep position, it meant he could easily cover Martinez or Boateng whenever they pushed forward to join in their team's attacks to add some essential defensive balance.
Defensively, his astute positional sense and capacity to read the play allowed him to make a slew of vital interventions, while he could also regularly be seen tracking back to cover his centre backs and fullbacks if they required support. Alonso put his underrated aerial game to great use too, winning his fair share of duels against his forceful foes.
The set piece specialist's first half free kick added a tangible reward for his superb body of work, but it was the way he carried out his role to perfection and the clarity with which he made his decisions that were the real standouts of his performance.
Atletico's coach, Simeone, even noted that this Bayern outfit was "the best team I've faced in my career". A proud yet disappointed Guardiola, who's departing to Manchester City at the end of the campaign, made a point of praising his team's performance after the match, saying:" When you play like this, you have to be very proud." Alonso was most definitely a key reason behind their scintillating showing.
At 34, it's been fascinating to see Alonso remain so hungry and dedicated to continue learning about the beautiful game, something Pep's advanced methodology and teachings have clearly helped with.
"Over the years I've learned a lot, especially last year under Pep. He thinks a lot about football, he's very methodical and analytic about it, he considers all the details. That gives you more knowledge about the game, and that's what I want to learn," said Alonso.
The former Champions League winner with Liverpool and Real Madrid then added: "Pep is ahead of his time. He is very demanding of himself and his players, but once you get to know it [the style], then it is the way we like to play.
"He likes the team to be in control of the game because he thinks that is the best way to win games. During his time here he has built something, a style of play, I think many players will have learnt a lot and improved and for sure those fundamentals will be very useful in the future as well."
With just one league match left for Bayern, winning the Bundesliga, which they did against Ingolstadt, was the perfect way for the club to farewell their masterful manager.
Alonso will be particularly sad when his countryman departs, however, for the pair have unquestionably formed a match made in heaven throughout their time working together, as Alonso's multifaceted skillset has seen him become an absolutely indispensable member of Guardiola's gifted squad.
While their special relationship will ultimately come to an end following their DFB Pokal final clash with Borussia Dortmund, they will separate in the knowledge they've both helped each other out massively and forged a brilliant friendship that will transcend far beyond just this season.
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Xabi Alonso FC Bayern's Talented Central Midfielder
13th May 2016. By Edward Stratmann.