As they arrive at the business end of the season, Real Madrid have started to stumble. Three draws in their last six La Liga games have allowed Barcelona to cut a comfortable ten point gap down to just four, with the two teams meeting at the Camp Nou on April 22nd. One reason for this mini-slump (relatively speaking) may have been regular squabbles off the pitch, but even more worrying for los merengues fans is a drop in performance levels, in particular those of main playmaker Xabi Alonso.
To put it bluntly, Alonso looks shagged. This should be no surprise as the midfielder has only missed one La Liga game all season (through suspension) and has also played every time he’s been needed in the Copa del Rey and Champions League. Alonso turned 30 last November, and has also been busy with the Spanish national team in recent years. All the games are clearly now taking their toll.
With no like-for-like replacement available Madrid coach José Mourinho has been loathe to rest his on-field general. Nuri Sahin’s €10m signing last summer was supposed to provide an option, but the Turkish international arrived injured and has yet to gain Mourinho’s trust. Sami Khedira is all energy and bustle, but cannot run a game. Lass Diarra sits deep and make tackles, but offers little creatively. The closest in style to Alonso is youngster Esteban Granero, who has featured occasionally alongside Alonso in 2012, but lacks the experience to replace him.
Another likely reason for Alonso’s fatigue is his job description under Mourinho. At Liverpool, Javier Mascherano was usually around to cover and tackle, so he could concentrate more on being creative. At Madrid (except when Mourinho chooses a midfield ‘trivote’) he is both the deep lying ‘quarterback’ who launches the ball forward quickly to Madrid’s pacy attackers, and the ‘holding’ player who covers the full width of the pitch to cut out opposition breaks. This second role requires more energy than he – never the quickest across the ground anyway – had been used to giving. The extra responsibilities are a likely reason why 2011/12 has brought more yellow cards in La Liga (10) than goals (1) and assists (8) combined.
A closer look at the stats, and the direction they are heading, does not bode well for the player or his team. According to his whoscored.com page, Alonso has been Madrid’s second best player this season (behind Cristiano Ronaldo). Delve a little deeper though and the figures start to show why he - and his side - have been faltering lately.
Alonso has made an average of 81.4 passes per game at 88% accuracy, which is pretty good, but not outstanding. Only Xavi Hernández has more passes, but ten Barca players, plus Madrid team-mates Álvaro Arbeloa and José Callejón and Villarreal’s Bruno, have a better completion rate. Even more worryingly for Madrid fans, their key midfielder’s averages have dipped worryingly.
When Madrid won 4-0 in Málaga last October, having gone four up by the 38th minute in probably their best performance of the season, Alonso made 102 passes at 92% accuracy. Four days later they ripped Villarreal apart 3-0 at the Bernabéu (all goals in the first half hour), with Alonso only playing 80 minutes, but again making 102 passes at 92% accuracy.
In the last few weeks Madrid have drawn both return games 1-1, with Alonso making 67 passes at 82% accuracy against Málaga at the Bernabéu and 62 passes at 85% at Villarreal. Against Valencia last weekend the stats were again disappointing - 68 passes at 85% as his team drew 0-0, then in the 4-1 win at Atlético on Wednesday it was just 82% completed of 56.
As Alonso’s figures have fallen, so have his team’s. When Mourinho’s side were in full flow they were racking up Barca-like possession shares, especially at the Bernabéu against Real Zaragoza (72%), Osasuna (77%) and Racing Santander (67%). Over the season so far, Madrid have averaged 60% possession per game, but again this figure is currently going south.
Last month Rayo Vallecano and Real Betis edged the possession stats (53% and 51% respectively) in away games where Madrid relied on some interesting refereeing decisions to win. Málaga had just 39% possession when they hosted Madrid last autumn, but in the more recent meeting Pellegrini’s side became the second opposition team this season (no prizes for guessing the first) to have more of the ball at the Bernabéu (53%).
Having said that, 84% of people (and most English and Irish coaches) know you can pick and choose stats to back up any thesis. Given Mourinho has famously opted to concede possession completely in some games, it’s possibly helpful to also look at a more obvious determining factor - such as chances given up and goals conceded.
Neither of the two recent late equalising free kicks (by Villarreal’s Marcos Senna and Málaga’s Santi Cazorla) were given away by Alonso, but they were both conceded in his area of the pitch and were a sign that Madrid were unable to keep the ball and close out either game. Málaga should probably have scored much earlier in their match. Alonso was being given a chasing by talented but raw teenage playmaker Isco, who got into great positions but lacked the calmness to convert. It is unlikely Barcelona – or Bayern in the Champions League – would be as wasteful.
Alonso’s waning influence is also down to opposition coaches deliberately setting out to nullify him. Last Sunday, Los Che coach Unai Emery dropped usual playmaker Jonas and placed Tino Costa at the tip of a midfield three. Costa’s job was to “disconnect” Alonso from his team-mates and he did it well. The Argentine also escaped Alonso to crack a 35 yarder off the woodwork early in the second half. Against Atlético on Wednesday night, Adrián had a similar task. Spanish TV showed after that game that Diego Simeone’s players had been content to leave Khedira on the ball and let him try and build attacks.
The German struggled to do that, but Madrid won 4-1 anyway, mostly because Ronaldo took charge and banged in two tremendous long range goals. Ronaldo did something similar at Osasuna a few weeks ago when he laid on Karim Benzema’s opener and then scored the second himself from 30 yards. Relying on one attacker, no matter how talented or motivated, to provide a moment of magic is not a sustainable strategy. To overcome Bayern over two legs – and especially to avoid defeat against Barcelona – Madrid will have to impose at least some control over proceedings, and they’ll need Alonso at his best to do that.
The only column in which Alonso’s figures are currently rising shows how much he’s been struggling recently: six bookings in his last eleven games. That might now be to Madrid’s benefit. His yellow at the Calderón means a ban for Saturday’s home game against Sporting, which should help his weary limbs recover for next Tuesday’s first leg in Bavaria.
Real fans should hope Alonso makes the most of his few days off, as they’re going to need him over the next week or so.
Dermot Corrigan is an Irish freelance writer living in Madrid and writing about football at Sport 360, Fox Soccer, When Saturday Comes and elsewhere. Follow him on Twitter here.