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Goal.com’s Cyrus C. Malek argues that it is not Real Madrid’s Galactico signings that will shape their successes this season, but Xabi Alonso who serves as the difference-maker…

While it may be true that Cristiano Ronaldo, Kaka, Karim Benzema, Esteban Granero, and Alvaro Arbeloa have all been enormously valuable additions to Real Madrid’s roster in the wake of this summer’s transfer affairs, there is one player whose signing was of particularly great importance to Manuel Pellegrini and his coaching staff.  

Yes, Cristiano Ronaldo has managed to score in every one of Madrid’s official matches thus far this season (on two occasions, he found the net more than once) and Kaka’s contributions have been well noted as Madrid now enjoy the fruits of Brazilian creativity. But it is Xabi Alonso who has arguably well and truly transformed the way in which Los Blancos play football and upon which Madrid’s hopes of winning silverware rest this season. 

Some critics would question the veracity of such an audacious claim. After all, goals win matches and if one is to measure a team’s most important player by goalscoring ability, surely the player who finds the back of the net most often would constitute the most value to a squad. But while it may be true that players of such unquestionable talent as Lionel Messi and CR9 score goals, one has to remember that football is a team sport, and that there are players who afford these exceptionally gifted forwards the passes that allow something special to happen - and in the case of Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, these players, respectively, are Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso.  

While some would say that Messi is Barcelona’s most valuable player, a more insightful football analyst would probe further and upon such research, would find that the engine that makes Barcelona tick lies further back on the pitch: the choreographer of Pep Guardiola’s attack, the Euro 2008 player of the tournament, Xavi.  

Xavi is an exceptional passer of the ball, providing perfectly weighted through passes behind the back line or lead passes down the flank that efficiently use space on the pitch; meaning the pass is not just delivered to its intended target, but delivered with the proper angle and pace so that the attack does not have to delay in waiting for the ball, thus ensuring that the defence cannot recover in time to close the gap. But what may be even more impressive is Xavi’s ability to hold the ball at his feet as well as his movement when out of possession in support of his team-mates.


Hold It | Xavi Holds Up Possession... Just Not With His Feet

In football, a defence coordinates its defending in a technique that involves ‘forcing’ an offence away from goal. The basic concept of forcing a team is as follows: a defender is charged with the task of putting himself between the attacking player and the goal and, ideally, pushes the flow of the attack away from his team’s net.  

But when the ball is positioned slightly to either side of the centre of the pitch, the defence then chooses to ‘force’ toward the side, effectively using the sideline as an extra defender with the objective of giving the attack less space with which to work and forcing a turnover either through an errant pass or a well-timed tackle.  

It is in this manner that teams defend as a group; the player marking the attacker with the ball forces the player toward the sideline, for instance, if on the left sideline, the defender is positioned on the right side of the attacker, cutting off passes toward the interior of the pitch.  

The job of defenders downfield is to complete the ‘force’ by staying (keeping with the example) slightly to the left of their attackers, thus putting themselves between a pass from the sideline and the attacker they are marking. As the ball is forced further and further to the sideline, this force becomes more and more pronounced as the defenders adjust their angles and prevent the attack from finding an outlet (Barca employs this tactic to perfection, establishing a force that begins with the forwards very quickly upon giving away possession - in fact, Henry, Eto’o and Messi actually had more fouls than Puyol, Marquez, and Pique last season, which is simply astounding). 

Because of this defensive technique, it is imperative to have players on a team that can break an opposing team’s ‘force’ marking and Messi/CR9 accomplish this by either being able to face defenders and weave past them (thus nullifying the force), or by cutting back ‘against the grain’ of the force and exploiting the open space left behind the defenders. 

But players like Xavi and Xabi Alonso are even more valuable to their respective teams because they make it difficult for the defending team to establish a force in the first place. Both the Spanish internationals are comfortable on the ball, responding to defensive pressure by first exposing the ball to draw a defender closer, then turning on a dime, spinning away, and providing a pass in the space the defender had vacated (in Barca’s La Liga match against Sporting Gijon, Xavi did just this to find an improbable path out from between four Sporting defenders and delivered a visionary pass to start the counterattack).  

Both Xavi and Xabi control the ball with fluidity, frequently pulling the proverbial ‘rabbit out of the hat’ to break the direction of the defence’s force marking and keep the attack moving forward. A player like Madrid’s Fernando Gago, called in to substitute while Xabi Alonso currently recovers from injury, lacks this element of tranquil trickery and frequently has to pass the ball back to the defensive line at the slightest hint of pressure, thus stalling the attack and contributing nothing toward advancing the position of the ball. 


Madrid's Xavi | Can Xabi Be Xavi?

Xavi and Xabi are players who know how to position themselves on the pitch and know where the ball’s position will do the most damage to an opposing team’s defensive structure. When a team-mate has the ball or immediately after delivering a pass to a colleague, both Spanish internationals quickly move to a position on the pitch that not only provides their team-mate with a safe outlet, but also one that allows Xavi/Xabi to then deliver a pass that creates a compromising situation for the defence’s formation instead of allowing it to recuperate precious metres in an effort to reposition. 

But while both players are of critical importance to their sides, still performing the same basic function, Xavi Hernandez and Xabi Alonso do differ from each other in style. While capable of coming back to receive the ball in a withdrawn position from the central defenders, Xavi prefers to receive the ball in a more advanced role, darting back and forth in front of his attacking trio of Henry, Ibrahimovic and Messi, surveying the defence for gaps through which to thread the ball, distributing to Dani Alves or Eric Abidal along the flanks, or attempting a one-two pass with one of his strikers (usually Messi). 

In contrast, Xabi Alonso plays in a more withdrawn position as a pivot, usually the first man to receive the ball from the backline. Whereas last season Madrid had great difficulty in their link-up play - that is passing the ball from the defensive midfield into the attack, as Gago and Guti would lose far too many balls in this area of the pitch or immediately turn possession over with a dreadfully errant pass, Xabi pushes the ball up the pitch with accurate long passes, a clever turn past an onrushing defender, or a full-field switch of play with a pass through the air.  

Exceedingly underrated in his time at Liverpool, the Madrid ‘22’ is a superb player when it comes to maintaining possession of the ball and after a clearance from the opposing goalkeeper/back line, is frequently responsible for Madrid retaining possession for another chance to strike. On top of it all, while he makes sure not to languish in his defensive duties, he runs hard to trail the play on a counterattack and also frequently tests the defence’s mettle with booming long-range efforts. 

As Real Madrid attempt to challenge Barcelona this season for the Primera Division crown, the Copa del Rey, and most importantly the Champions League trophy - the final of which is to be held in the Santiago Bernabeu - their hopes of playing beautiful Merengue football do not fall on the shoulders of Cristiano, Kaka, or Karim. They fall on the shoulders of Xabi Alonso, the architect of the midfield, the conductor of the Merengue orchestra, to direct the flow of the Madrid attack.  

And while the Madridistas and the columnists may not know it or perceive it, Pellegrini and his coaching staff certainly know the Basque player’s value and what he brings to the Blancos squad, which is exactly why their hearts were in their throats as he lay writhing in pain on the pitch in Zurich last week in the Champions League match. Thankfully, for Madrid’s hopes of winning titles this season, the injury is not serious. 

Cyrus C. Malek, Goal.com

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