How Barcelona used Marcos Alonso to frustrate Real Madrid

Barcelona defeated Real Madrid 1-0 at the Bernabeu on Thursday night in what must go down as the most scrappy, ugly, disjointed Clasico in recent memory.

Even in the context of a game that often descends into pettiness and cynicism, this was a truly awful edition of the most famous rivalry in world football. It featured wayward short passes, hopeful long balls and minimal cohesion between teammates.

The only goal came against the run of play after a mistake from Edouardo Camavinga let Barcelona in. Franck Kessie’s shot was saved by Thibaut Courtois, deflected by Eder Militao, and then accidentally assisted by Nacho Fernandez. The only debate was about which Real Madrid player should be credited with the own goal. It was such an evening.

Amidst all this chaos, it says something that arguably the most impressive player was Marcos Alonso, deployed at centre-back. It’s not the first time Alonso has been there this season – in fact he’s played in the middle more often than he’s played at left-back. In a way, this challenge suited him better than in any previous match.


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Alonso is a curious footballer. He is not really a left-back because he lacks natural defensive qualities and is drawn out of position far too easily when playing in a four-man defence. He is one of those players who looks significantly more comfortable at wing-back than at full-back.

He developed into a truly impressive footballer in a Fiorentina side that often played 3-5-2 and was signed by Antonio Conte’s Chelsea as a specialist wing-back. He only got one opportunity in the first team when Conte decided to switch from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3, a move that essentially won Chelsea the 2016-17 Premier League title.

Alonso is not the first footballer to look more comfortable as a wing-back than a full-back. But perhaps he is the first footballer who clearly belongs at wing-back, but who will still count on skill from the air as his most important attribute. Wing-backs are usually not involved in dogfights – certainly not essential.

And yet Alonso has made a name for himself as a specialist totter blunder, a wing-back-cum-target man, rather than an expert crosser or a reliable hard worker. It is difficult to think of a comparable footballer.

So how would Alonso fare in the Clasico, up against reigning Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema? Well, the answer depends on which part of the game you’re looking at.

In the opening period, Barcelona tried to play their usual type of football. They kept a high defensive line, wanted to keep the ball for long periods and tried to impose the game. During this period, Alonso struggled.

In a positional sense, he was very insecure and his body shape was often wrong. Within the first 30 seconds, Benzema ran across the front of Alonso, who tracked him into a deeper position, despite the fact that he would have been able to spot Luka Modric running forward into his zone. Dani Carvajal played the ball through to Modric, for what briefly looked like a one-on-one. Modric shot wide – and in fairness the flag went up for offside anyway. But this was to become Barcelona’s problem.

Alonso did not learn from it. Here is an almost identical situation – Benzema positions himself down that side to pull Alonso up. Modric, who played very high throughout the first half, once again has the opportunity to run in behind. This time Carvajal plays the ball into Benzema’s feet.

And here is an example of Alonso being dragged across to the other side of the pitch, practically in front of his centre-back Jules Konde, to close down Vinicius Junior. Here he could argue that there was no one else set to exploit the space, and Sergio Busquets was there to fill Alonso’s zone if needed. Yet this was the pattern in the first half: Alonso was dragged around almost at will by Real.

But the second half was played in a completely different way.

Barcelona, ​​up 1-0, parked the bus more than in any Clasico in years, probably decades. Real Madrid dominated possession and Barca generally looked for long balls up to Ferran Torres, the centre-forward, who was isolated.

The ball kept coming back to the visitors. And yet, throughout the second half, Real struggled to create a serious scoring chance.

Marcos Alonso, Air Power Plant (Photo: Manuel Reino Berengui/DeFodi Images via Getty Images)

And while this felt decidedly un-Barcelona, ​​it suited Alonso perfectly. The wing-back who specializes in aerial battles was, in the relatively new setting of centre-backs, suddenly in his element. When Real Madrid sent hopeful crosses into the box, Alonso became Barcelona’s most formidable aerial shield and was always there to clear.

Playing at centre-back 40 yards from his own goal, Alonso seemed a liability. Playing centre-back 10 yards from his own goal, he felt like a commanding veteran.

Things became almost a parody in the final stages. Here Carvajal hits a low cross into the box and Alonso’s attempt to clear was cut badly into the air. But that was okay – as the ball fell from the sky, the ferocious stopper Alonso soared skywards again, off balance, to win the header and clear the danger.

The last act of the game was fitting. In the seventh minute of stoppage time, a deep Real Madrid corner found Aurelien Tchouameni at the far post. The nearest man to him was Alonso, who jumped into the air, turned his back slightly, and the ball deflected off his shoulder.

There was a brief delay while the umpire checked that the ball had not hit his arm. But Alonso was safe and Barcelona were home and dry.

Two key figures tell the story. Barcelona recorded 35 percent possession, the lowest in any game since 2013-14. Likewise, Real Madrid failed to register a shot on target in a home game for the first time since Opta began analyzing them (2010). The first statistics show that the game suited Alonso. The second shows that he did his job.

(Top photo: Florencia Tan Jun/Getty Images)

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