Every season it seems that Bayern Munich get a big contribution from an unexpected source. This time round it's Xabi Alonso, a last-minute signing who seemed washed-up. But what's behind this match made in heaven?
When big-name signings arrive at a new team, the talk invariably turns to the period of adjustment, measured in weeks and even months, that said player will need to be able to perform up to expectation. With Xabi Alonso and Bayern Munich, it seems to have been a matter of minutes.
Alonso moved to Munich on August 29 of this year. The very next day he was in the starting line-up against Schalke, earning the highest grade of anyone in the Munich line-up from the German football magazine 'kicker.' When Bayern announced that they had signed the 32-year-old Spaniard, he was widely considered a stop-gap measure after injuries to Thiago Alcantara and Javier Martinez. Some questioned the wisdom of bringing in a player on the wrong side of thirty who looked well past his prime at the 2014 World Cup - especially as Bayern let up-and-coming Toni Kroos leave in the other direction for Real Madrid
Now that we're well into the Bundesliga and Champion League seasons, it's become clear that Alonso is no stop-gap. He's become the heart of the team, directing traffic in midfield and calling for the ball as if he's been at Säbener Street for years instead of weeks. He's played in just about every one of Bayern's matches since he's arrived. Against Cologne last month, Alonso set a Bundesliga record with 206 touches of the ball - the previous mark was 177. That's how integral he's become to the Bavarians' game.
"More than 200 touches - I need a whole season for that," said Bayern forward Thomas Müller after the Cologne match.
"We can't win without Xabi," Bayern coach Pep Guardiola said ahead of Munich's Champions League clash with CSKA Moscow on September 30, which Bayern did indeed win 1-0.
Alonso had 159 touches of the ball in that match and completed 93 percent of his passes, as the Bavarians racked up more than three-quarters of possession. No wonder German sports scribes have taken to calling the defensive midfielder "Magneto." And, it's not the first time Xabi has made a quantum leap by changing clubs either.
A well-traveled success
Alonso was born in Spain's Basque region, grew up partly in Barcelona and spent time as a teenager in Ireland, which is why he speaks such good English. His first professional club was Real San Sociedad, where he was developed by Welsh coach John Toschack. With Alonso in the squad, San Sociedad were La Liga runners-up in 2002-3, going unbeaten at home and qualifying for the Champions League for the first time in the club's history.
In 2004, Alonso was sold to Liverpool, as Rafael Benitez brought in some Spanish flair in remaking the Merseyside club. The Reds finished fifth in the Premiership, but pulled off arguably the most remarkable comeback in Champions League history, erasing a three goal deficit in the final to claim club football's most prestigious title. Alonso scored the equalizer in that match.
He also won the FA Cup the following season, and Liverpool fans still remember his 2006 goal from 70 meters against Newcastle, which has since become a Youtube classic. Less spectacularly, but no less impressively, Alonso also became the first Premiership player to complete more than 1000 passes in a season.
In 2009, Liverpool sold Alonso to Real Madrid for the equivalent of 36 million euros ($45 million). There he won the Spanish Cup competition, the Copa del Rey, in 2011 and the 2014 Champions League. Along the way, of course, he also won the 2008 and 2012 European Championships and the 2010 World Cup with Spain.
But despite excelling wherever he went, the soft-spoken Alonso was always overshadowed by teammates with greater star power: Steven Gerrard at Liverpool, Cristiano Ronaldo at Real, Xavi and Andres Iniesta in the Spanish national team. That's perhaps why Real Madrid decided he was surplus to requirements.
Despite his spell at Real, Alonso's childhood years in Barcelona no doubt eased the transition to working with Guardiola, and if Bayern's coach is to ball possession what the Pope is to the Catholic Church, then Alonso is his Secretary of State.
One key to Alonso's performances, especially at his age, is his movement. Despite being on the ball more than any other player in the Bundesliga, the midfielder tends not to run around a lot - his 11.4 kilometers in his record-setting effort against Cologne, for instance, was roughly average for his position. Alonso is extremely effective, though, at getting in position to receive the ball. And when he's marked, he usually moves anyway to create space for a teammate. He then uses hand gestures to direct whoever has possession where to pass it next.
He also has linked up instinctively with Arjen Robben, who is not coincidentally the highest-rated Bundesliga player at the moment according to 'kicker.' This partnership may prove crucial to Bayern's campaign this season, especially in the Champions League. Against Real last season, Munich suffered from a lack of incisiveness - all the possession in the world didn't allow them to pressure the Madrid goal. Alonso has the potential to change that.
"Xabi can play both the short balls and the long ones," Guardiola attests, and in Robben, the midfielder has a winger with the pace to receive quick vertical passes behind opponents' back fours.
No wonder that Guardiola pounced on the chance to pick up a stand-out player from his great rivals from his days at Barcelona. What looked like a desperate bid by Bayern to fill holes left by injuries could well turn out to be a coup that completes a team capable of reclaiming club football's top prize.