For all his medals won at Real Madrid and Chelsea, what will forever hang around Claude Makelele’s neck is how he personalised an entire position.
‘The Makelele Role’ is assigned to any energetic defensive-minded midfielder who sits deep, protecting the back four, while offering next-to-no impact in the final third. See also: Sergio Busquets, Daniele De Rossi and latterly N’Golo Kante.
Perhaps over time, Xabi Alonso’s legacy will be defined in a similar manner. The Spaniard, who announced his retirement this week, has enjoyed a phenomenally successful career winning 12 major trophies for club and country (which will surely be improved come June), including two Champions League crowns, three league titles and the World Cup and two European Championships.
But remembering Alonso merely in terms of trophies won is like measuring the impact of one of his favourite band, the Velvet Underground, in record sales. The American band shifted a mere few hundred albums in the late 1960s, but their influence on guitar music is almost beyond comparison.
Indeed, Alonso’s impact goes beyond the tangible as he has defined how to play as a holding midfielder in the post-Makelele world (Andrea Pirlo can also lay claim to such grandiose proclamations but there are subtle differences, with the Italian offering more in attack and never as effective a defensive player as his Spanish contemporary).
Visually, it looks easy. Collecting possession from your defence, moving it on to a team-mate with minimal fuss or spraying passes all over the field at will.
But, in reality, it’s far from that and only a few have been able to play with with such class and consistency as Alonso. Just ask David Beckham who tried and failed for England in their ill-fated 2005 game against Northern Ireland despite being, at the time, among the very best long-range passers in the world.
It’s no coincidence five of the foremost and influential managers in the game since 2000 – Rafael Benitez, Vicente del Bosque, Jose Mourinho, Pep Guardiola and Carlo Ancelotti – made Alonso the fulcrum of their respective teams, which went beyond just being able to pass sideways. And if he was five years younger, Guardiola would undoubtedly be trying to sign him for Manchester City.
Put simply, Alonso’s ability to maintain possession and dictate tempo made his colleagues better. It’s an often overlooked quality, but much like a good point guard on the basketball court, Alonso shapes the ball around the field, involving everyone by giving them touches, keeping them engaged, focused, confident and adhering to whatever gameplan had been laid out.
The way he would always make himself available to receive the ball in space also alleviated pressure on any team-mate in possession. He gives you the ball when you want it and takes it off you when you don’t.
No wonder so many love playing alongside him.
His range of passing meant he could slow the play down, move it quickly with short exchanges, or go direct with one of his trademark raking balls over the top or from one side of the field to the other.
His adaptability and variability has meant he’s fitted in seamlessly in Europe’s top three leagues – each possessing its own style and pace of play – and at the continent’s biggest clubs. And the fact he settled so quickly in England, Germany and at Real Madrid speaks volumes not only for his technique, but also his temperament.
Key to his longevity has been the fact so much of what he does is with his brain as opposed to any great physical attributes. Rampaging box-to-box midfielders will eventually burn out and fade away, but Alonso’s understanding and reading of the game is why he’s remained at the very top for so long.
Remember when Xabi Alonso did this???— Doolan 9 (@Doolan9) March 9, 2017
He is too good to retire. pic.twitter.com/Ju9sEYvavb
As Guardiola said upon signing him for Bayern Munich in 2014: “We need a player with his quality and vision. I know he’s 32 but that doesn’t matter in this position, where you need intelligent players, rather than the legs and stamina for the flanks.”
Just as Alonso improved teams and those he shared the pitch with, they also became significantly worse and less cohesive upon his departure; supporters of Real Sociedad, Liverpool and Real Madrid will all attest to that.
Gerrard said on Thursday in tribute: “I missed you every day from the moment you left the Reds.”
Come the summer, football will also have to start to miss him. But his influence on the position he made his own could be eternal.
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