The Next Alonso?

(Getty)

(Getty)

… but it remains interesting that Alonso’s possible departure worries the madridista press far more than the identity of the next coach.

They have reason to be worried too, but it was equally interesting to see who the possible ‘clone’ might be – from the list of players that are allegedly on Pérez’ shopping-list. And even before we take a look, it goes without saying that there is no such thing as a clone of Alonso. Central midfielders may fulfil a narrowly defined set of functions, and may be broadly of similar profile, but they are really like snowflakes. No two are ever the same. It is what makes the position so interesting, and is the reason why Jaunma Lillo’s quote is one of the greatest of all time, in footballing terms; “Dime con qué mediocentro andas y te diré qué equipo eres“. (Tell me who your central midfielder is, and I’ll tell you what sort of team you are). This is one of the wisest things ever said in football, because it is absolutely spot-on. It’s not true of any other position. I’d stake my flimsy reputation on saying that no great side has ever lacked a special player in the central midfield position. Many great sides, on the other hand, have lacked a great keeper, a great centre-back, etc. But a great central midfielder? It is simply unthinkable.

(Getty)

(Getty)

Marca put Borussia Dortmund’s Ilkay Gündogan at the top of the list. He’s good, but he lacks the metronomic qualities that Alonso possesses. I’m no expert on the German scene, but Gündogan is no Alonso clone, from where I’m sitting. The point about Alonso is surely this – that while all around him is dynamism and movement, he is the axle that sustains the wheel. If the wheel was the greatest invention, the axle takes the Oscar for best supporting role. Not only that, but like Xavi Hernandez, a similar-but-different player, Alonso always makes the right decisions. Play it long, or play it simple and short? It sounds like a dumb enough set of options on which to base your career – but it turns out to be the most difficult thing in football. And when players have this quality, they are able to marcar tiempos (determine the pace of play) as the Spanish football savants insist.

(Getty)

(Getty)

Returning to Marca‘s list, and I need more excuses to talk about Real Sociedad, the second on the list was Ruben Pardo, Sociedad’s 20-year-old midfielder whom Madrid attempted to sign almost two years back for €10 million, before he had even made his first-tem debut. Third was Sevilla’s Geoffrey Kondogbia, then PSG’s Marco Verratti. Kondogbia looks good, but lacks Alonso’s imagination. Verratti could be the business, but he looks to me to be a player who will end up in the hole, in the media puntaposition. He also lacks the defensive qualities that Alonso has learned over the years. Ruben Pardo is a potential genius, but he’s not really the artifice of this amazing new Real Sociedad side, who have now only lost once in 20 games – and that was 4-3 in the Bernabéu.

(Getty)

(Getty)

The real gem, and the one that Marca bizarrely failed to mention, is Asier Illarramendi. Permit me to take a deep breath, because in ten years of writing this column I’ve tried very hard to not make over-the-top statements (they tend to come back and haunt you, down the line), but if there is something approaching an Alonso clone, or to push the envelope further, a potentially better player still, then this is the guy. I’ve been watching Sociedad for over 20 years now, and Illarramendi (‘Pea mountain’ in Basque) is the best thing I’ve seen since Alonso. The whispers are that Barcelona have already made their move, because they see him as a better Xavi-clone than Thiago. Xavi or Xabi? Only time (and euros) will tell.

There are parallels. Like Alonso, Illarramendi is quiet and discreet, and was slightly tubby in his youth. In footballing terms, he has started at the opposite end of the central midfielder’s continuum to Alonso, in that his basic instincts are defensive and his ball-distribution is what you notice next. With Alonso, as with Pardo, it was the other way around. But Illarramendi, still only 23, perfectly epitomises the second most wonderful quote from Spanish football, from Jorge Valdano. “Hay jugadores quien, si les dejas en un bosque sin brujula, siempre saldrán. La mayoria se perderá“. (There are players who, if you leave them in a forest without a compass, they’ll always find their way out. Most players will get lost.) It’s the perfect description of the good central midfielder. If you play on the wing, there is always time and space, and one guy to worry about. But the central midfielder is always surrounded by trees. He has to constantly find space, he has to find a way out. Only a certain type of player fits this mould, and he rarely needs pace, or even a great physique. They can be tubby but mightily effective. Think of Jan Molby in his later years.

Read Clones from Pea Mountain by Phil Ball

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