Alonso return chance to weigh Ancelotti's vision for Real

Posted by Rob Train

If ever there was a knight in shining armor on the horizon for Carlo Ancelotti's Real Madrid, it is Xabier Alonso Olano.

A sort of Spanish knight of the realm, the First Marquis del Bosque, paid possibly the highest tribute a player in the modern game can hope for when he said that in the absence of the hugely experienced midfielder, Spain would have to find a way to play that would cover for his absence.

"This side has been built, both in defence and attack, around Alonso's partnership with [Sergio] Busquets, for the structure and organization that it brings to the team. We'll have to find an alternative," said the World Cup-winning coach going into the Confederations Cup in Brazil, when Alonso was still recovering from surgery to correct a hip problem.

-Alonso fitness boost for Madrid
-Madrid papers criticize Clasico referee

Jose Mourinho is not a manager to mince words if he doesn't value a player's contribution to his team, but at the business end of last season his actions spoke even louder: Alonso was wrapped in cotton wool and wheeled out for the important clashes while being spared the day-to-day work of routine Liga duty.

Indeed, manager Carlo Ancelotti said ahead of Saturday's Clasico that the 31-year-old remains key to his vision for Real Madrid: "He is a very important player for us and the way that we want to play." Although the Italian was keen to note that Asier Illarramendi had played well when called upon, Alonso remains the missing piece of the puzzle the Real coach has been trying to solve since the No. 14 broke a bone in his foot in August, when he was approaching full fitness again.

And Ancelotti's quest for the right formation while shorn of the bearded Basque has not been easy. Only two players have played every minute of every game so far this season in the league: Cristiano Ronaldo and goalkeeper Diego Lopez. In the midfield area Alonso would normally patrol, Ancelotti has tried four different pairings with what he has available, but has failed to settle on anything to replace the influence of the Spain international.

The most habitual pairing across all competitions has been Luka Modric and Sami Khedira, who have started together on five occasions. Ancelotti has also experimented with a 4-3-3 on occasion, with Modric operating on the left.

In the Clasico, he attempted a fifth solution, drafting Sergio Ramos into the engine room between Khedira and Modric. This was a bit of a gamble in such a high-profile match, but not entirely without basis: Last season Ramos was Real's most accurate distributor of the ball, with a pass completion rate of 84.6 percent and 6.5 long balls per match that successfully found a teammate.

Alonso's statistics were very similar: 83 percent pass completion (1,528 out of 1,840) and 6.3 accurate long balls per game (177 of 254).

Ramos is a player with more versatility than given credit for, very occasionally moved up into midfield or even center-forward during in-game tactical tinkering under the previously Unhappy One. Ancelotti's idea was to use Ramos as a substitute for the range and vision of Alonso. It didn't quite pan out, but finally the real thing is ready to strap on his boots in anger. Ancelotti made it perfectly clear when he arrived at Real that Alonso is the cog that would make Real's machinery purr like a sports car.

"The plan is very clear; to win playing fantastic football,” the Real coach said last week. “At the moment we are winning, but our play is not so good. More recently we have improved, because we have paid attention to recovering the ball, which is now done more quickly.”

What Real has lacked is distribution from the back and a little bite in the tackle in the last line of midfield. Alonso is an artist when it comes to the former, and far keener, and more able, to get stuck in than Modric, whose talents really lie farther up the field in the playmaker role vacated by Mesut Ozil.

The return of Alonso to action this week -- perhaps against Seville on Wednesday night -- is the tonic Real needs after disjointed performances so far this season. There have been flashes of what the side is capable of but little in the way of consistency. Alonso, although an old head now resting firmly on old shoulders, is still arguably the best in his particular role in Europe, as will become even more apparent if his contract situation -- his current deal expires in June -- is not given priority at board level fairly soon.

There is no shortage of clubs that would relish the opportunity to add the Basque to their ranks. His absence from the Real Madrid starting lineup has essentially made his stock rise even higher.

For Ancelotti, Alonso's availability presents the chance to finally impose his vision on his team. At the same time, of course, this adds an extra level of pressure on the Italian, given the importance he has attached to Alonso while he hasn't been able to add his name to the team sheet.

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