Confirmation that Xabi Alonso is bringing the curtain down on his career were greeted, as one would expect, with an outpouring of praise and adulation for the 35-year-old. He’s one of the more likeable figures left in football, despite playing for some of the more reviled clubs.
Xabi Alonso will retire from football at the end of the season.
He will be missed. pic.twitter.com/eQZzjJ0qC7
— Football Vines (@FootballVines) January 18, 2017
Let’s be clear: only someone who has never seen him play would deny that Alonso has been one of the game’s leading midfielders for well over a decade. He was absolutely instrumental in the success of Liverpool, Real Madrid and latterly Bayern Munich (despite heading to Germany in his twilight years), lifting the Champions League twice along the way.
Neither a frequent goalscorer nor a prolific ball-winner – to the contrary, the Spaniard has previously said tackling is less a skill to be mastered than it is a “last resort” – Alonso was, in the earlier part of his career, largely kept out of the limelight by more eye-catching teammates.
Xabi Alonso: "Tackling is a [last] resort, and you will need it, but it isn't a quality to aspire to, a definition."
— Tony Barrett (@TonyBarrett) October 9, 2013
Playing alongside someone like Steven Gerrard, who chases down every lost cause with a lung-busting slide tackle, can have that effect, but Alonso has since taken on an almost mythical status in the game. Like contemporaries Paul Scholes and Andrea Pirlo, he’s been called underrated so often that he’s almost become slightly overrated as a result.
The Spaniard’s aversion to tackling, for example, is a strange admission from a man who clearly has an exemplary understanding of the modern game (indeed, a man we’re likely to see in the dugout wearing a tracksuit – or, knowing Alonso, a pair of jeans and a pullover – before long).
Having spent nearly his whole career playing for teams which dominate possession for most of the game, Alonso has overlooked those clubs with fewer resources, for whom winning the ball in the middle of the park is a genuine art form.
At Bayern Munich, Alonso was on the receiving end of a comprehensive defeat from a team, in Atletico, who looked to play without the ball, spending most of the match on the ropes before hitting back with a devastating right hook. Up against aggressive, mobile midfielders like Koke and Niguez, the former Liverpool man, incidentally, wasn’t nearly as effective (admittedly, this was after he lost a yard of pace).
Then there is the revisionism. Alonso has been a classy footballer ever since his debut, but his career wasn’t all plain sailing. A couple of years into his stay at Anfield, his form dropped to such an alarming extent that Rafa Benitez was prepared to let him go in order to accommodate Gareth Barry, a man with only a quarter of his talent (if we’re being generous).
Leaving Liverpool was one of the hardest decisions of my life, but after what happened with Barry I knew in my heart I had to tell Rafa that I wanted to go to Madrid when they came knocking at the door.
The consensus among Liverpool fans is that this was a mistake by Benitez, partially fuelled by his desire to shoe-horn another homegrown player into his predominantly foreign side, but Alonso would not have been chosen as the makeweight if he had been playing to the standard we expect.
While nobody who understands the game would question the importance of a disciplined deep-lying play-maker capable of orchestrating attacks with probing passes, there were also obvious physical limitations – and prolonged losses of form – which cannot be ignored. A great career? Definitely. An underrated one? Definitely not.
Does Liverpool’s latest talisman now earn more than Alonso?