Barcelona beat Real Madrid 1-0 at the Bernabeu on Thursday night in what has to be considered the most outrageous, ugly, disjointed El Clásico in recent memory.
Even in the context of a match that often degenerates into banality and cynicism, this was a truly horrific version of one of the most iconic rivalries in world football. You were marked by short, wayward passes, long, hopeful balls, and less cohesion among your teammates.
The only goal came against the run of play after a foul by Barcelona’s Eduardo Camavinga. Frank Kessie’s shot was saved by Thibaut Courtois, bounced off Eder Militao, then Nacho Fernandez accidentally helped it into its path. The only controversy was over which Real Madrid player should be credited with an own goal. It was that kind of evening.
Amidst all the chaos, something says arguably his most impressive player is Marcos Alonso, who has been used in the centre-back position. It’s not the first time Alonso has appeared there this season – in fact, he’s played more in the middle than left-back. Somehow, this challenge suited him better than any previous match.
Explanation: Why are left-footed defenders so in demand?
Alonso is an inquisitive footballer. He’s not really a left-back because he lacks natural defensive qualities and gets pulled out of position very easily when playing in a four-man defense. He’s one of those players who seems more comfortable at full-back than at full-back.
He developed into a really impressive footballer in a Fiorentina side who often played 3-5-2 and was signed by Antonio Conte’s Chelsea as a specialist wing-back. He only got a chance in the first team when Conte decided to switch from 4-3-3 to 3-4-3, a move that essentially won Chelsea the 2016-17 Premier League title.
Alonso is not the first footballer who seems more comfortable at full-back than full-back. But he may be the first footballer who clearly qualifies as a right-back and yet will count his aerial prowess as his main strength. Wings generally do not participate in air battles – certainly not decisive battles.
However, Alonso has made a name for himself as an expert long-range fouler, or wing-back target man, rather than an expert passing player or reliable hard worker. It is difficult to think of any similar football player.
How will Alonso perform in El Clasico, in the face of Golden Ball holder Karim Benzema? Well, the answer depends on which part of the game you’re watching.
In the opening period, Barcelona tried to play football of the usual kind. They kept a high defensive line, wanted to hold on to the ball for long periods of time and tried to force themselves into the game. In this period, Alonso struggled.
Topically, he was very uncertain and the shape of his body was often wrong. Within the first 30 seconds, Benzema sprinted across the front of Alonso, who tracked him down to a deeper position, despite the fact he could see Luka Modric running forward in his own area. Dani Carvajal played the ball to Modric, for what briefly appeared to be a one-on-one. Modric kicked the ball wide – and in fairness, it was flagged for offside anyway. But this was destined to be Barcelona’s problem.
Alonso didn’t learn from it. Here’s an almost identical situation – Benzema positioned himself on this side to drag Alonso forward. Modric, who played brilliantly during the first half, once again has the possibility of a running back. This time, Carvajal plays the ball into Benzema’s feet.
Here’s an example of Alonso being dragged towards the other side of the pitch, practically in front of fellow centre-back Jules Conde, to shut down Vinicius Jr. Here, he could argue that no one else was willing to exploit the space and Sergio Busquets was there to fill in Alonso’s area if needed. However, that was the pattern in the first half: Alonso being dragged around at will by Real Madrid.
But the second half played out in a completely different way.
Barcelona, leading 1-0, has stopped the bus to a greater extent than any Clasico for years, maybe decades. Real Madrid dominated the ball and Barcelona generally looked for long balls until Ferran Torres, the centre-forward, who was isolated.
The ball kept returning to the visitors. However, throughout the second half, Real struggled to create a serious goal-scoring opportunity.
And while this certainly sounded non-Barcelona, it was a perfect fit for Alonso. The aerial wing-back was suddenly, in a relatively new position of centre-back, in his element. When Real Madrid fired hopeful passes into the penalty area, Alonso became Barcelona’s strongest aerial shield and was always there to keep them out.
When the centre-back played 40 yards from his own goal, Alonso appeared to be a hindrance. When he played centre-back 10 yards from his own goal, he felt like a seasoned captain.
Things almost became parody in the closing stages. Here, Carvajal crossed low into the box and Alonso’s clearance attempt was cut down badly in the air. But that was fine – as the ball fell from the sky, fearless stopper Alonso soared back into the sky, off balance, to win the header and clear the hazard.
The final action of the game was apt. In the seventh minute of stoppage time, Real Madrid’s deep corner kick found Aurelien Chouamini in the far corner. The closest man to him was Alonso, who jumped into the air with his back slightly turned, and the ball deflected away from his shoulder.
There was a short delay while the referee was checking the ball and it did not hit his arm. But Alonso was safe and Barcelona was home and dry.
Two key figures tell the story. Barcelona has recorded 35 percent possession, the lowest of any game since 2013-14. Likewise, Real Madrid failed to score a shot on goal in a home match for the first time since Opta began analyzing it (2010). The first statistic that shows the match suits Alonso. The second shows that he did his job.
(Top photo: Florencia Tan Jun/Getty Images)
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