Are Spain a better side without Xabi Alonso? First and foremost, pondering this question is in no way a slant on Xabi Alonso’s ability. His record speaks for itself anyway: Champions League, double European Championships and World Cup winners medals make up just a segment of the honors he has picked up in a glittering career. He is a crucial player for Real Madrid and arguably one of the best passers of a ball the game has ever seen.
It is therefore understandable why the Basque-born midfielder has been key figure in the national side for so long. So when it was announced Alonso would miss the Confederations Cup to undergo summer surgery, the initial assumption is a player of his quality will be big loss. But that hasn’t necessarily been the case.
In Alonso’s absence, Spain have reverted to a 4-3-3 system. Against Uruguay, Nigeria and Italy, the central midfield consisted of Sergio Busquets as the holding player with Xavi and Andres Iniesta further advanced. Sound familiar?
The considerable Barcelona influence on the side worked wonders initially. Spain beat Uruguay 2-1 in their opener, but it was a score that flattered the Copa America winners, for La Roja ran riot throughout.
Playing without the typical holding midfield duo of Alonso and Busquets, we saw a Spain side off the leash. The midfield was fluid and incisive. Andres Iniesta – having been used primarily in a wider position for the national team – operated centrally, and he had an even bigger influence on proceedings in the company of his two Barcelona teammates. The midfield, as a whole, worked marvelously.
This tweak in the system also opened up another attacking slot in the starting XI. A heightened threat in the final third in itself gave Spain an added attacking dimension, with Cesc Fabregas and Pedro drifting off the flanks and linking up with Iniesta and Xavi to great fruition.
It is of course no coincidence that the Spanish midfield showcased this apparently telepathic understanding. These players have featured together regularly for La Blaugrana and completely at ease with each other’s game. Indeed, there are those who feel that Spain should utilize this unique situation even more, for they can replicate the core of one of the greatest club sides of all time. Alonso, you could argue, upsets this Barcelona-biased dynamic.
Especially when, for a team who dominate possession so convincingly, there have been questions about whether a second holding midfield player is really imperative. The team defend primarily through possession and keeping the ball away from the opposition. Whilst Alonso is of course capable of this and excellent at managing the game from deep, Busquets does a very similar role and possibly has an edge on the Madrid man defensively. It begs the question as to whether Alonso’s continued inclusion alongside Busquests represents a defensive overcompensation?
Not so, according to the manager. Vincent Del Bosque has been persistent in noting the significance of both Alonso and Busquets operating in tandem. And he is justified in doing so. It is, after all, a system that has brought Spain a wealth of success, with the World Cup win in 2010 and the European Championships triumph in 2012 both attained through its utilization.
The 4-2-3-1 set-up has enabled La Roja to strangle games through relentless possession football; wearing down the opposition and exploiting their defects, which has been their prominent attacking ploy. Defensively too, it has proven to be a revelation, with the Spanish side famously conceding just once in each of the aforementioned tournaments. That old adage “if you have the ball, the opposition can’t score” has never been more true when than when it comes to the Spanish.
Alonso has obviously been a key figure during this golden period, and Del Bosque may well choose to revert to his tried and tested set-up once the Real Madrid maestro is fit again. If he does, Alonso could still maintain a significant role to play. In games like the recent semi-final against Italy, in which the opposition flooded the midfield and swamped Xavi and Iniesta, Alonso’s ability to sit deep and ping his trademark long passes into wide areas would have given Spain a useful attacking outlet.
But it must be said, the former Liverpool man’s first team berth is looking increasingly insecure. The 4-3-3 system has been received well by the Spanish media and supporters. Plus, the emergence of Javi Martinez as an excellent holding midfielder will give the Spanish manager even more to ponder. The Bayern Munich man has made an emphatic case for a starting berth with his performances this season and will have his eyes on the slots currently accommodated by Alonso and Busquets.
It would be a remarkable achievement for the Spanish to lift four major trophies from four attempts, but looking at the renewed vibrancy the team has showcased at times in this tournament, they will once again prove tough to beat next year.
To become the first European team to lift the trophy in America would represent the biggest achievement of all for this remarkable side. And as the modern game requires teams to evolve and develop, so too must the Spanish. With that in mind, Del Bosque has landed on a system – perhaps born out of necessity – in this Confederations Cup that he must seriously consider ahead of next summers finals. It could well be the spark for another glorious summer, albeit at the expense of a very fine player indeed.
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