The classic scene. A series of movements buried deep in the subconscious of a sporting culture. The quarterback accepts the ball and drops back, surveying the developing picture with an expert understanding. He is always aware of the oncoming pressure of the defence, peripheral vision honed to a complex radar by years of practice; experience. He goes through his development, almost instantaneously assessing the merits of each individual runner; weighing the odds of success, of failure. Then the decision, the instinctive technique to send the ball 40 yards through the air to find his man with devastating accuracy. They score. A wild celebration from the receiver, a briefly indulgent fist-clench from the passer. He is already focussing on the next passage of play. A scene so simple in appearance, yet years in the making. But this is not a gridiron touchdown on a sunny Texas afternoon. We are in Madrid, the ball is round and the quarterback is Xabi Alonso.
The comparison has been made before between an American Football quarterback and an association football (’soccer’ would push the Americanism a step further than I’m comfortable with) central midfielder. I recall a few years ago reading an article suggesting Michael Carrick’s influence in the Spurs team of the time was similarly worthy of the allusion. I would suggest however, with apologies to Mr. Carrick, that Alonso is the archetypal midfield ‘quarterback’. I mentioned the Madrid playmaker briefly in my piece last week, and those early days at Liverpool are a good place to begin charting the player’s progression.
Having caught the attention of the Madrid hierarchy in his Real Sociedad days, Alonso instead elected to join Rafael Benitez on Merseyside. In the first couple of years there, Alonso rose to prominence through his tremendous range of passing. It was his long-passing in particular however, which brought him the most attention. Benitez utilised Alonso as a deep-lying playmaker, with instructions to attack the opposition with direct passes. Alonso would drop deep to collect the ball from his centre-backs and then turn and survey the field. From here he might play a safe short pass or, if a suitable run was found, launch a searching pass to the wing or beyond the defence to find a runner. His midfield partner, Steven Gerrard, provided the dynamic ball-carrying and relentless energy while Alonso cut a more disciplined, calculating figure. His movement focussed on clever positioning to find pockets of space to receive the ball and be able to turn. The very basics of the midfield position you might say, but basics which were often overlooked by players in the hustle and bustle of English football. It was in this role that Alonso made his name as a supreme playmaker, the ‘metronome’ as Jose Mourinho dubbed him.
He was the man through whom all of the team’s build-up play inevitably travelled, but he had his weaknesses. Alonso was, at the time, something of a luxury player. He was a joy to watch with the ball at his feet but could be a liability when called upon to protect his defence, alongside the often positionally-challenged Gerrard. This was perhaps most evident in the Champions League Final of 2005 when, with Liverpool 3-0 down at half-time to AC Milan, Dietmar Hamann was brought on to partner Alonso in midfield and provide the much-needed stability and protection. This need to partner a playmaker in midfield with a destroyer has become a prominent practice in modern football. Indeed Benitez soon devised a new system for his Liverpool side, purchasing Javier Mascherano to partner Alonso and thus give him the freedom to create without the burden of such heavy defensive responsibilities.
Alonso has consistently matured and developed through the last few seasons, becoming a European Championship and World Cup winner with Spain while moving to Madrid to become the fulcrum of the team in this latest era. The quarterback comparison has continued to hold true, as Alonso’s deep-lying style has remained the most evident constant of his career. It is here that he differs from his fellow national-team midfielders, Xavi and Andres Iniesta. The three Spaniards are among the elite passing players in world football but the latter two prefer to operate in positions more advanced to Alonso’s traditional stomping grounds. While the Barcelona duo are famed for their delicate, weighted final-third through-balls, Alonso’s natural positioning necessitates a different approach to playmaking; hence the quarterback similarities.
Due to his role as a transition player, responsible for linking defence to attack, Alonso automatically becomes central to his team’s success. For the team to be effective and perform as intended, he must be efficient in his distribution and consistent in his decision-making. In American Football, the quarterback is the undoubted leader and hub of the team’s offence. He is responsible for moving the team forward with his passing, which must be of enormous quality, and he must also be an exceptional decision maker in order to prevent turning the ball over to the opposition. This description could almost be the very definition of Alonso’s style. He is the type of player who could continue to play at the highest level for many years, his game relying so much on what happens inside his head and much less on athleticism. Alonso’s reading of the game, positioning and decision-making will all continue to develop with every passing season. The phrase ‘franchise quarterback’ is used extensively in the NFL. It refers to a player around whom a team can be built for many years to come and they are by far the most sought after players in the sport. Happily for Madrid, the similarities just never end.