Barcelona beat Real Madrid 1-0 at the Bernabeu on Thursday night in what has to be considered the most disjointed, ugly and disjointed Clasico in recent memory.
Even against the backdrop of a match that often oozes pettiness and cynicism, this was a truly abysmal edition of world football’s most famous rivalry. It featured wayward short passing, long hopeful balls and minimal cohesion between teammates.
The only goal came against the run of play after an Edouardo Camavinga error left for Barcelona. Franck Kessie’s shot was stopped by Thibaut Courtois, bounced off Eder Militao, then accidentally assisted en route by Nacho Fernandez. The only debate was which Real Madrid player should be credited with the own goal. It was that kind of night.
Amidst all this chaos, it’s saying something that arguably the most impressive player was Marcos Alonso, deployed at centre-back. It’s not the first time Alonso has featured there this season – in fact, he’s featured in midfield more often than he’s played at left-back. In a way, this challenge suited him better than in any previous game.
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Alonso is a curious footballer. He’s not even really a left-back because he lacks natural defensive qualities and is too easily dragged out of position when playing in a four-man defence. He is one of those players who looks much more comfortable at the back than at the back.
He became a truly impressive footballer in a Fiorentina side often playing 3-5-2 and was signed by Antonio Conte’s Chelsea as a specialist winger. He only got a first-team opportunity 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 to look more comfortable at the back than at the back. But perhaps he is the first footballer to clearly belong on the back wing, but who would consider aerial prowess his main quality. Wingmen aren’t usually involved in aerial battles – certainly not crucial.
And yet, Alonso made a name for himself as a blunderer specializing in long positions, a fullback-target, rather than an expert crosser or a reliable hard worker. It’s hard to think of a comparable footballer.
So how would Alonso fare in the Clasico against reigning Ballon d’Or Karim Benzema? Well, the answer depends on what part of the game you’re looking at.
In the opening period, Barcelona tried to play their usual type of football. They held a high defensive line, wanted to keep the ball for long periods and tried to impose themselves in the game. In this period, Alonso struggled.
In a positional sense, he was very insecure and his body shape was often wrong. Within the first 30 seconds, Benzema ran past Alonso, who followed him into a deeper position, despite the fact he could have seen Luka Modric running towards his area. Dani Carvajal played the ball to Modric, for what briefly seemed like a one-on-one. Modric fired wide – and, to be fair, the flag was still raised for offside. But that had to be Barcelona’s problem.
Alonso learned nothing from this. Here is an almost identical situation – Benzema positions himself on this side to drag Alonso up. Modric, who played very high throughout the first half, has the opportunity to run behind again. This time, Carvajal sends the ball into Benzema’s feet.
And here is an example of Alonso being dragged to the other side of the pitch, practically past fellow centre-back Jules Kounde, to stop Vinicius Junior. Here, he could argue that no one else was ready to exploit space and that Sergio Busquets was there to fill Alonso’s area if needed. However, this was the pattern of the first half: Alonso dragged almost at will by Real.
But the second half was played in a completely different way.
Barcelona, at 1-0, have parked the bus to a greater extent than in any Clasico for years, probably decades. Real Madrid dominated possession and Barca usually looked for long balls until centre-forward Ferran Torres was isolated.
The ball kept coming back to the visitors. And yet, throughout the second half, Real struggled to create a serious scoring chance.
And while it looked decidedly un-Barcelona, it suited Alonso just fine. The winger who specializes in aerial battles was, in the relatively new setting of centre-back, suddenly in his element. As Real Madrid threw hopeful crosses into the box, Alonso became Barcelona’s most formidable aerial shield and was always there to clear.
When playing centre-back 40 yards from his own goal, Alonso looked like a liability. When he played centre-back 10 yards from his own goal, he felt like a commanding veteran.
Things almost became a parody in the later stages. Here Carvajal scuffs a low cross into the box and Alonso’s attempted clearance was cut in the air. But that was fine – with the ball falling from the sky, gritty striker Alonso soared skyward again, off balance, to earn the lead and clear the danger.
The final action of the game was appropriate. In the seventh minute of stoppage time, a deep Real Madrid corner finds Aurélien Tchouameni at the far post. The man closest to him was Alonso, who leapt into the air, turned his back slightly and the ball deflected off his shoulder.
There was a brief delay while the referee checked that the ball hadn’t touched his arm. But Alonso was safe and Barcelona were home and dry.
Two key figures tell the story. Barcelona recorded 35% ball possession, their lowest since 2013-14. Likewise, Real Madrid failed to register a shot on target in a home game for the first time since Opta started analyzing them (2010). The first stat shows that the game suited Alonso. The second shows that he has done his job.
(Top photo: Florencia Tan Jun/Getty Images)