It is wintertime and snow gently begins to fall on Säbener Strasse, the affluent tree-lined residential boulevard that runs south from Munich’s centre. On one side, the low-rise chalet homes of middle-class families sit quietly, as elegantly dressed men stroll by during their morning walks accompanied by their elegantly dressed partners. Over the road is the training complex of the city’s most famous football club. Above a glass-plated front of clinical German design, a sign reads with awesome confidence: “FC Bayern”.
“I’m over here, mate,” Xabi Alonso calls, poking his head out from behind the wall of an access point, the use of the word “mate” a reminder that five years living on Merseyside can have a long-lasting influence on a foreign player’s vocabulary.
Alonso left Liverpool in 2009, when the running of the club could not have offered more of a contrast to the situation at Bayern now. A league finish of second the season before represented Liverpool’s best performance since 1990 and yet the club was lobotomized – run by a pair of feuding owners who were separated from Merseyside by an entire ocean and several time zones – 18 months away from the edge of financial administration and potentially, had it not been for the supporters, complete collapse.
Watching Alonso train makes you question why Rafael Benítez deemed it appropriate to try to sell him in the first place. Alonso was close to leaving in 2008 when the manager made it clear that he wanted his sale to fund the signing of Gareth Barry from Aston Villa, and although Alonso remained for another 12 months, he concedes “something changed” in their relationship at that moment.
Alonso was 26-years-old then and he is 34 now. He remains the player his team-mates look for, the one who never hides, the manager’s coach on the pitch: a description once used by Benítez, in fact.
He starts in almost every game for one of Europe’s greatest teams, believing this is only possible because of the levels he meets in training sessions, where “the quest to prove myself remains day after day after day”. He emphasises the point by punching his right fist into the left palm, an action repeated several times during the course of an interview where he speaks eloquently, wisely and frequently with passion.
Alonso is the only player in football history to have experienced the management of those considered as the great four modern European coaches: Benítez, José Mourinho, Carlo Ancelotti and Pep Guardiola. Each one of them has admitted that success follows them because they find a way to govern the midfield, the area where Alonso plays. He is far too modest to acknowledge that his presence and brain have been a crucial influence in all of the teams he has performed in.
“If you win the midfield, you probably win the game,” he confesses. “But that doesn’t mean the players in the midfield are the ones alone who determine that, because now we have strikers who drop into midfield and defenders who move up into the midfield. It is the area you must dominate. If you have control of the midfield, you have control of the game and you have more chances to win.”
Though reliably tasked with influencing the deepest midfield position, Alonso explains that his brief at each club has been slightly different. At Liverpool, Benítez wanted him to feed Steven Gerrard; at Real Madrid the target – Cristiano Ronaldo – was slightly further away, meaning longer passes. At Bayern, where the game is shorter, Guardiola has called Alonso a “funnel”.
Alonso, however, has not just acted as a comfort blanket for others throughout his career. He has scored some outrageous goals. At Liverpool, two were delivered from the halfway line: at Luton Town’s Kenilworth Road, then against Newcastle United at Anfield. These were not his only attempts.
“Yes, yes, yes, but where is the risk in that?” he asks quickly. “There is no risk. If the shot does not result in a goal, it does not matter, because nobody expects me to score. In these situations, only the goalkeeper looks stupid. I don’t try to do things that might make me look stupid, because the risk is there. How many times have you seen me run into the box with the ball, dribbling past players? It’s uncommon because it’s not my game; it’s not my thing.
“For my game to be better, I need to be surrounded by better players than me. My game is not to have one great action. My game is to be consistent throughout: to bring the ball in the best and quickest possible way for the best players to make the last action. I know what my strengths and weaknesses are on the pitch. My duty is to be risk averse.”
There was a time in English football when ‘midfield’ and ‘battle’ equated to hard tackling and, more often than not, outright intimidation. Alonso arrived at Liverpool as a floppy-haired 23-year-old with a different idea of what aggression really constitutes. “I have always said there are different types of aggression,” he explains. “You can tackle aggressively but you can also pass aggressively, although I prefer to use the word ‘authority’ here.”
Alonso views passing as a creative art – proactive – compared to tackling as destructive and therefore reactive. He does not see tackling as a quality at all and when he has spoken about this in the past, his view has been met by criticism, particularly from English defenders. “I stick with my opinion. I know it is viewed differently in Britain. It’s not the action [of tackling]. It’s the idea: the cause and the consequence.
“I love to tackle. But if I could avoid it, I think I have done better in my job. If I tackle, sliding across the floor, it means that I – or someone else – have been caught out of position at the start of the move and that drives me crazy because team shape and balance is crucial. At Bayern, this is what we practise all of the time: ‘shape, shape, shape’. If you spend too much time on the ground, it means your positioning is not so good.
“Stevie’s [Gerrard] tackling? OK, of course, I love it. They are spectacular and the crowd gets so excited. But for me, I get excited when he receives the ball and plays the last pass before a goal. That makes me smile the most. This is his greatest strength. Seeing the pass, seeing what other players do not see.”
Alonso’s favourite players played in the same position that he would later make his own. There was Real Madrid’s Argentine, Fernando Redondo, Pep Guardiola from Barcelona, as well as the Portuguese midfield duo at Real Sociedad, Carlos Xavier and Oceano. His own dreams began and ended at his hometown club [Real Sociedad], though he did not join them until he was 17.
“I did not think I would become a footballer,” he says. “I led a normal life until I was 16. Normal school. Normal upbringing. I was fortunate that I did not have any distractions from being a young person, because football can take over every-thing. In the long term, I think this has helped my outlook on life.
“Within a year, I had made my debut for the first team at Sociedad. Everything happened so fast. The second year, I went on loan to Eibar and then came back. John Toshack helped make me an important player. I had no time to think, What if this happens? What if that happens? My football career just happened. Living without the anxieties of wondering about the future all the time helped me.”
Toshack could not recall a youth-team player having such an impact at any of his previous clubs. “Everyone seemed to play better when he was on the pitch,” Toshack said after Alonso had told his manager that he “was not afraid of responsibility”, a moment which led to him being awarded the captaincy in a final attempt to change the atmosphere and avoid relegation. Sociedad were bottom of the league when Toshack made the decision in January 2001, and when the season was over, they had survived. “We knew we had a special player on our hands,” Toshack said.
Alonso had been close to joining Real Madrid, where he would have replaced David Beckham in the centre of midfield, but Madrid had doubts about his pace and mobility. “It dragged on and on and on and on with Madrid. It was exasperating. Then Liverpool approached with a very serious interest. Madrid had taken a couple of months to reach the same point in negotiation that Liverpool reached in a couple of days. I was like, ‘Come on, it’s either going to happen or it is not – decision time.’ I decided that if Liverpool wanted me so much, I preferred to go there. I saw Liverpool as a great chance, a top club.”
Alonso made his Liverpool debut against Bolton Wanderers in a game where Sami Hyypia broke his nose and Rafael Benítez called Sam Allardyce’s side a “basketball team”.
“We lost and I walked off the pitch, thinking, I’m going to have to learn really quickly about English football. It was wild: long ball, second ball, big physical players – Kevin Nolan, Kevin Davies up front; Allardyce chewing gum and shouting orders from his technical area. The crowd was noisy but I could still hear Allardyce. When Bolton won a free kick, the army from the defence moved forward and the ground began to shake.”
Alonso says the spine of Liverpool’s 2005 Champions League-winning side was already there by the time he arrived. He equalised to make it 3–3 in the final against Milan by scoring the rebound, having seen his initial penalty saved.
“Carra [Jamie Carragher], Stevie, Sami and Didi [Hamman] were all huge influences on everyone else. All different characters, strong personalities. When each one of them spoke, I listened. They helped me improve as a player and as a person, and when I went back to Spain to play for the national team I felt a lot stronger through the experiences shared with them.”
“I liked Carra the most,” he continues. “He is the biggest Scouser in the world. We got on well from day one. I think he realised that I loved football and he loves football too. We would watch games together and talk about it every day. I think he respected that I would enter arguments with him. He was always very loud; you could hear his voice above everyone else’s. I would say, ‘Carra, shut the f**k up, you have no idea!’ He liked all of that: the confrontation.”
Alonso believes winning the title in 2009 would have been more satisfying than the Champions League, because “to win the league you need to have everything. These were my happiest times at Liverpool: Pepe [Reina] to [Daniel] Agger, Agger to me, me to Stevie and Stevie to [Fernando] Torres. Sometimes it would take less than 10 seconds. The spine in that team was the best I’ve played in. You also have Carra and [Javier] Mascherano in the side – top-class players. There was skill, steel and speed; it was very competitive, very intense. Very, very determined and committed.
“This side did not win anything together but we felt we could win everything. We had a few stupid draws at home and in the end that’s why we did not win the league. We always had that feeling, that belief and confidence. Nobody scared us. We went to the Bernabéu and won. We went to Old Trafford and won. We went to Stamford Bridge and won: big games, big occasions that define seasons. It frustrates me so, so much. In 2005, we won the Champions League with a not-so-good team. In 2007, we lost the Champions League final with a better team and a more convincing performance. In 2009, we played the best football and lost the least amount of games but still did not win the league. That is the beauty of football, I guess. It is not a straight line.”
The highs, indeed, may have been exhilarating but the lows were equally excruciating. While Alonso was helping Spain win the European Championship in 2008, he was also coming to terms with the fact that Rafael Benítez was trying to sell him against his wishes. As Spain’s open-top bus crept through the centre of Madrid amidst the celebrations, there was a niggling thought at the back of his mind that his time on Merseyside could possibly arrive at a sudden and disappointing end.
Benítez had believed that Alonso could be as influential to his Liverpool side as Kenny Dalglish was to Bob Paisley’s. Yet by March 2008, the cracks in the relationship between Alonso and Benítez started to show. Alonso had missed the second leg of a Champions League last-16 tie against Internazionale at the San Siro to be with his wife as she gave birth to their son. Benítez, though, had missed his own father’s funeral because of Liverpool’s commitments at the 2005 Club World Championship in Japan and Alonso’s decision came at a time when his form had dipped. At the end of the season, Benítez made a controversial decision.
“Rafa came to me and was very clear. He said, ‘Xabi, we need the money to sign other players that I want’. In order to make that money, my name was the first on the list to be sold. I said, ‘OK, Rafa, no problem. I am a professional. I understand that’. There was interest from Juventus. There was interest from Arsenal. But the clubs could not agree terms. I was ready to leave, because the manager wanted me to leave. It did not happen, though. So the next year, the situation was different. I went to Rafa: ‘OK, a year ago you wanted me to leave and I accepted it. Now I want to leave . …’ In the end, there was an agreement but it was not easy because he wanted me to stay by that point.”
Alonso was arguably Liverpool’s most popular foreign player. In a pre-season friendly against Lazio, when rumours were circulating about Alonso being sold to finance Gareth Barry’s move to Liverpool, the roar from the terraces was deafening when Alonso’s name was read out. “You can shove your Gareth Barry up your arse,” the Kop chorused. Jan Molby, the Danish midfielder who had starred in Liverpool’s greatest teams and someone Alonso had been compared to due to passing range, spoke out about the possible move, stating it would be Benítez’s worst decision since taking charge. Though Alonso remained, the reality is, had Arsenal or Juventus matched Liverpool’s £18m asking price, he would have departed sooner than he did.
He uses the word “professional” when describing his connection with Benítez thereafter, insisting that he did not harbour a grudge, “because I’m not that type of character”. I suggest to him that it could not have been nice – as it would not be in any working environment – to discover your boss does not rate you as highly as previously believed.
“I was surprised,” Alonso admits. “I was disappointed too, because I was very happy in Liverpool. I could walk down the street and people would beep their car horns and wave. None of this would matter to Rafa, of course, but why should it? He was the manager. He has his way of doing things.”
Alonso is smart enough to recognise that both he and Benítez remain popular on Merseyside. Yet judging by the way he speaks, it seems inescapable that Benítez instilled a sense of resentment that made Alonso’s departure inevitable. “Yes, I can admit that my relationship with Rafa wasn’t as good as it had been in the first year,” he says. “But I didn’t ask to leave because of that. I had been five years at Liverpool. I had the feeling it was the right thing to do.
“Moving from Liverpool to Madrid was the most difficult step to make in terms of the decision. But I felt that I had new things to learn, new challenges to take. The only thing I regret is not winning the Premier League with Liverpool. I’ll never know how that feels and experience the reaction of the city, as I did after Istanbul. It hurts because I know the people want the league title more than anything.”
Alonso talks like a manager and it is imaginable that one day he will follow that path. Having worked under Benítez, Mourinho, Ancelotti and Guardiola, he must have so much to pass on.
“People ask me all the time: what links these four guys? It sounds simplistic but, fundamentally, they are all leaders,” he says. “They are the ones who, at their best, know how to take the pressure and worries away from the players.”
For the time being, only playing motivates him. “I know these are my last years and because of that I want the success even more. I want to be productive. I don’t look back at what I’ve done in the past or how I’ve got here. I only look forward and at ways of maintaining my levels.
“I am committed at Bayern until 2017. I want to win the Bundesliga again. I want to win the cup. I want to win the Champions League for a third different club. I want to win everything there is to win. And maybe then I will stop.”https://www.theguardian.com/football/2016/sep/02/xabi-alonso-i-want-to-win-everything-there-is-to-win-with-bayern-munich-liverpool?CMP=share_btn_tw