Since signing from Fiorentina in summer 2016, Marcos Alonso has won the Premier League and an FA Cup with Chelsea. He’s been in the PFA Team of the Year and attracted attention from both Barcelona and Real Madrid. The Spaniard has also made a hugely impressive start to the 2018/19 season for Chelsea. Going forward, Marcos Alonso looks the complete full-back. But many are criticising him and labelling him as the Blues’ ‘weak link’ at the back.
Marcos Alonso: The Complete Full-Back?
Complete Full-Back or Defensive Liability?
Maurizio Sarri’s predecessor, Antonio Conte, deployed Alonso as a wing-back. He quickly became an important cog in Chelsea’s five-man defensive machine. But going into the new season many had doubts regarding Alonso and his defensive capabilities. Four games in and five-goal contributions down (one goal and four assists), he is still to answer many critics questions regarding his defending.
If this was the record of Marcelo at Real Madrid or David Alaba at Bayern Munich, there would be no such negativity. So what is it about the Marcos Alonso at Chelsea that doubters don’t like?
A Magic Wand of a Left Foot
As Gary Neville and Jamie Carragher have extensively debated, the role of a modern day full-back has changed, especially at a big club that will expect to control most games. Typical left-backs now play further up the pitch and in some cases play as wingers. Alonso is one of the best examples of this.
Alonso’s ability in the final third is as good as any other defender in the league. The ex-Bolton man is now almost unrecognisable from his first stint in England. He also has a knack of scoring big goals in big games. His two goals at the start of last season at Wembley against Spurs arguably kept Conte in his job for the season. This season already he won the penalty at Huddersfield to break the deadlock. Also, he scored the winning goal in a London derby against Arsenal and won the penalty at St James’ Park and, finally, grabbed another assist for Hazard against Bournemouth.
For a left-back to get these numbers going forward is quite astonishing and something no other defender can match. He is a constant threat for goals and his crossing has proved instrumental. With a striker like Alvaro Morata, so strong in the air, and Chelsea’s reliance on width (with most teams defending narrowly inside the 18-yard box), Alonso has delivered the perfect final cross on many occasions. Since joining he has also developed a free-kick technique that makes him deadly from the edge of the box and in a team of creative players, for him to take on set piece duty is a show of his ability standing over the dead ball.
A Wing-Back in a Back Four
Signed by Antonio Conte as a player to fit into his 3-4-3 formation, Alonso stunned the world in his first season. In the 2016/17 campaign, he became possibly the best left-wing-back in Europe and was a keystone in Chelsea’s title win. He helped to transform the team and provided everything needed to be a wing-back. Alonso was excellent cover for the three centre-backs; of which none had played in a five-man defence whereas Alonso had in Italy and at Sunderland, where he was once a loanee. He provided an option for Matic, Kante and Fabregas in the middle of the park. He managed to fill the gap on the left-wing left by Eden Hazard’s new number ten role. Finally, he was the player that showed how Conte could use players to fit his system and make it work in the English game.
In his second season, Alonso started to come under fire, playing in a Chelsea team that was disjointed and struggling to find form. Below-par performances led to criticism and his lack of pace was found out by speedy wingers. Alonso looked a shadow of the man playing less than a year before. Highlighted by a horror show against Barcelona in the Champions League semi-final, typically he almost saved that game with a free-kick. With Chelsea’s poor form, Alonso had become a place for the opposition to target. When Chelsea lost back-to-back games against Bournemouth and Watford (conceding seven goals in that time) it was obvious that there were problems. The champions had become a laughing stock and Alonso was the scapegoat for a terrible title defence.
Risk and Reward
Skip forward to this season’s game against Arsenal. Before Marcos Alonso scored the winner, his team had conceded two goals in ten minutes in a shocking display of defending. Alonso was flat-footed, slow, out of position and took up the wrong body position in allowing Henrikh Mkhitaryan to run past him.
There was far too much space in behind that wasn’t covered and he merely jogged back to stop the cross. This is not the defending of a title-winning left back, for sure. But in Sarri’s team, there is an element of risk that now excites. The Italian is prepared to allow his defenders to run forward and leave space, in the hope they impact the game in the final third. Alonso fits this description perfectly.
The worry for Chelsea will be when they play better teams; Manchester City and Liverpool are rich in attacking threat and pose a real question to Sarri and how he will set up against a potential title contender. If he risks playing a wing-back at full-back then Chelsea could come unstuck but they always carry the chance of a goal from an increasingly likely figure.
Marcelo of Real Madrid is a household name nowadays; a modern day great. But if you look deeper at the style of play, there are similarities. Marcelo is very much an attack-first defender, stretching the meaning of the word ‘defender’ at times. He is constantly seen running down the left wing, be it the World Cup or Champions League semi-finals. Nothing will stop him from going forward. He is very similar to Alonso in that he gives as much on the offensive as he does the other end.
In fact, it is statistically correct that Alonso contributes more in terms of goals and assists than the Madrid man. In the Premier League, any striker will tell you that it is no easy feat to score a goal, so the pressure it takes off a team when a defender can score ten a season should not be underrated. Compare this with Marcelo, who will give more in technical ability in the attacking areas. But yet there is no criticism of Marcelo, just an acceptance of his way of playing.
Although there is no reliance on Marcelo at Madrid to score the goals, he is seen as a creator from left-back. The effect he has on most games never goes unnoticed and he receives plaudits every week. Therefore, is there scope for Alonso to deserve a similar treatment from the English media?
In a league that promotes free-flowing football and attacking, Alonso is right up there. He also has the winning mentality and has been coached by a manager who is all about success and trophies. A Premier League title this season or another trophy would seriously silence critics. There is no way that a man like Maurizio Sarri, such an expert in his own system, would sacrifice a player like Alonso, not when he fits so well into this Chelsea set up.
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