Sports

Marcos Alonso and the Genius of Thomas Tuchel

Things got so bad, at one point, that even Marcos Alonso’s father was telling him to go. His fallout with his coach at Chelsea, Frank Lampard, had been spectacular and it had been total. Alonso had been substituted at halftime during a game at West Bromwich Albion, but instead of dutifully filing out to support his teammates, he had instead skulked off to wait on the team bus, stewing at the injustice of it all.

When Lampard found out, he was furious. First, he rebuked Alonso for his disloyalty, his petulance, in front of his teammates, a public shaming that often functions as soccer’s nuclear option, and then he ostracized him entirely from his team. For four months, Alonso did not play so much as a minute of soccer.

His father — also Marcos Alonso — had been a professional, too, playing for Atlético Madrid and Barcelona. His grandfather — you can probably guess his name — spent eight years at Real Madrid. Both, Alonso’s father told him, would have been tempted to “tell the manager where to go,” and then demand the club’s owner allow them to leave.

It was not the first time that Alonso’s Chelsea career seemed to be stalling. He had thrived under Antonio Conte — the coach who signed him, for $32 million, in 2016 — for two seasons, and started well under his replacement, Maurizio Sarri. But then, as the club’s form dipped, by his own admission, so did Alonso’s. Sarri had asked him for “something different,” and he had found it hard to adapt. After a spell struggling with injury, he found it hard to regain his place in the team.

Alonso had persevered through that, though, and he determined to ignore his father’s advice and do the same after the collapse of his relationship with Lampard. It paid off: In January, Lampard was fired. Alonso was restored to the substitutes’ bench for Thomas Tuchel’s first game as his successor. He returned to the field a few days later, scoring Chelsea’s second goal in a win against Burnley.

It was only at the start of the current season, though, that he has re-emerged as a regular presence. Ben Chilwell, his rival for the left-sided role in Tuchel’s team, returned late from his summer exertions with England; it is only in the last week or so that he has been considered fit enough for selection.

Tuchel has figured out that Alonso is not a left back, nor is he a left wing. As a left wing-back, though, with cover behind him and options ahead, he is perfect.Credit…Hannah Mckay/Reuters

A year or so after it seemed his Chelsea career was over, Alonso has thrived in Chilwell’s absence. He was, arguably, Chelsea’s best player in its victory against Tottenham last week. At the start of the month, he had stood out as Tuchel’s side neutralized Liverpool — despite playing the entire second half at a disadvantage — at Anfield.

His skill set seems uniquely suited to the exigencies of Tuchel’s system. His height bolsters Chelsea’s back line in defense; his diesel stamina allows him to cover huge tracts of turf over considerable periods of time; his attacking instincts make him a valuable offensive outlet; and his pinpoint delivery makes him a key supply line for Romelu Lukaku.

For all his ability, though, Alonso is not an easy player to admire. In 2011, he was at the wheel of a car which crashed into a wall in Madrid while traveling at more than twice the speed limit in wet conditions; a young woman was killed. Alonso’s blood alcohol level was over the legal limit. Five years later, he was told that he would not be sentenced to prison for involuntary manslaughter, but fined $71,000 and banned from driving for three years, all of which had already been served.

This week, he revealed that he had decided that he would stop kneeling in protest of discrimination, preferring instead to point to the officially sanctioned “No Room For Racism” badge that adorns every Premier League jersey.

That is his right, of course, and Alonso has made it plain that he is “fully against racism” and has no desire to make a political statement. But still, it is not what you might call a great look: a white player’s deciding that taking the knee is “losing a bit of strength,” and taking unilateral action without consulting any of his Black teammates, several of whom have been the victims of racist abuse.

It is worth considering Alonso’s case, though, purely as a sporting phenomenon. He is a relative rarity in modern soccer, in that he is a highly tuned positional specialist in an era when versatility — for the vast majority — is a professional necessity. It is not just that Alonso plays in one position, it is that he appears to succeed only in one interpretation of one position.

He is not especially effective as a traditional left back — to an outsider’s eye, he lacks the acceleration to recover — and he is not quite creative enough to play as a left wing. As a left wing-back, though, a blending of the two roles, with cover behind him and options ahead, he is perfect.

Alonso’s attacking instincts make him a valuable offensive outlet, and his pinpoint delivery makes him a key supply line for Romelu Lukaku.Credit…David Klein/Reuters

More than that, he is a compelling example of a truth that bears repeating: Whether he looks a key cog in Chelsea’s success or a spare part depends not on his basic level of ability — which, within reason, we can assume to have remained essentially consistent — but on the identity and nature of his coach. Under Conte and Tuchel, he has thrived. Under Sarri and Lampard, he drifted. There is, as ever, no such thing as a good or a bad player, only one in the right or wrong system.

But most of all, he stands as testament to the work Tuchel has done at Chelsea. It is startling to think that it is only eight months since Alonso was in purdah under Lampard and Chelsea was running the risk of missing out on qualifying for the Champions League.

Tuchel has transformed the team at a speed that should not, really, be possible, a speed that even he might have thought was a little too ambitious. When he arrived, he spoke of closing the gap on Manchester City and Liverpool within a season. He did it, instead, almost instantaneously: Chelsea goes into Saturday’s meeting with Pep Guardiola’s team as champion of Europe and City’s apparent equal, if not superior, in the Premier League, too.

What makes it all the more impressive is that Tuchel has done it without any great overhaul of his squad. Chelsea added Lukaku and Saúl Ñiguez to its ranks this summer, of course, but mostly Tuchel has simply repurposed the tools he has inherited, even the peculiar, esoteric ones, like Alonso.

His is not so much a triumph of making square pegs fit in round holes, but of changing the location of the holes so that the dodecahedrons can work, too, taking all of the raw materials he was handled — all of the players who might have thought their time was up, who might have been written off, who might have gone another way — and turned them into a purring, smooth-running machine.

The criteria a player and a manager are subject to are not the same; more than that, they are diametrically opposed. A player can only thrive in a system suited to their abilities. The truest test of a manager, though, is to find that system, regardless of the players.

If You Build It, They Will Come. Sometimes.

The crowd wasn’t particularly thin for Manchester City’s draw with Southampton last week, but it was empty enough to bother Pep Guardiola. Credit…Andrew Yates/EPA, via Shutterstock

There was, as there was always going to be, just a little mirth at the end of Manchester City’s goal-less draw with Southampton last week. Only a few days earlier, Pep Guardiola had been busy scolding the club’s fans for not coming in sufficient numbers to City’s Champions League game with RB Leipzig; this was not, as the scoffing went, the best way to persuade them to heed his call.

There is not a vast amount to be gained from lingering on the details of that curious little spat — Guardiola seemed to complain that the stadium wasn’t full; a representative of City’s fans suggested that maybe not everyone can afford to pay eye-watering ticket prices to watch soccer once a week; Guardiola said he had not complained, so did not have to apologize — but there is a lesson at the heart of it that soccer as a whole will, soon, need to address.

It is easy to understand why Guardiola is frustrated that the team he has built — the best in City’s history, one of the finest England has ever seen, a side that not only essentially guarantees victory every week, but does so with a style that it is impossible not to admire — might not sell out for a game against a (recently-established) European power.

And yet that is not quite the whole story. Guardiola was at pains to tell the club’s fans that his team “needs” them, but that does not quite have the ring of truth. City, more than anyone else, does not really need an external, emotional impetus. It is a smooth, slick, unrelenting machine, regardless of its surroundings. That is no criticism; it is testament to both the club’s investment and his coaching. It is what makes City so successful.

But a guarantee of victory, and of victory obtained through dominance, is not necessarily the sort of thing that attracts fans. It reduces the urgency of attending: Why go and see this win, when another win is around the corner? Why spend that money on a low-stakes game — a Champions League group-stage opener — against a team that is not especially familiar when you could save it for one that means much more?

It is not certainty that attracts fans, that generates atmosphere. It is, instead, the thing that Guardiola has done his very best to extract from every facet of City’s existence: jeopardy. It seems an obvious point to make, but it holds: a 3-2 win is far more memorable than a 5-0 win, particularly if you have had a series of 5-0 wins in the last few weeks and months and years.

Deep down, fans thrive on nothing quite so much as drama and risk and doubt. It is that which makes victories taste all the sweeter. The idea of an endless series of processions is appealing, but only to a certain point; after a while, it loses its edge. Fans like to feel needed, as if they are making some difference to the end result, whether that is true or not.

At City, that is often not the case. That has always been true of all of the elite teams — Chelsea and Liverpool and Paris St.-Germain and Real Madrid and all the rest — and is becoming more and more true as the iniquities in the game grow more stark. Certain clubs have always expected victory. Worse, they now get it, almost every week. On the surface, a goal-less draw with Southampton may have been the last thing Guardiola wanted. In reality, it may have been exactly what he needed: a little reminder, to City’s fans, that nothing is entirely guaranteed.

Preziosi Memories

Enrico Preziosi appears to have sold a controlling interest in Genoa. But we have been here before. Credit…Simone Arveda/EPA, via Shutterstock

This time, it seems as if it is for real. Enrico Preziosi has come close to selling Genoa, the famed Serie A team he has run like a medieval fief since 2003, a couple of times in the last few years. There was a memorandum of understanding with at least one American finance house. There was a dalliance with a consortium with links to Qatar.

It is worth treating reports that he has sold a majority stake in the club to 777 Partners, an investment firm based in Miami, with just a pinch of skepticism: Preziosi would not, after all, be the first old-school Italian owner to sell up and then change his mind. Both Silvio Berlusconi and Maurizio Zamparini, men cut from similar cloth to Preziosi, managed to reappear after apparently divesting themselves from their teams.

Most Genoa fans will hope, of course, that this is the last they see of the 73-year-old toy magnate. He has not, after all, been what you would call a model owner. Under what might, in a kind light, be called his stewardship, the club has recruited and fired managers. He has been found guilty of match-fixing. He has proved profoundly incapable of taking the club, well, anywhere.

Though the record of Serie A’s other North American owners — there are now seven teams with U.S. or Canadian ownership — is mixed, it would not take much for 777 Partners to be an upgrade: a little stability, and some thinking only a touch more strategic than “appoint the same guy over and over again at the first sign of trouble,” would just about do it.

More and more teams in Italy are starting to think that way; as much as Preziosi’s departure means the league is just a little less colorful, just a little less chaotic, it is a sign that things are changing. If this is, indeed, his exit from Serie A, it is part of a marked shift away from the way things used to be, and slowly, gradually, toward how they ought to be.

Correspondence

Ben Cohn starts off with a good, precise question on international soccer — “Is my impression that players participate out of love, and the quest for glory, without really getting paid right?” but then follows it up with the sort of question that screams “trap” to any self-respecting newsletter writer: “Does any country other than the U.K. field multiple teams?”

Let’s do the one that is not a political land mine first. In the men’s game, generally, players are paid an appearance fee for playing for their country: an amount that is, to elite professionals, basically a nominal sum and is, in quite a few cases, often donated to charity, rather than being spent on watches or supercars or herds of goats or whatever it is players spend money on.

As for your second question, which has a very Ted Lasso vibe about it: England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are all different countries. The U.K. is best thought of as a house that four individuals, all with very different needs and interests and wants, happen to share, sometimes happily and sometimes begrudgingly, and occasionally one or other of them threatens to leave, because they feel that their grandparents were forced to sign a cotenancy agreem… no, I’m stretching it. It’s simple: They are separate countries in soccer, rugby, health care and policing; they are the U.K. at the Olympics and in foreign policy; and they are all called England in cricket.

On to simpler matters. “I’m no expert, not at all, but is Ole Gunnar Solskjaer not trying to impose a Manchester City-style possession system at Manchester United?” Tom Karsay asks. “Sure looks that way to me. Last year they were a counterattack side, like everybody else.”

I’m no expert, either, Tom, but would say it’s quite hard to discern precisely what Solskjaer wants Manchester United to be. The problem, as it goes, may be that he’s not an expert, either.

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