Alonso and the pursuit of control

Vicente del Bosque had more than one reason to smile after Spain ensured their place in the semi-final of a major tournament for the third consecutive time at the weekend.

Their 2-0 win over France was a lesson in what Del Bosque’s Spain most crave – control. It is why possession is their oxygen and why at times in this tournament even the use of a central striker has been sacrificed for a sixth ball-playing midfielder.

And, on top of that control exhibited by the World champions, the source of Spain’s two goals gave Del Bosque the perfect opportunity to stick two fingers up to the Spanish press and say ‘I told you so’.

Of course he didn’t do so, the 61-year-old is too respectful for such an overt sign of hubris, but he did knowingly refer back to a point he has consistently made during his time in charge of the national team.

“I have always defended that [Sergio] Busquets and Alonso are more offensive players than defensive ones.”

Del Bosque’s use of the Barcelona and Real Madrid men as a pairing at the base of the midfield has been routinely criticised in his homeland. Why, the question is often asked, does a team with so much possession, that almost always has to break down a side with 10 men behind the ball, need two holding midfielders? Yet, to ask the question is to misunderstand Alonso’s role in this side.

Busquets is the quintessential holder, he is the one who most often regains possession of the ball and fills in for others when they push forward and leave gaps on the counter-attack. Alonso’s job is rather different. Similar to his role during his spell at Liverpool where he played alongside Javier Mascherano, he is the quarterback, spraying passes to stretch the play and crucially offer longer and more direct passes than the Barca trio of Busquets, Xavi Hernandez and Andres Iniesta like to attempt.

Secondly, there is his goalscoring record. Saturday night’s double took his tally to 15 on his 100th cap. Now after David Villa, Alonso is tied with David Silva as the second highest scoring player of Del Bosque’s four-year reign.

Meanwhile, Alonso and Busquets also offer the control Del Bosque desires on the other side of the game. In the vast majority of cases, a side which possesses the ball for the length of time that Spain do will be most vulnerable on the counter-attack as the opposition spring into the spaces left by Spaniards caught out of position having moved beyond the ball.

However, this rarely happens to Spain as Alonso is an insurance policy. Even if Busquets has to cover Alvaro Arbeloa at right-back, as he has had to many times in this tournament, or even confront the ball to stop the break at source, Alonso is always there to sweep up and prevent the centre-backs from being dragged out of position.

This is the most fundamental difference between Barcelona’s system, which Chelsea and Real Madrid showed this season can be caught out in transition, and Spain’s more conservative approach. It is no coincidence that with Alonso and Busquets in tandem, even with three changes in the back four since 2010, that Spain have conceded just three goals in 11 tournament matches and none in eight knockout games.

The debate whether such a ludicrously talented squad ought to be quickening the pulse rather more than they have in Poland and Ukraine will continue, but it is hard to argue that Del Bosque’s ruthless pursuit of control has produced results.

Saturday’s was one that proved him right all along.

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