Real Madrid tactics: Analysing Xabi Alonso

April 7, 2013

Most Los Blancos observers know Xabi Alonso is the chief catalyst of Real Madrid’s attacks, but how does the process really work? 

Solo Xabi

If you have watched Real Madrid under José Mourinho, you will have noticed that Xabi Alonso often drops very deep – sometimes further than the centre-backs. The classic assumption of his contribution is that of incisive passes between the lines, or long aesthetic diagonals towards the flanks. And that is true. But the Basque is also crucial to Real Madrid’s ball retention: the process of recycling possession, helping out the centre-backs and starting attacks from the back.

Real Madrid line-up Levante

Real Madrid’s line-up against Levante, Saturday 7 April, 2013

As often happens through Sergio Busquets at Barcelona, Alonso’s movement effectively creates a back-three. The centre-backs drift wider; the full-backs push higher up.

Xabi 1

Tactically, the effect of this is quite simple: it overmans the two most attacking players of the opposition. (In La Liga, usually a striker and an attacking midfielder.) When starting out from the back, Real Madrid have a 3 v 2 situation. The only counter-strategy for the opposition manager is to push a holding midfielder up on Alonso. But this leaves huge spaces for Modrić. And it makes Real Madrid’s front four easier to find. In the end, few teams do it. Which means Alonso is able to assert his influence.

Xabi 2

In bypassing the opposition’s front two, the centre-backs and Alonso use a fluent system. Alonso can drop down towards the left, right, or, more commonly, in between the centre-backs. You might assume Alonso is always the one carrying the ball forward, but that is not so. In fact, the centre-backs, typically Sergio Ramos, frequently drive into the midfield zone, trying to link up with attackers. When this happens, Alonso drops down to cover.

Xabi 3

Above all else, this creates security. If the centre-back finds a good pass, the attack is on. If he does not, Alonso is there in support. If used, Alonso will switch play, either via the second centre-back, here Pepe, or directly to the full-back. If done efficiently, the front two are practically helpless in trying to shut down Real Madrid’s passing cycle. It is a classic example of a 3 v 2 situation where the spare man is used effectively.

Xabi 4

So far, Alonso’s role has only been described when in front of the two attacking players. The real danger is when he slips in behind them. The scenario often occurs when a full-back has the ball. With the opposition’s double pivot positioned deep, and with the front two slacking around the centre-backs, there opens up a space between the two lines. This, of course, is Alonso’s preferred zone, where he can dictate play as a typical deep-lying midfielder.

(Throughout a game, Alonso’s movement is interesting to follow: he frequently finds himself sandwiched between the two attacking players, and has to judge whether to drop down in front of them, or whether to position himself for receiving the ball behind them, as seen above.)

Xabi 5

Once Alonso is in possession here, there are few limits to what he can create. He can find Karim Benzema on the left (or, more commonly, Cristiano Ronaldo, whose movement is exceptional.)  He can find Kaká between the lines – the trademark Xabi pass. He can find Gonzalo Higuaín running in behind the left-back (a classic Mourinho move). Or he can do something else altogether: Against Levante, he received a support pass from the right, in this very area. He hit it first-time, delivering a swinging cross to Higuaín who volleyed home. The striker only needed one chance. And, in this incident, so did Alonso.


Out of all the managers he has played for, Mourinho is probably the one who deploys Alonso the deepest. This is crucial in keeping the build-up play fluid and safe from interceptions. But Alonso is also important in dictating play upfield – even if he rarely advances beyond 25 metres. As such, by moving Alonso up and down between defence and attack, Mourinho gets him to contribute in two separate phases of play. In terms of maximising a player’s influence in a team, it is a rather good example.

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Photo: Jan S0L0


post check

by Guest on August 14, 2013 at 5:07 am. #

Am i the only one who think that Xabi is not good enough for Real madrid?

by Hamdani on May 26, 2013 at 10:18 am. #

You probably are.

by Thore Haugstad on May 26, 2013 at 2:42 pm. #

That left side can also be a danger zone for RM themselves, too. We saw that they struggled when Gala overloaded pressure on that flank. Ronaldo was not helping & RM’s left became vulnerable.
It can be exploited by Klopp in the semis.

by Baris on April 12, 2013 at 11:02 am. #

Indeed. Will be interesting to see how Mourinho approaches it.

by Thore Haugstad on April 12, 2013 at 11:53 am. #

I love the fact that soccer is exactly like playing chess. You must find ways to defend yourself and attack your opponent almost simultaneously. By the way, in today’s Manchester Derby game I noticed that Man City tended to attack Man United on the left side a lot (where Raphael lies). Is there some special tactic to that (like Mourinho’s usage of the attacking mid drifting left)?

by Loop on April 9, 2013 at 3:58 am. #

That’s an interesting point. I didn’t watch the Manchester derby, but I do know that Mourinho stakes a lot on his left flank. If you see the line-up, all the best technical players are loaded towards that side – both Sergio Ramos and Alonso, plus the most attacking full-back (Marcelo) and the best winger (Ronaldo).

by Thore Haugstad on April 9, 2013 at 8:14 am. #

I do believe Mourinho took this out of the play book of Guardiola. How Guardiola uses Busquets and Xavi.

by SB on April 8, 2013 at 5:57 pm. #

Those were my thoughts exactly, except that Busquests doesn’t really provide deep lob passes.

by Loop on April 9, 2013 at 3:47 am. #

Great post!

To my opinion, one of the main reasons that JM positioned him very deep is also due to
the fact that he is very slow (maybe the slowest in RM team),
and the deep position along with his great tactical awareness helps him compensate on that

by Lior on April 8, 2013 at 8:19 am. #

Yeah great point. It also helps that Pepe and Sergio Ramos are so quick and athletic – they need to play in wide areas, both with and without the ball.

by Thore Haugstad on April 8, 2013 at 8:58 am. #

Yet as holder with limited mobility Alonso struggles mightily when Real are caught on the counter and Khedira is not there to help him. He commits a lot of tactical fouls and gets booked quite often.

by Angel on April 10, 2013 at 4:48 pm. #