Ex-Real Madrid midfielder Xabi Alonso has explained how Jose Mourinho’s teams can be “in control” of games without dominating possession.
Alonso was a key member of Mourinho’s Madrid side from 2010 to 2013, a period in which they at first struggled against Pep Guardiola’s Barcelona, but eventually beat them to the La Liga title.
Mourinho’s favoured attritional style of play has not always impressed fans or neutrals, and the Manchester United boss has again been questioned following the 2-1 defeat at home to Guardiola’s Manchester City on Sunday.
Speaking to Ecos del Balon, Alonso, who retired last season, recalled how powerful that Madrid side were when they soaked up pressure and then hit teams on the break with talent including Cristiano Ronaldo, Mesut Ozil, Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria.
“There were phases of the game when we were not dominant, but we were in control,” Alonso said. “For example, there was a feeling that every corner against us was a chance for us. When we countered…
“With Mesut, who seemed weak but could carry the ball 30 yards brutally, Cristiano ran up the opposite side knowing that he would get the ball at the end of the move, and Karim and ‘Fideo’ [Di Maria]. Pure power.”
Alonso said that Madrid had learned over time how to deal with the threat posed by Barca’s Lionel Messi and Xavi Hernandez with the ball.
“Messi did me a lot of damage, I suffered a lot,” Alonso said. “He made us squeeze our heads a lot. We spoke a lot with Mourinho and with Sergio [Ramos]. How was he damaging us? How could we control him?
“Messi was playing, and behind him on the right of midfield was Xavi. And they provoked me. Xavi would show me the ball, I would go, Messi would get in behind me and Sergio would have to come out to cover him, and they cut through us.
“You only began to control Messi when it was me, not Sergio, who was in charge of marking him. Xavi called me, but I stayed with Messi and Sergio did not have to come out, and from there, we controlled him pretty well.
“We sacrificed metres on the pitch, and to be able to win the ball back, to prioritise dealing with Messi. And when we controlled this position, the Barca-Madrid games became even.”
The former Real Sociedad, Liverpool and Bayern Munich player, who is reportedly set to take up a coaching position in the future, said he had learned a lot from playing under Guardiola at Bayern from 2014 to 2016.
“At Bayern, we played 90 minutes in the opposition half,” Alonso said. “I did not have to cover so much ground, I kept my position and made smaller efforts. In the last years, it was very good for me. And I learned so much. It was very enriching.”
Alonso also gave a tactical reason as to why Benzema, who has again been criticised recently by Madrid fans for his finishing, was so important to the Spanish club both on and off the ball.
“Benzema is half centre-forward, half No. 10,” he said. “Many people criticise him for that, but I believe it is his best virtue. He does not just have one move, but many different ones. In behind, in the area, out wide, and behind the holding midfielder, which is where he makes the difference.
“And if you build the play like this, you are better positioned. More together. And if you are more together, you can press better.”
Dermot Corrigan is a Madrid-based football writer who covers La Liga and the Spain national team for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @dermotmcorrigan