Manchester City vs Bayern Munich: Why Xabi Alonso is just the sort of player Manuel Pellegrini needs at City

Spanish midfielder’s brilliant passing could have helped City avoid their awful performances in Europe so far

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The Independent Football

Manchester City are as invisible in the latest edition of Uefa’s official Champions magazine as they have been in Europe’s elite competition this season. Not a sentence about their struggles, in a publication which prefers to get absorbed in the glossy end of the competition. But plenty on Bayern Munich’s Spanish midfielder Xabi Alonso, whose emergence as its pass master commands the cover and whose statistics tell quite a story.

He has completed 388 passes in the first four games of the group stage – more than any other player in the competition, and also more passes in a single game, away to CSKA Moscow, than Alonso has ever accomplished in the tournament.

Alonso tonight suggested, slightly wistfully, that time was the impediment to him playing in England again. “I’m getting older… ! Who knows maybe one day. I don’t know if I will have enough time!”

It was a dereliction of duty that no British club went in for the player during the summer, when his place at Real Madrid was clearly under pressure after Toni Kroos’s arrival from Bayern Munich. City were focused on someone more physical for the back of midfield, £12m Fernando, though he has not set the Continent alight. Manuel Pellegrini, who managed Alonso for a year at Real Madrid, must have looked at the Spaniard’s £5m price tag – equivalent to what Tottenham Hotspur paid Montpellier for Benjamin Stambouli and Queen’s Park Rangers paid Spurs for Sandro this summer – and wondered why in heaven City did not at least go and knock on his door.

Pellegrini implied on Monday that Alonso was of more value to a side who played a possession game. “He is very important to a team that likes to have possession of the ball because he is very accurate in all of his passes,” the Chilean said. But Alonso, who is 33 today, is also schooled in the aspects of Champions League football which made the Liverpool side he graced so successful and which Pellegrini has simply not grasped: a knowledge of how to play the big games and how to adapt when those games are going against you.

Asked how Rafael Benitez’s low-budget Liverpool managed to win the Champions League, while Manchester City, with all their wealth are still barely knocking on the door, Alonso put financial riches into sharp perspective. “Football is not about mathematics,” he replied.

“There is not a determined formula, that when you are earning more you are winning more. You are trying to buy success, but there are big surprises in football. And, as well as that, you’ve got to do things properly and normally in football. If you do things properly, you will have success. What happened that year with Liverpool was really a great surprise. We enjoyed it, but it was very different from what is going on in Manchester.”

Pellegrini has simply not displayed that kind of wisdom. His mantra is that this City team will always play the one style and system which sporting director, Txiki Begiristain, and chief executive, Ferran Soriano, want to see inculcated across all levels: the Barcelona culture. When City are good, in the less challenging Premier League, it is champagne football more often than not. But they have been punished brutally in the Champions League, where the margins for error are slimmer and one-dimensionality is punished. And they never seem to want to change. “It is the way we like to play and we are not going to alter this,” the full-back Pablo Zabaleta said recently.

Alonso brings the pragmatism and tactical fluidity which made Benitez’s Liverpool the kind of force in Europe that City can scarcely dream about. “To be fighting at European level you need players who know how to play in the big games,” Alonso said at the weekend. “Spanish and German teams have that. English teams have changed so much. It takes time. City have won the Premier League twice in three years but they cannot find that mentality in Europe.”

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Those Benitez powers of adaptation were perhaps best illustrated in the goalless draw Liverpool secured at Juventus’s crumbling Stadio Delle Alpi on the way to lifting the trophy in 2005. Alonso was integral to it. Benitez tells in the book Champions League Dreams how the entire system was built around Alonso, back after three months’ recovering from a broken ankle, so lacking the ability to run. Benitez began with a  4-2-3-1, to fool Juventus manager Fabio Capello, then switched to a 3-5-1, with Alonso protected by Igor Biscan and Antonio Nuñez instructed and under orders to pick out the long runs of Milan Baros. The switch evidently passed Capello by.

“Every team I see [that is successful] has to be comfortable playing with three systems,” Alonso said. “The need to adapt to each game depending on the circumstances. It is not about being loyal to your identity. No, no, no. It is about showing your strengths and showing your players what you need to do each game to prepare in the right way. Each game is totally different.”

City can at least take some hope from the fact that Bayern Munich may struggle for motivation tonight. “To play football we need tension, we need something to fight for,” reflected their manager, Pep Guardiola, last night. “You have to be a little bit afraid to play football. The power, the joy to qualify with the three points... we can’t find that. The job is done. You have to find... kinds of tricks to focus on our game tomorrow.”

Asked if he was surprised that none of the wealthy Premier League clubs had made a move for Alonso during the summer, Guardiola was deferential about the riches of an English environment where it seems inevitable that he will eventually work his managerial skills.

“You are lucky. You have a lot of money,” he said. “It is good. And the board have a lot of money to spend on players so it is good.” No, he was the lucky one, with his £5m Alonso, it was put back at the manager. And he did not disagree. “It was perfect for him at Bayern Munich in Germany,” he replied. “That’s why we had the opportunity to pick him up. Obviously, we are so happy.”

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