Xabi Alonso provides the tempo that makes Bayern's jazz flow
Like all the best ideas, this one, too, looks incredibly obvious in hindsight.
Bayern Munich sporting director Matthias Sammer said they needed someone "to help immediately" when Bastian Schweinsteiger was ruled out for an indefinite period of time at the end of August, a few days after Javier Martinez had ruptured his cruciate ligament. Who were they going to call? The answer, as we know now, was Xabi Alonso.
But first, they called his Real Madrid teammate Sami Khedira. The board did, to be precise. Pep Guardiola himself wasn't at all convinced the German World Cup winner would suit his style of football. There are differing versions of events when it comes to who actually came up with Alonso as an alternative -- some reports in Spain suggested that Guardiola had targeted Barcelona captain Xavi -- but everybody agrees that a phone call from the manager to Alonso, Madrid stalwart, paved the way for the move to the Allianz Arena.
"Bayern was the only club I wanted to go to, " the midfielder insisted in a remarkable interview with Suddeutsche Zeitung on Saturday. (He also insisted that Madrid's signing of Toni Kroos had no bearing on his decision to embark on a new challenge. So perhaps his statements should be taken with pinch of salt.)
Not many clubs would have jumped at the chance to sign a 32-year-old for 10 million euros on a two-year deal and spend a similar amount on his annual wages. But Bayern needed a stopgap solution and Alonso needed an out. "Football is about the here and now," Guardiola said later, when someone asked him about the team having too many midfielders at his disposal once the injured trio of Schweinsteiger, Martinez and Thiago Alcantara would return. (Guardiola, you sense, doesn't believe that there could ever be too many midfielders in the squad, nor in the pitch.)
Alonso made his debut two days after his arrival in the 1-1 draw with Schalke, to rapturous reviews. He instantly became the linchpin of the side. "That just shows that the team trust me," he said humbly when SZ asked him about breaking the Bundesliga record with 206 touches in the 2-0 win over FC Cologne last month. "It's been a surprise to me that I've been part of the game to this extent from the first minute rather being treated as a suspect package," he said.
With pass completion rates in the high 90s and pinpoint diagonal balls that Guardiola likes to see employed against deep-lying opponents, Alonso is the natural replacement of Kroos, and vice versa. Just to ram home the point, Alonso has even moved into Kroos' old house in Munich. It's true that Bayern could have kept the German international, as Guardiola would have preferred, by offering him the same remuneration that Alonso now commands. But this way, they're 20 million euros better off over the next two years and crucially, they can keep wage inflation in check. It's much easier to justify paying that kind of money to a big foreign name like Alonso rather than to Kroos. The 24-year-old's footballing skills were widely appreciated, but his position in the dressing room hierarchy would have made a financial promotion problematic.
It's amazing to see just how quickly Alonso has made his mark on a team that wasn't exactly short on quality and big personalities. The true extent of his impact can only be appreciated in the stadium, where you'll see him constantly rearrange the position of the defensive line, put out fires before they start burning and "set the rhythm," as Manuel Neuer put it. Crucially, he looks a lot fresher than during the World Cup as well.
"He's an intelligent player, he pushes the team forward, metre by metre," was Franz Beckenbauer's verdict. "I've been saying it for weeks: he's our most important transfer."
Alonso compared Bayern's slower, "more patient and refined" approach to "jazz," in contrast to Real Madrid's "rock and roll style." He said, "It's close to the game that I knew from the Spanish national team, so it wasn't completely new for me."
After a somewhat indifferent start for the team on the whole, the last few superlative performances, including the 7-1 demolition of AS Roma on Tuesday night, Bayern have begun to look as irresistible as they were at this stage of the campaign 12 months ago. Then, their 3-1 win at Manchester City was achieved with perfect possession football. The Rome game suggested that they could evolve further. Bayern pressed and played collectively from various, constantly changing vantage points. They had more possession but they were equally happy to funnel the Italian attacks into dead ends inside their own half and hit back with a quicker transition. Alonso's key role in this complex ecosystem is illustrated in the nominal 3-1-3-3 formation that Bayern lined up with. He's one section of the team, all by himself.
"I've realised that Pep is very pragmatic," Alonso has said. "He doesn't have any issues changing things -- regardless if the opponent is a big one or less well known." The new big idea, probably borne out by the 4-0 defeat by Real Madrid in the Champions League semifinal is to forsake the big idea in favour of having plenty of different options. Being able to switch seamlessly from three at the back to four and back again during a game is one of them. Moving players through different positions is another one. There was a spell in the second half when Alonso took up David Alaba's role on the left side of the back three to allow the Austrian to maraud forward as an extra attacking midfielder. The effect was confusing for Roma and some observers. Former Italy striker Paolo Rossi confessed that he was "yet to understand what role Alaba was playing" after the final whistle.
With so many new variables at play in Guardiola's jazz football, someone needs to subtly direct the way the music is going for it to still make sense and not dissipate into thin air. Alonso, with his vast experience, versatility and natural authority, anchors the side like a great maestro in charge of a crack ensemble. The new man has instantly become the constant that makes change possible.
Raphael Honigstein is ESPN FC's German football expert and author of "Bring the Noise: The Jurgen Klopp Story." Follow: @honigstein