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Apr 8, 2013

Clones from Pea Mountain

It's been one of those sandwich weekends, where the meat between the bread has seemed of minor interest and flavour compared to the two layers above and below. Has the Champions League become the real bread and butter nowadays? Well it has for some, and those that aspire to it, like Real Sociedad, Valencia and Betis. Of course, there is life outside of European considerations, especially when you're down there near the bottom of the league, and this weekend's goal-glutted games formed a major part of the meat - but the bread has never been far away.

Indeed, so unconcerned were both Barcelona and Real Madrid with their respective league encounters for this week that they not only left various players on the bench (Málaga did too) but they obliged the poor press to think of something to fill the weekend's sports tabloid. The Barcelona stories were more easily covered with the happy return of Eric Abidal to the squad, but there seemed to be an air of fatigue around the Bernabéu with regard to the Iker Casillas-Diego López situation, particularly because José Mourinho seems to be over his darkest period with the local journalists and also because in spite of Casillas' sainthood, it is obvious to even the most rabid admirer of Captain Iker that Diego López deserves to retain his place.

The other factor, and an interesting one at that, is that there are whispers around Madrid that Mourinho may not be leaving after all. Aha! What was all that stuff he said about things happening 'that nobody can imagine'?

This links up rather nicely with the tabloid Marca's decision to front-page their Saturday edition with a picture of Xabi Alonso over a sub-header suggesting that Madrid's main priorities for next season were the extension of Alonso's contract and the signing of a 'clone' to eventually replace him. Alonso's contract expires in June 2014, by which time the Basque will be 32, going on 33. The club's general director, Angel Sánchez, has offered him a two-year extension, which Xabi has politely declined - although 'declined' is not the verb used by Marca's journalists, in something of a hissy-fit at the idea that Alonso may not renew. Marca, conscious of the fact that Florentino Pérez now considers Alonso to be not only a great chap but the new 'emblem' of the club, are dutifully pushing the 'Xabi stay!' line - as well they might. He is fundamental to the team's efficiency, just as he was at Liverpool.

But there's a twist to this tale. Alonso, rather amusingly, asked Sánchez if it were true that they were considering Rafa Benitez as Mourinho's replacement. Sánchez, understanding that Alonso was saying '...and if so, I'm out of here pal', quickly reassured the midfielder that this was not the case. We do not know, unfortunately, whether Sánchez revealed to Alonso the prime candidates for the job, or if he assured him that Mourinho was actually staying (which would be fine by Xabi), but it remains interesting that Alonso's possible departure worries the madridista press far more than the identity of the next coach.

They have reason to be worried too, but it was equally interesting to see who the possible 'clone' might be - from the list of players that are allegedly on Pérez' shopping-list. And even before we take a look, it goes without saying that there is no such thing as a clone of Alonso. Central midfielders may fulfil a narrowly defined set of functions, and may be broadly of similar profile, but they are really like snowflakes. No two are ever the same. It is what makes the position so interesting, and is the reason why Jaunma Lillo's quote is one of the greatest of all time, in footballing terms; "Dime con qué mediocentro andas y te diré qué equipo eres". (Tell me who your central midfielder is, and I'll tell you what sort of team you are). This is one of the wisest things ever said in football, because it is absolutely spot-on. It's not true of any other position. I'd stake my flimsy reputation on saying that no great side has ever lacked a special player in the central midfield position. Many great sides, on the other hand, have lacked a great keeper, a great centre-back, etc. But a great central midfielder? It is simply unthinkable. Liverpool collapsed when Alonso left, although there were other factors too. I don't wish to simplify. Real Sociedad missed him too, although he wasn't quite the finished article when he left. Real Madrid will miss him a great deal if he decides to leave at the end of June 2014, but if that is the case then one assumes they will have found something approaching a replacement. They have the money, but do they have the nous? I wonder.

Marca put Borussia Dortmund's Ilkay Gündogan at the top of the list. He's good, but he lacks the metronomic qualities that Alonso possesses. I'm no expert on the German scene, but Gündogan is no Alonso clone, from where I'm sitting. The point about Alonso is surely this - that while all around him is dynamism and movement, he is the axle that sustains the wheel. If the wheel was the greatest invention, the axle takes the Oscar for best supporting role. Not only that, but like Xavi Hernandez, a similar-but-different player, Alonso always makes the right decisions. Play it long, or play it simple and short? It sounds like a dumb enough set of options on which to base your career - but it turns out to be the most difficult thing in football. And when players have this quality, they are able to marcar tiempos (determine the pace of play) as the Spanish football savants insist.

There's a nice anecdote about Alonso, that one of his youth-team coaches told me a few years ago. José María Amorrutu, now director of football at Athletic Bilbao but back in the 1990s a scout for the club, was told that there were four players worth looking at over in the neighbouring Basque region of Gipuzkoa, playing for the youth side of Antiguoko in San Sebastian. Athletic had just controversially signed an agreement with this club to make them their feeder team, despite protests from Sociedad. Amorrutu went along, in dark glasses, to watch a team of 13-14 year-olds who were stuffing all and sundry, blessed as they were with the presence of Mikel Arteta, Alonso, Aritz Aduriz and Andoni Iraola. An unusual confluence of destinies, you might say.

Apparently he picked out Alonso first, but was told he was spoken for. Then he picked out Arteta, only to be told the same. Then Aduriz - there were possibilities, he was told, and finally Iraola, who in fact turned out to be Amorrutu's best discovery - since nobody had noticed him up to that point. Alonso did go on to train with Athletic, on the quiet, but his father vetoed a move. Arteta soon left for La Masia, and the rest is history. Alonso was kind of slow and tubby in those days, but to the trained eye he was the best of such a bunch. Now he's the king of Madrid, modelling for Boss, and voted the sexiest player in La Liga recently, one step ahead of his team-mate Sergio Ramos. Who would have thought, back then on a grey day in 1994?

Returning to Marca's list, and I need more excuses to talk about Real Sociedad, the second on the list was Ruben Pardo, Sociedad's 20-year-old midfielder whom Madrid attempted to sign almost two years back for €10 million, before he had even made his first-tem debut. Third was Sevilla's Geoffrey Kondogbia, then PSG's Marco Verratti. Kondogbia looks good, but lacks Alonso's imagination. Verratti could be the business, but he looks to me to be a player who will end up in the hole, in the media punta position. He also lacks the defensive qualities that Alonso has learned over the years. Ruben Pardo is a potential genius, but he's not really the artifice of this amazing new Real Sociedad side, who have now only lost once in 20 games - and that was 4-3 in the Bernabéu.

The real gem, and the one that Marca bizarrely failed to mention, is Asier Illarramendi. Permit me to take a deep breath, because in ten years of writing this column I've tried very hard to not make over-the-top statements (they tend to come back and haunt you, down the line), but if there is something approaching an Alonso clone, or to push the envelope further, a potentially better player still, then this is the guy. I've been watching Sociedad for over 20 years now, and Illarramendi ('Pea mountain' in Basque) is the best thing I've seen since Alonso. The whispers are that Barcelona have already made their move, because they see him as a better Xavi-clone than Thiago. Xavi or Xabi? Only time (and euros) will tell.

There are parallels. Like Alonso, Illarramendi is quiet and discreet, and was slightly tubby in his youth. In footballing terms, he has started at the opposite end of the central midfielder's continuum to Alonso, in that his basic instincts are defensive and his ball-distribution is what you notice next. With Alonso, as with Pardo, it was the other way around. But Illarramendi, still only 23, perfectly epitomises the second most wonderful quote from Spanish football, from Jorge Valdano. "Hay jugadores quien, si les dejas en un bosque sin brujula, siempre saldrán. La mayoria se perderá". (There are players who, if you leave them in a forest without a compass, they'll always find their way out. Most players will get lost.) It's the perfect description of the good central midfielder. If you play on the wing, there is always time and space, and one guy to worry about. But the central midfielder is always surrounded by trees. He has to constantly find space, he has to find a way out. Only a certain type of player fits this mould, and he rarely needs pace, or even a great physique. They can be tubby but mightily effective. Think of Jan Molby in his later years.

Alonso (the slimmer version for Boss) is irreplaceable, and Madrid will have to think more carefully if they really want something approaching a clone - and for me it's Illarramendi, an astonishing player for his lack of years, who simply does everything right and who always emerges from the woods. In an ideal world, he would stay at Sociedad and make them great again, but one suspects that he will be on his way soon enough. His performance in the 4-2 win over Málaga on Saturday, which consolidated this home-made side in the fourth place Champions League spot, was simply sublime. Tick-tock, tik-tak. He may be more suited to Barcelona, who knows? Perhaps this was why Marca failed to mention him, or perhaps the journalist is still learning his trade. Whatever the truth, you read it here first. Who will be the first clone to emerge from the forest? My bet's on pea mountain.

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