How Marcos Alonso evolved from Championship player to vital member of title-chasing squad
Marcos Alonso – when Chelsea announced their new £24 million left-back signing on 30 August 2016, many Premier league fans scratched their heads. They were sure they had heard the name before, but couldn't quite place it. And when a quick foray into Google told them this was a player who had previously appeared for Sunderland and Bolton Wanderers, they shrugged and told themselves, "Well, if you can sign David Luiz for £34 million......"
How quickly the tables have turned. A player more accustomed to relegation battles in his time at Bolton has evolved into the first choice left-back at a team leading the pack by a fair distance.
But his journey has more to it than meets the eye – for instance, did you know he hails from Real Madrid's youth academy and has made a first team appearance for Madrid as a substitute for Gonzalo Higuain in the 90th minute of a 2-0 win against Racing Santander?
His formative years
The son and grandson of former Spanish internationals, Alonso had all the ability in his locker from a young age but also the pressure to go with it. Having represented every youth side after joining Los Blancos’ academy as a child, the Spaniard made his debuts for the Castilla side and the reserves in 2008.
Then of course, in 2009, he made his first and only appearance for Madrid as a 90th-minute substitute. When it became obvious that first team opportunities would be limited, Alonso left the Spanish giants as a 19-year-old and joined Bolton Wanderers, then in the Premier League.
The story of his current rise is even more astonishing when you consider that he managed to make only nine top-flight appearances in two years before Bolton got relegated. One of the few positives for a Bolton team that was struggling off the field as well as on it, Alonso finally found his feet in the Championship and impressed enough to earn a move to Fiorentina in May 2013. If the player or his well-wishers thought that was the last he would see of England, well, they were wide of the mark.
After six months, Fiorentina decided Alonso's development would be better served elsewhere, and he was subsequently shipped to Sunderland for a loan spell. Just as Gus Poyet thought he could sign the player permanently, Alonso travelled with Fiorentina for a 10-day preseason camp, where he established himself as their first-choice left-back.
Fiorentina years – style of play
With Fiorentina, Alonso quickly established himself as a top-class player. His relative lack of pace did not matter much in the slow paced league, and his aerial attributes gave him a natural advantage over many modern diminutive full-backs. His cultured Spanish quality on the ball ensured he rarely got caught in possession.
Where the Spaniard seems to have truly made his name, however, is in the attacking sense – chipping in with the occasional free kick, he was a consistent attacking outlet for a Fiorentina side that played 3-5-2 with wing-backs or 4-2-3-1 with attacking full-backs. Yet he isn't the winger-failed-wing-back type either - he has real quality in defending one on one situations, and in the presence of an organising centre back, can form part of a well oiled defensive unit.
Role in Antonio Conte's 3-4-3
Perhaps the most important contribution Alonso's presence gives to the team is the opening for Azpilicueta to play elsewhere. Shoe-horned into the left-back role over the past couple of seasons for Chelsea, his new role as the right-sided centre-back enables him to defend on the front foot with his favoured right.
With Victor Moses instructed to play high up the pitch on the other side, it leaves Alonso as the more defensive of the two wing-backs, yet with the freedom and license to roam due to the presence of the indefatigable N'Golo Kante.
The result is the opportunity for intelligent late runs into the box; Alonso's brace against Leicester highlighted the enviable number of sources Chelsea can look to for a goal. Conte's wing-backs in his 3-4-3 system play a vital role in determining the team's shape while attacking as well as defending – if those two get it right, the Blues can outnumber opponents at both ends of the pitch.
The way forward
Unlike David Luiz (Kalidou Koulibaly) and N'Golo Kante (Radja Nainggolan), Alonso is his manager's first choice for the left-back position, which leaves little doubt that he is set to be a mainstay in this Chelsea side for a long time.
But it is certain that he will have better competitors for his position than Baba Rahman over the next few years, especially when Conte decides to beef up his squad in the summer in anticipation of European football.
A call-up to the national squad will the next target for Alonso. While he has a long way to go to displace Jordi Alba from the first team, it is clear that Spain's paucity of squad options at left-back could open a door for him if he plays at this level for the next couple of years. That would make it three generations of Spanish internationals in a row – if he fathers a son in the future, that child will have quite a family tradition to live up to!