The Making of Marcos

I think it’s fair to say that the arrival of Marcos Alonso at Chelsea last summer was met in England, by and large, with a degree of bemusement and scepticism. “The old Bolton left-back?!” was a fairly standard reaction. Many couldn’t get their heads around why Chelsea would pay a reported £23m for a player who was generally perceived not to have set the world alight in the Premier League, despite obvious improvements during a loan spell at Sunderland. Antonio Conte, and regular watchers of Fiorentina knew exactly what Chelsea were getting though.

Marcos Alonso has now played 25-times for Chelsea and been on the losing side just twice, on both occasions in North London – a 3-nil defeat to Arsenal at The Emirates in September and a 2-0 loss at Tottenham in January. Respected statistical website whoscored.com has his average rating in Premier League matches as 7.39 (out of 10) – just behind him with a rating of 7.27 is a certain N’Golo Kante, only Diego Costa and Eden Hazard rank higher than Alonso in the Chelsea squad.

Of course match-ratings are very subjective, but there’s little doubting the important role Marcos Alonso has played in Conte’s winning machine. And that’s a key thing here – he knows his role. That’s because he’s an intelligent footballer with a good tactical understanding – the later something that time in Serie A will have helped to hone. He also has a top Italian coach who will have left him in absolutely no doubt as to his responsibilities on the pitch. Players in a Conte team know what’s expected of them, and that clarity helps breed confidence, which in turn leads to positive results.

What also appears important to Conte, a notoriously demanding coach, is that his players are mentally tough. A winner like him will always, almost naturally, gravitate towards those of a similar mindset, and Marcos Alonso is from good stock in that respect. His Dad, Marcos Alonso Peña, was briefly Spanish football’s most expensive player when he signed for Barcelona from Atletico for around £800,000 in 1982, winning La Liga in 1985 under Terry Venables. His Grandfather, Marcos Alonso Imaz, won five European Cups and five La Liga titles with Real Madrid between 1954 and 1962.

Both Dad and Grandad played for Spain and surely that will be the natural progression for Marco Alonso Mendoza, who is still awaiting his first senior-cap. Julen Lopetegui says he’s watching him and acknowledges the players’ form, but highlighted Chelsea’s “slightly different” 3-4-3 system as a reason for his non-inclusion for this month’s internationals, with Nacho Monreal and Jordi Alba the two players picked for that left-sided role.

Whether he should be ahead of one or both of those players in the Spain pecking order is debateable, but there’s surely little argument that this is a player starting to fulfil the promise he once showed at Real Madrid’s academy – so much so that it’s been widely reported there may be a desire at the Bernabeu to bring him back to the city of his birth. Despite featuring regularly for the B-team for two years, he only made one La Liga appearance before leaving for Bolton in 2010.

It was Manuel Pellegrini who gave Alonso his Real Madrid debut – his other coaches include Owen Coyle, Dougie Freedman, Vinenzo Montella and Gus Poyet, but a key role in the player’s elevation to his current status was played by a man that Chelsea coach Antonio Conte knows well. He and Paulo Sousa won a European Cup together with Juventus in 1996, and while those Bianconeri connections have never done Sousa any favours during a decidedly mixed time in Florence, Marcos Alonso is one of his success stories. Upon leaving Fiorentina, the player wrote a letter thanking everyone at La Viola, which included the following tribute to Sousa.

‘I want to dedicate a special mention to a great person and a great coach, Mr Paulo Sousa, who taught me a lot on and off the pitch and with whom I hope to be able to work again in the future.’

Prior to Sousa’s arrival at Fiorentina, Vincenzo Montella had also played a role in the player’s improvement, but it was Paulo Sousa who most tapped into Marcos Alonso’s more forward-thinking attributes, bringing extra an dimension, improved discipline and confidence to his play in Serie A – helping to develop the powerful and direct runner seen at Stamford Bridge this season. His maiden campaign in England looks almost certain to end with a Premier League title – it would be Marcos Alonso’s first major honour, and if family history’s anything to go by, it could be the first of many.

Kevin Strootman – a remarkable Roman revival

It was Albert Einstein who once said; “adversity introduces a man to himself.” If that’s the case, Kevin Strootman must have been on quite the voyage of personal discovery over the last few years.

Always a gifted footballer, right from his formative days in the Sparta Rotterdam academy, Strootman has also never been short of self-belief, determination and motivation – qualities that have perhaps been essential to a remarkable comeback from injury that should be both celebrated and admired.

Strootman is, in his own words, at the start of a “second life in football” – the first one really began to take off in the summer of 2011, when PSV signed him for €7.5m, only six months after he’d joined Utrecht for €1.5m.

Upon signing his contract at the Philips Stadion alongside a certain Dries Mertens, who’d made the same move at the same time, Strootman told reporters he “expected a lot” from the transfer, and was “eager to show” what he was capable of. It proved to be a wise move, and after two seasons of further development in Eindhoven, Strootman joined Roma for a fee of €16m in July 2013.

By 9 March 2014 he was really turning heads – touted as one of European football’s biggest prospects, and lining up in a Roma side that had travelled to Napoli’s Stadio San Paolo on a seven-game unbeaten run in Serie A. But his former Utrecht and PSV teammate Dries Mertens, in the Napoli side that day, was one of those forced to look on in anguish as Strootman suffered a cruciate ligament injury just thirteen minutes into a 1-0 defeat.

The Dutch international’s season was ended prematurely and he would also miss out on being part of the Netherlands squad that went on to reach the semi-finals of the 2014 World Cup. Far from the end of his troubles though, this was only the beginning.

What followed was an injury nightmare that involved three separate knee operations in the space of eighteen months – Strootman made six league appearances in 14/15 and five league appearances in 15/16. Some speculated whether he’d ever play regularly again, but despite repeated setbacks, the player himself met the physical and psychological challenges head-on.

The moment when perhaps his Naples nightmare finally ended came as a substitute in the latter stages of a 5-0 win over Palermo in February 2016 – it had followed 390 days on the side-lines and launched a truly inspiring comeback.

After that game, Strootman said to Roma’s official website; “Finally, I feel like a footballer again.” He also hinted at darker times. “I never [feared] about stopping, but I was certainly afraid,” he said.

It’s a little over a year now since that night at the Olimpico, and what we are seeing is a player not just grateful to be on the pitch, but regularly turning in excellent performances and once again reaching the lofty heights he’d managed pre-injury.

Only three of Roma’s outfield players have managed more minutes on the pitch in Serie A this season – he was, in my opinion, the man-of-the-match in the Giallorossi’s recent 3-1 win over Sassuolo, and is displaying more leadership qualities and game intelligence than ever before. Kevin Strootman truly is back, and, if Einstein was right, perhaps even a bit more self-aware too.

It’s all in the head for next England coach

Yes, the Iceland performance was very poor, but English football isn’t in need of major surgery, I’m tired of hearing it is, fed-up of the national self-loathing. England is producing good young players, players with the natural ability to potentially go on and compete at major tournaments. Chelsea recently retained the UEFA Youth League with a starting XI all qualified to play for England. England won the 2016 Toulon tournament and are top of their qualification group for next summer’s U21 Euros. The raw materials are there for England to be competitive at all levels – not necessarily win, but be consistently competitive.

A winter break would help, more overseas exposure would too, but the overriding problem with England players when they reach major international tournaments is psychological. So many freeze, so many can’t handle the pressure. It’s not a new thing, it’s been happening for almost 20 years, yet nothing changes – in fact the same mistakes are repeated over and over again. Fear of failure, passed down through the England generations continues to limit fine young footballers – so what needs to change?

The FA must finally appoint and empower a head coach with a strong personality who’ll pick a team, not a collection of the 11 ‘best’ players – a coach who won’t feel pressurised to shoe-horn in star-names, or to pick a formation to accommodate certain individuals. Players who are part of a cohesive team frame-work, players in no doubt about their role/responsibilities have far less to fear and much more to believe in – just look at Conte’s Italy, Coleman’s Wales.

The latter spoke so eloquently after his side beat Belgium about not being afraid to fail. A mindset he’s clearly transmitted to his players. The perception is England have been ‘failing’ for 20 years at major tournaments, so why couldn’t a head coach with good leadership qualities convince his team they’ve actually got little to live up to, and everything to gain by bucking that trend?

Hype, unrealistic expectations and a bizarre sense of entitlement have always been a big barrier to that. When it comes to the England team there are still so many people with precious little sense of perspective. It is a national side judged seemingly game by game – they go from world-beaters to chumps and there’s little in between. This is a part of this puzzle where fans and the media have a big role to play. Building them up to knock them down has to end. But those in charge can also do things to halt the hype too – something obvious to me would be to hugely tone down the significance of the role of England captain. Put simply it’s eaten itself, attracts attention and carries way too much kudos and commercial significance for the individual concerned. It also limits the coach and potentially affects the team dynamic because that individual becomes almost ‘undroppable’. Do what many other nations do and give the armband to the player with the most caps in that particular starting XI.

The current England captain, Wayne Rooney never played a single game for the England U21s – he made one appearance for the U19s. I also wonder whether the cream of the crop are promoted to the senior side far too quickly. Surely it can only help a player’s mental development to experience international/tournament football in a less pressurised environment. Again, it all comes back to the coach. It requires a strong personality and good communicator to hold a young player back for their own good – especially in the face of public/media pressure to pick them.

The English rugby and cricket teams are evidence right now that much can change relatively quickly. But the FA, like the RFU and the ECB, need to get their coaching appointment right, and just as importantly create the environment for that person to empower England’s footballers. The players are already there to do much better, but when it comes to major tournaments it requires someone special to turn the light on in what’s currently a darkened room.

Bony’s ‘organic development’ could pay dividends at Swansea City

Predicting how a foreign player will adjust to life in the Premier League is from an exact science. Get it right and there are bargains to be had, as Swansea City found with Michu last season. However, history is also littered with many expensive mistakes – players who arrived in England with emerging reputations but departed bereft of confidence, the word ‘flop’ ringing in their ears.

The Swans’ latest acquisition, Wilfried Bony already knows how it feels to leave these shores feeling unfulfilled, having been turned down by Liverpool after an unsuccessful trial in 2007. Still just a teenager at the time it would’ve felt like a dream being snatched away for the young Ivorian, but in reality they probably did him a favour.

Not yet considered ready for one of Europe’s elite leagues, Bony took himself to the Czech Republic and Sparta Prague. It was the start of a much more organic approach to his growth as a player, one which has encouraged steady development and helped establish an impressive level of consistency.

To begin with, Bony’s move to Sparta Prague was a loan deal – but after impressing in their ‘B’ side’s title win in 2008, a permanent transfer was agreed with Cote d’Ivoire Premier Division club, Issia Wazi. His debut season in the first team (08/09) was far from spectacular, scoring three goals in sixteen matches, eight of those appearances from the bench. But knowing that they had a rough diamond, Sparta Prague kept faith and more first-team opportunities followed in 09/10, with Bony scoring 10 goals in 35 games, helping his club to the Gambrinus Liga title. The 2010/11 campaign began with a brace against Liepajas Metalurgs in a UEFA Champions League qualifier, and by the time of the winter-break in December, Bony had scored 17 goals in 24 matches.

Vitesse had been monitoring Bony’s progress and had a €4m offer accepted by Sparta Prague on 30 January 2011. Injury meant the Ivorian had to wait until 20 February to make his debut, but unperturbed by the ‘false-start’ to his Eredivisie career, Bony managed to score as a substitute in a 2-0 win against De Graafschap. Three goals followed in his first four games and the GelreDome had a new hero. That soon turned into cult status when Bony managed 18 goals in his first full season in the Netherlands (11/12).

Despite inevitable interest from around Europe, Bony decided to continue his development in Arnhem and it proved to be a wise decision – ending the 12/13 campaign with 37 goals in 36 games across all club competitions. He’s also found his feet at international level, scoring in each of his last three games for the Ivory Coast, as they look for a long-term successor to Didier Drogba.

It’s comparisons with the former Chelsea forward that have inevitably dominated conversation about Bony in England, and there are undoubted similarities between the pair, yet it’s lazy, simplistic and creates unnecessary pressure on Bony, to label him the ‘new Drogba’. That said, a good start in England is vital if that tag isn’t to prove a burden. Supporters of rivals clubs like nothing more than sneering at the ‘new so-and-so’, who turns out to be anything but, especially when they’ve cost big money.

I honestly don’t expect that to happen with Bony though – this is a player who is very much his own man – his physical strength mirrored by an equally strong personality. A man with a firm belief in his own ability, which is partly borne out of a patient and methodical route to the top. Aged twenty-four now, the current Dutch Footballer of the Year is surely as ready as he’ll ever be for a shot at one of European football’s ‘elite’ leagues.

The Polish Ian Rush

18 August 1988, Ian Rush re-joins Liverpool from Juventus for £2.7m, three days later in the Polish capital of Warsaw, Robert Lewandowski was born to Krzyszof and Iwona Lewandwoski, his father a judo champion, his mother a volleyball player.

There are twenty-seven years between Rush and Lewandowski, they’re from totally different eras and backgrounds, yet I’ve come to notice an uncanny resemblance in their styles of play and careers.

Over the last few seasons Bundesliga crowds have seen Lewandowski develop into one of European football’s most accomplished centre-forwards – he’s always reminded me of someone but I’d never been able to put my finger on it.

Then, as number three went in against Real Madrid, it hit me. The Polish Ian Rush. For the type of striker Robert Lewandowski is, I honestly can’t think of a greater compliment.

Their movement and positional sense, their anticipation, that poacher’s instinct and natural finishing ability, there is even a physical resemblance – lean, mean goal-scoring machines.

Lewandowski’s stunning performance against Real Madrid bore all those qualities and one other that I’ve always associated with Ian Rush. Despite scoring 384 career-goals, the Welshman was a team player rather than an individual – performing his particular role in the side better than almost anyone else of that generation.

One such example was a day when Rush himself scored four (video below). Just like Dortmund against Real Madrid, Liverpool’s 5-nil win at Goodison Park against Everton in November 1982 was a fantastic team performance. Rush was as devastatingly effective as Lewandowski, scoring three goals from inside the box, the other from just outside.

That was the Welshman’s third season at Anfield, he was approaching his prime but there had been doubters in the very early stages of his Liverpool career. Signed for £300,000, a record fee for a teenager in 1980, Rush failed to score in his first season, making just nine appearances.

Similar questions were asked of Lewandowski in the early stages of his Dortmund career – signed for €4.8m from Lech Poznan, he made more substitute appearances than starts in his first season, scoring only 8 league goals in 33 matches.

It has even been suggested that he might have not made the grade at the Westfalenstadion were it not for an injury to first-choice striker, Lucas Barrios at the start of the 2011/12 campaign. The Polish international ended that season with 30 goals in 47 games and has improved on that in 2012/13.

That sort of form means that at 24 he is now very much a wanted man – just as Ian Rush was in 1986, when at the same age he agreed to sign for Juventus, completing the transfer twelve months later. Rush scored 14 goals in the 1987/88 season and has always rejected the suggestion he was a ‘failure’ in Turin, saying he returned to Merseyside a better all-round player.

Rush has also said that he didn’t realise what he was missing until he had left Liverpool – should, as expected, Robert Lewandowski leave Dortmund this summer, you have to wonder whether he might end up saying something similar one day.

The Eredivisie’s ‘Stepping Stone’ Effect

It is something that is often overlooked, but clubs in the various European leagues face very different challenges when managing the talent at their disposal. Football’s food-chain, often dictated by money, ensures that promising Eredivisie players (and there are lots of them) will almost certainly move on – with England, Spain, Italy and Germany common destinations.

Whilst clubs in those countries also face the challenge of keeping their better players, there isn’t always the same presumption that a move will happen. Rightly or not, it’s just taken as a given that the likes of Eriksen, Alderweireld and de Jong will move on from Ajax in the near future. Players in their position are often quite open about the fact – the same sort of honesty somewhere like England would be likely to attract supporter scorn and/or claims of a quote being ‘lost in translation’ by club media departments.

The silence leads to speculation and the speculation leads to rather unpleasant ‘will he, won’t he’ sagas, played out in the full glare of the twenty-four hour media. There is something a little more ‘open’ and dignified about the Eredivisie environment, although there is still speculation, primarily focused on who the buying club will be.

From the club’s perspective timing is everything in the Netherlands. For me it is a key reason why both the Eredivisie and the Dutch national side continue to punch well above their weight in the production of talented young footballers. Clubs seem to feel a genuine duty-of-care to players they have nurtured, advising them to stay put until they are deemed physically and mentally ready for a move abroad.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not naive enough to think it is always a truly selfless act; clearly there would be something to gain for say, Ajax, if Christian Eriksen were to stick around for another season, although I actually agree with Frank de Boer that the Danish international’s development would be best served by one more year in Holland.

Smaller clubs like Groningen or Heerenveen, without Champions League football and the revenue that brings, rarely have the same ability to hold onto their top talents that little bit longer, but FC Twente’s recent experience perhaps suggests that isn’t always a bad thing.

Their collapse after a promising start to the season has been quite remarkable and the reasons are for it are multi-faceted, yet I believe the Eredivisie’s ‘stepping-stone’ effect has played an important role.  As I mentioned earlier, timing is everything in the Eredivisie – keep a young talent too long and you risk them losing a bit of focus, even if it is sub-conscious.

The back end of last season also saw Twente fall away pretty spectacularly, at the time veteran defender Peter Wisgerhof said constant transfer speculation surrounding the clubs younger players hadn’t helped the situation. It was a comment that stuck in my mind, mostly because it sounded like an excuse, now I’m not so sure.

Of those young players attracting strong interest from abroad only Ola John and Luuk de Jong left FC Twente last summer – Nacer Chadli (23), Douglas (25), Roberto Rosales (24), Nikolay Mihaylov (24) and Leroy Fer (23) all remain at the club to this day. All, when fit, are regular starters, making up almost half the first eleven. Holding on to their better young players and adding to the squad with talents like Tadic and Castaignos looked like a winning formula for Steve McClaren, yet he is now unemployed.

I accept it is a theory that is virtually impossible to prove, yet could it be that Twente kept too many players for a year too long? As if to add insult to injury, almost all those mentioned will fetch lower transfer values this summer than they would have done in 2012.

It begs the question; when is the right time to sell? Again, it is far from an exact science and different players develop at different rates and have different circumstances. That said, I’m tempted to look at the club that seems to get this right more often that not. Asked recently about the possibility of key players leaving Ajax this summer, head coach, Frank de Boer was quoted as saying; “If Alderweireld and Eriksen leave, Siem de Jong will be the only player left of his generation. If boys like him stay until they are 24, then they would already have stayed an additional two years.”

From Owen & Walcott to Torres & van Persie – when is a Premier League striker’s natural peak?

Ten years ago, a 23-year-old Michael Owen was part-way to the joint-highest goal-tally of his career, finishing 2002/2003 with 28 goals in 54 games, taking his Premier League total to an impressive 102 goals in 187 games. Who’d have thought back then that you’d have to fast-forward a decade and 136 Premier League matches to Owen’s 150th goal in England’s top-flight?

The Stoke City striker’s first Premier League goal in almost 18 months – a well-taken, glancing header against Swansea City – made him one of only eight players to have reached that special landmark, alongside Alan Shearer, Andrew Cole, Thierry Henry, Robbie Fowler, Frank Lampard, Wayne Rooney and Les Ferdinand.

A fantastic achievement by one of the finest finishers England’s ever-produced, yet it went by relatively unnoticed, dwarfed in terms of column inches that week by the news that Theo Walcott had ended months of speculation by signing a new contract with Arsenal.

Walcott is currently 23-years-old, the same age at which Michael Owen was arguably at the peak of his powers, yet the common perception is that the younger of the two men is only just beginning to show what he’s truly capable of, finally convincing many doubters that he can fulfill the potential identified by Arsenal six-years ago.

Very different in the speed of their development as professionals, Owen and Walcott are similar in other ways. Both made their Premier League debuts at the age of 17, each also went to their first tournament with England in their teens. History suggests Owen handled the ‘boy wonder’ tag better than Walcott, but will it be the latter who achieves greater longevity, despite a similar reliance on pace?

Played regularly through the middle for the first time in his Arsenal career, Walcott has already hit 15 goals in 25 games this season, more than in any other previous campaign. It is form that has once again drawn comparisons with former team-mate Thierry Henry, another wide player turned centre-forward by Arsene Wenger.

The Frenchman went on to become Arsenal’s all-time leading scorer, hitting 228 goals for the club – his best tally in England’s top-flight coming at the age of 26 in 2003/04, which actually confirmed his status as something of a late developer. A look at what age some of the Premier League’s finest had their best seasons in front of goal shows why.

Robbie Fowler scored 28 league goals in the 1995/96 season, only turning 21 towards the end of the campaign. Andrew Cole hit 34 league goals in the 1993/94 season, at the age of 22. Alan Shearer was 24-years-old when he scored 34 league goals in 1994/95.

In fact, Les Ferdinand is the only man in the Premier League’s 150-club, not still playing, who achieved their highest league tally over the age of 26 – ‘Sir Les’ was 29 when he scored a career best of 25 in 1995/96, although interestingly, Ferdinand was something of a late starter, only turning professional with QPR at the age of 20.

At the same age, Fernando Torres was approaching the end of his third full-season in the Atletico Madrid first-team. ‘El Nino’s’ best season to-date came in 2007/08, scoring 24 league goals for Liverpool in his first Premier League campaign – by the end of that season the Spanish international had turned 24 and he’s never hit the same heights since.

All manner of theories have been put forward for the Torres malaise at Chelsea, many of them very plausible and there are likely to be many contributing factors, but could it also be that Liverpool sold a centre-forward for £50m knowing that he’d already peaked, after playing so regularly from such a young age?

This is where Robin van Persie’s career is fascinating – consistently outstanding over the last few years for Arsenal and now Manchester United, he seems to be improving with age, yet this is a player who’ll be 30-years-old in August. It seems to totally contradict the earlier evidence that centre-forwards generally peak in their early-to-mid-twenties. However, compare the Dutchman’s appearance figures to those of Fernando Torres and it makes for interesting reading. At the end of the 2011/12 season, Robin van Persie had made 355 club-career appearances – Fernando Torres, who is a year younger, had made 452 club-career appearances. If you accept that in a good season, a top Premier League striker would play in around 40 games (all comps), Torres had effectively played almost two-and-a-half seasons more than van Persie (97 games).

Much of that difference can be explained by injury problems that held van Persie back somewhat in his mid-twenties, but could it be that those enforced absences have actually delayed his peak, and will ultimately help to extend his career at the top level? I guess there is no definitive answer, just as it’s hard to say with any certainty why Fernando Torres has suffered so badly at Chelsea or whether Theo Walcott will go on to challenge Thierry Henry’s Arsenal records. Like most things in football, you can only take an educated guess.