Alonso is Real's most vital signing
Real splashed for Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo, but Xabi Alonso is more important
Midfielder was coveted by manager Manuel Pellegrini to distribute ball to stars
Signing shows club president Florentino Pérez may be learning from mistakes
The exit remains open, its doors flung wide, but the entrance to the Santiago Bernabéu has been closed and bolted.
Five weeks, one transfer request and $50 million later, Xabi Alonso finally joined Real Madrid from Liverpool. Kaká, Cristiano Ronaldo, Karim Benzema, Raúl Albiol, Álvaro Negredo, Esteban Granero and Álvaro Arbeloa all had arrived before him as president Florentino Pérez's spending climbed above $350 million. Meanwhile, Ezequiel Garay -- bought last summer but loaned back to former club Racing Santander -- also appeared.
Nine new footballers had joined Real Madrid's revolution. There was still almost a month of the transfer window remaining but Madrid announced that its summer spending was over. Alonso was the last -- but certainly not the least. In fact, his arrival is arguably the most significant of the lot. At least in terms of what it says about Madrid's project -- that is, Madrid's footballing project. He could well be the player who really makes the difference.
Garay was already a Madrid player. Former B-team player Negredo was bought back from Almería on preferential terms -- just $7.5 million for a player who scored 19 La Liga goals in a struggling side last season -- with a view to selling him on for a profit (which Real did a month later, dealing him to Sevilla with a buy-back option). And Arbeloa is, in truth, little more than a defensive utility player, signed for a relatively cheap $5 million.
Albiol will have an important role at center back after joining from Valencia for $22 million, but Madrid's defense was not the most pressing of its needs. Benzema -- whose $50 million fee, rising to $58 million, speaks volumes of the hopes Madrid has for him -- is not the standard-bearer of the project. Madrid already has Gonzalo Higuaín. And Raúl.
Like Negredo, Granero was a former B-team player bought back for an exceptional price -- not only did he cost just $5.8 million from Getafe, he agreed to a pay cut to return to the club he'd originally joined as an 11-year-old. His signing provides midfield cover and maintained the pressure on Liverpool in Madrid's pursuit of Alonso. With Granero's arrival, Madrid attempted to convey the message that it did not necessarily need Alonso, preventing his price inflating still further.
The reality was that Madrid did need Alonso. It really needed him. By getting a fee believed to be in the region of $50 million after Madrid insisted it would not go higher than $36 million, Rafa Benítez has presented himself as the winner. The real winner, though, is Madrid coach Manuel Pellegrini.
It is no coincidence that Kaká and Ronaldo turned up first. Nor is it coincidence that they did so for a combined total of almost $250 million, becoming two of the three most expensive players ever. Pérez needed to make an impact, to bring the world's attention back to Madrid. They were the flagship of Florentino's return, the last two FIFA World Player winners.
Pérez has talked of "investment players" and "cost players." Kaká and Ronaldo belong firmly in the investment category, players who, Pérez, says generate so much money that they are, in fact, cheap. (Whether that is actually true is another issue, of course). It is not that Madrid could afford to sign them; it is, he insists, more a case of it could not afford not to sign them. Privately, he told the board that Madrid would fail without Ronaldo and Kaká.
If Ronaldo and Kaká were central to Pérez's project, Alonso was central to Pellegrini's project -- and just as vital as Ronaldo. Alonso's signing represents a victory for the coach, for sporting director Miguel Pardeza and for the new executive director general Jorge Valdano. Together, they successfully persuaded Pérez of the importance of signing Alonso despite the fact that, as a Spaniard who does not qualify for the 23 percent tax band, and one who is not a self-financing Galáctico, he is expensive -- a "cost player."
Alonso's signing is a victory for footballing decisions and hints at a president who has learned his mistakes from last time. It hints at a president who is listening to his coach and technical staff; at a president who, despite his initial reluctance, is prepared to spend big to get players whose strategic, business importance is limited. Just as importantly, it hints at a change in style and identity at Madrid, at a new approach. An improved one.
What unhappily defined Madrid last season was the way it played as much as the results it achieved. The squad went on a remarkable run in the league, winning 17 out of 18 games -- even if the 6-2 hammering at home to Barcelona and a 4-0 defeat at Anfield came to encapsulate the season. The lack of fantasy, the lack of fluidity and the reliance on the counterattack were the side's signature. Above all, there was a failure to dominate matches.
If the signings of Ronaldo and Kaká were important to the club's economic model -- and Pérez has rarely talked of anything else -- the signing of Alonso is fundamental to their footballing one. In fact, "fundamental" is exactly the word Pellegrini used.
He is determined that Madrid will keep possession and dominate games, that it will play the kind of football that his Villarreal side played: quick, mobile and tidy in possession. He believes that would have been impossible without Alonso. Guti and Fernando Gago do not cut it; Granero, while talented, is a level below Alonso; Rafael van der Vaart is not good enough. While Ronaldo and Kaká are brilliant, and Benzema will score goals, who gets them the ball?
Now Madrid has a starting lineup that looks extraordinarily strong -- in quality, in balance, in solidity. It has one of the world's best goalkeepers, an aggressive but intelligent defense protected by a deep-lying midfielder who impressed hugely last season, plus incredible fantasy and firepower.
Pellegrini believes that, in Alonso, it at last has the man that can link it all together, the player who can make it all work. It's the one thing Real lacked. With his arrival, Madrid simply doesn't need anything else.
This article originally appeared in the September 2009 issue of World Soccer magazine. To subscribe, click here.