For the fourth match in the last five, Bayern Munich played a midfield pairing of Xabi Alonso and Bastian Schweinsteiger. In those four matches Bayern Munich have 1 win, 2 draws, and 1 loss while scoring a grand total of 4 goals. It's been a rough stretch of results and it's not an artifact of the vagaries of form as Bayern Munich torched Hamburger SV just three days ago to the tune of 8-0.
The latest result was a flaccid 0-0 draw to Shaktar Donetsk in the Champions League and it was result that really highlighted the central issues Bayern Munich are having in buildup play -- and most of the blame for that falls at the feet of Xabi Alonso. Despite the fact that the former Spanish international is only just 32-years-old and coming off the back of winning a Champions League trophy last season with Real Madrid, Alonso is a shade of his former self that saw him win two European Championships and a World Cup with Spain in 6 years. He's been a completely immobile type of playmaker for several years and while his passing ability may still be rivaled only by the likes of Andrea Pirlo or Toni Kroos, it's the rest of the equation that is making him a liability for Bayern Munich.
Just as Wolfsburg and Schalke demonstrated to open the Rückrunde, targeting Xabi Alonso is a viable strategy and one that hurts Bayern Munich far more then it harms yourself. Schalke further demonstrated that combining a high pressing defense that targets Alonso while simultaneously maintaining deep structured defensive lines is a very valuable strategy to killing off Bayern Munich's ability to build play. Furthermore, it also restricts the space for their intricate passing in the final third. Taking a page from the books of those two clubs, Shaktar Donetsk came out and shut down a Bayern Munich attack by first playing compact structured defense, then shutting down Xabi Alonso with the man mark and high press.
The gif to the right shows three separate instance in the match of Donetsk pressing high and immediately pressuring Alonso when he receives the ball. This tactic has a two-fold effect. First, it disrupts buildup play and forces the ball wide like any good press should do. Second, using one or multiple pressers isolates Alonso from Schweinsteiger breaking the direct link through the midfield and making Bayern play around the edge. This disrupts rapid transitions and quells some of Bayern Munich's best attacking threats.
However, the bigger issue that stems from this play is Alonso's inability to escape this pressure. His speed prevents him from dribbling out of anything other then the rashest of challenges or the loosest of presses. Without that option, passing becomes the sole option. However without the forward option of playing the ball into Schweinsteiger available, the lone option becomes playing it wide. Combining all those factors together and Alonso now gets stuck in the middle as a rotating statue through which possession flows.
Now the question of what effect this has on his passing comes into play. Attempting nearly 90 passes in 60 minutes on Tuesday, the vast majority of those passes were short and lateral or backwards. Without the incisive forward pass, Alonso's only attempt to move play forward is with the long pass. He played 5 longballs the entire match of which only two were successful belying yet another ineffectual strategy.
How do you solve a problem like Xabi?
The ultimate question is how Pep Guardiola and Bayern Munich respond to the problem that they're encountering. One solution, and perhaps the most drastic, would be to drop Alonso to the bench giving his starting position to a revolving cast of Sebastian Rode, David Alaba, and later Philipp Lahm and Thiago. That may not be the best solution because Bayern Munich's buildup play almost requires a deep-lying playmaker of his ilk.
Another option that I outlined last week is switching to a 3-man midfield using two box-to-box midfielders. This option would both shield Alonso from the midfield presses while presenting him with multiple forward options harnessing his ability to create incisive forward passes.It's a strategy that worked wonders for Real Madrid when they dismantled Bayern Munich last May using a combination of Khedira/Isco/Di Maria allowing Alonso to pick up his head and thread dangerous passes that utilized transition play effectively. It's also a strategy that has worked in the past for Bayern Munich with Alonso in that deep role, so we have some precedent for it working for this team.
Despite that option it still may not solve one of the overarching problems of playing Xabi Alonso -- that being his lack of mobility is a real factor that teams are showing can be exploited with relative ease.