THE ON SOCCER NEWSLETTER Marcos Alonso and the Genius of Thomas Tuchel There is no such thing as a good or a bad player, only one in the right (or wrong) system.

Marcos Alonso’s career at Chelsea has been reborn under Coah Thomas Tuchel.
Marcos Alonso’s career at Chelsea has been reborn under Coah Thomas Tuchel.Credit…Hannah Mckay/Reuters

Things got so bad, at one point, that even Marcos Alonso’s father was telling him to go. His fallout with his coach at Chelsea, Frank Lampard, had been spectacular and it had been total. Alonso had been substituted at halftime during a game at West Bromwich Albion, but instead of dutifully filing out to support his teammates, he had instead skulked off to wait on the team bus, stewing at the injustice of it all.

When Lampard found out, he was furious. First, he rebuked Alonso for his disloyalty, his petulance, in front of his teammates, a public shaming that often functions as soccer’s nuclear option, and then he ostracized him entirely from his team. For four months, Alonso did not play so much as a minute of soccer.

His father — also Marcos Alonso — had been a professional, too, playing for Atlético Madrid and Barcelona. His grandfather — you can probably guess his name — spent eight years at Real Madrid. Both, Alonso’s father told him, would have been tempted to “tell the manager where to go,” and then demand the club’s owner allow them to leave.

It was not the first time that Alonso’s Chelsea career seemed to be stalling. He had thrived under Antonio Conte — the coach who signed him, for $32 million, in 2016 — for two seasons, and started well under his replacement, Maurizio Sarri. But then, as the club’s form dipped, by his own admission, so did Alonso’s. Sarri had asked him for “something different,” and he had found it hard to adapt. After a spell struggling with injury, he found it hard to regain his place in the team.

Alonso had persevered through that, though, and he determined to ignore his father’s advice and do the same after the collapse of his relationship with Lampard. It paid off: In January, Lampard was fired. Alonso was restored to the substitutes’ bench for Thomas Tuchel’s first game as his successor. He returned to the field a few days later, scoring Chelsea’s second goal in a win against Burnley.

It was only at the start of the current season, though, that he has re-emerged as a regular presence. Ben Chilwell, his rival for the left-sided role in Tuchel’s team, returned late from his summer exertions with England; it is only in the last week or so that he has been considered fit enough for selection.

Tuchel has figured out that Alonso is not a left back, nor is he a left wing. As a left wing-back, though, with cover behind him and options ahead, he is perfect.

Tuchel has figured out that Alonso is not a left back, nor is he a left wing. As a left wing-back, though, with cover behind him and options ahead, he is perfect.

A year or so after it seemed his Chelsea career was over, Alonso has thrived in Chilwell’s absence. He was, arguably, Chelsea’s best player in its victory against Tottenham last week. At the start of the month, he had stood out as Tuchel’s side neutralized Liverpool — despite playing the entire second half at a disadvantage — at Anfield.

His skill set seems uniquely suited to the exigencies of Tuchel’s system. His height bolsters Chelsea’s back line in defense; his diesel stamina allows him to cover huge tracts of turf over considerable periods of time; his attacking instincts make him a valuable offensive outlet; and his pinpoint delivery makes him a key supply line for Romelu Lukaku.

For all his ability, though, Alonso is not an easy player to admire. In 2011, he was at the wheel of a car which crashed into a wall in Madrid while traveling at more than twice the speed limit in wet conditions; a young woman was killed. Alonso’s blood alcohol level was over the legal limit. Five years later, he was told that he would not be sentenced to prison for involuntary manslaughter, but fined $71,000 and banned from driving for three years, all of which had already been served.

This week, he revealed that he had decided that he would stop kneeling in protest of discrimination, preferring instead to point to the officially sanctioned “No Room For Racism” badge that adorns every Premier League jersey.

That is his right, of course, and Alonso has made it plain that he is “fully against racism” and has no desire to make a political statement. But still, it is not what you might call a great look: a white player’s deciding that taking the knee is “losing a bit of strength,” and taking unilateral action without consulting any of his Black teammates, several of whom have been the victims of racist abuse.

It is worth considering Alonso’s case, though, purely as a sporting phenomenon. He is a relative rarity in modern soccer, in that he is a highly tuned positional specialist in an era when versatility — for the vast majority — is a professional necessity. It is not just that Alonso plays in one position, it is that he appears to succeed only in one interpretation of one position.

He is not especially effective as a traditional left back — to an outsider’s eye, he lacks the acceleration to recover — and he is not quite creative enough to play as a left wing. As a left wing-back, though, a blending of the two roles, with cover behind him and options ahead, he is perfect.

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Alonso’s attacking instincts make him a valuable offensive outlet, and his pinpoint delivery makes him a key supply line for Romelu Lukaku.
Alonso’s attacking instincts make him a valuable offensive outlet, and his pinpoint delivery makes him a key supply line for Romelu Lukaku.Credit…David Klein/Reuters

More than that, he is a compelling example of a truth that bears repeating: Whether he looks a key cog in Chelsea’s success or a spare part depends not on his basic level of ability — which, within reason, we can assume to have remained essentially consistent — but on the identity and nature of his coach. Under Conte and Tuchel, he has thrived. Under Sarri and Lampard, he drifted. There is, as ever, no such thing as a good or a bad player, only one in the right or wrong system.

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