20 August 2017. It’s Tottenham Hotspur versus Chelsea at the Wembley. Chelsea center-back David Luiz wins a foul close to the Tottenham penalty area around the 23rd minute, and wing-back Marcos Alonso steps up to take the free-kick. He fires it into the top-right corner of the net, and it’s 1-0 to Chelsea. In the 82nd minute, however, Chelsea substitute Michy Batshuayi heads the ball into his own goal and makes it 1-1.
But in the 87th minute, Alonso gets the ball from a David Luiz tackle, passes it to winger Pedro Rodriguez, then races forward through two Tottenham defenders, gets onto the end of Pedro’s through ball, and hammers the ball with his left foot through the legs of Spurs keeper Hugo Lloris. 2-1. Alonso wins the game for Chelsea.
These were just two of the ex-Real Madrid, Bolton, Sunderland, and Fiorentina defender’s 12 goals (at the time of writing) for Chelsea in his time at Stamford Bridge. For both this season so far as well as last season, Alonso has been the highest-scoring defender in the Premier League. A lot of these goals have come from direct free-kicks. This season, he has scored 2 goals from direct-free kicks, and 25% of the free-kick shots he takes go into the net, which is the 3rd-highest for players in the big-5 leagues who’ve taken 5 or more direct free-kicks. Alonso looks like an elite wing-back from his goalscoring stats.
However, good attacking full-backs and wing-backs are known for being able to offer width, dribble down the wing and put crosses into the box. Examples of such players are Giacinto Facchetti, Carlos Alberto, Cafu, Marcelo, Dani Alves, Maicon, and Alex Sandro. But Alonso neither dribbles a lot nor crosses frequently, which makes him infuriating to watch with the ball as a Chelsea fan. While Alonso is a capable defender, his attacking play looks sub-optimal.
The data seems to confirm this. His tally of 0.6 accurate crosses per 90 minutes is only the 57th-highest for wing-backs in Europe’s big-5 leagues, and his cross completion rate of 19.3% is only the 74th-highest. His dribbles p90 count of 0.5 is just 72nd for big-5 league wing-backs, too.
But when you look at some other stats that you’d think are less relevant to wing-backs, Alonso stands out. He takes 1.4 shots p90 from open play (which means free-kicks aren’t his only source of shots), which is the 4th-highest for big-5 league wing-backs. Moreover, his two aerial duels won p90 is the 22nd-highest in the big-5 leagues. When you visualise this data as well as the stats I used a little earlier, it tells quite a story.
As you can see, relative to other wing-backs in the big-5 leagues, Marcos Alonso puts up a lot of key passes (which means he’s quite creative), wins a lot of aerial duels (thus disrupting opposition lofted passing), and wins a high proportion of the tackles he attempts. Alonso, however, doesn’t cross well or dribble much as stated earlier. He doesn’t do a lot of defensive work either, but raw tackle and interception stats aren’t perfect and can be influenced by team styles and player roles. Most importantly, though, he is in the 95th percentile for open-play shots p90.
A Lethal Forward Defender
You’d expect those shots to come from bad (deep, wide) areas, right? Well, actually, Alonso gets himself into surprisingly good shooting locations. You’d expect this shot map to be of a left-winger rather than a left wing-back:
As you can see, most of his shots were taken from inside the box, and these shots were from fairly central locations. His expected goals (xG) per shot is 0.139, which is peculiarly high.
For a team in which Alonso is the 3rd-highest goalscorer and is low on goalscoring forwards, Alonso’s output is welcome. The main reason for Alonso’s shot numbers is the fact that Chelsea usually attack with the wing-backs in line with the wingers and the striker in a 3-4-3 system, creating a 3-2-5 shape in attack. Teams with 4-man defenses are often outnumbered at the back with this shape, leaving one Chelsea attacker often unmarked. When the ball is on the right side of the pitch, Alonso is usually the one unmarked, which creates this situation. He can then either make a run down the flank or a run into the box.
Another factor that enables Alonso to get space in the final third is playing next to Eden Hazard. When the Belgian picks the ball up and starts to carry the ball towards the goal with his controlled dribbling style, he usually attracts a couple of defenders and hence creates space for other players. The following is a common scenario on the left side of the pitch:
Chelsea’s system and players aren’t the only things that allow Alonso to put up shot numbers this high – Alonso is 6’2” tall and 85 kgs heavy, and an intelligent runner off the ball, too.
As for his free-kicks, the main reason for his high conversion rate of 25% (which…err…may not be sustainable) is the power and placement of those direct free-kick shots. As you can see, most of his free-kicks are a decent distance away from the goal.
Analysts at Stratagem Technologies code the quality of a shot taken on a scale of 0 to 5, which depends on how well the shot was hit and the placement of the shot. Using direct free-kick shot quality to gauge the probability of a direct free-kick going in, you’d expect Alonso to score around 2.39 direct free-kick goals.
Not only are defenders similar to Alonso very rare, but there is almost no player whose playing style and skillset is similar to that of Alonso. Someone (kind of) comparable to Alonso is the striker-turned-winger Mario Mandzukic, who went from a dangerous, physical striker to a hardworking left-midfielder under Juventus manager Massimiliano Allegri, who sometimes even used Mandzukic as a wing-back in a 3-5-2 formation. Mandzukic’s shot and goal output went down with the new role, but his creativity and defensive work-rate powered Juve to a 6th-consecutive Serie A title, a Coppa Italia title, and a Champions League final.
The bottom line is this: Marcos Alonso doesn’t do the stuff that most players in his position do, but not many players in his position can do the stuff he does. He may not be the same player in a new role, system or club, but what he does for Chelsea certainly helps them. A lot.
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This article was written with the aid of StrataData, which is property of Stratagem Technologies. StrataData powers the StrataBet Sports Trading Platform, in addition to StrataBet Premium Recommendations.