In his early years as an actor, John Travolta regularly appeared playing the same role: the classic singing and dancing bad boy, seen in Grease or Saturday Night Fever among others. But the American was not immune to time, gaining weight and wrinkles as his age began to show, but it coincided with him breaking from being typecast. Travolta played a dark role in Tarantino's Pulp Fiction – as Vincent Vega, an iconic gangster of the 1990s – and he started a new personal era, like a phoenix rising from the ashes.
Xabi Alonso, known as passionate film buff during his time at Liverpool with regularly movie nights hosted at his Albert Dock flat, is following in Travolta's steps in many respects. Under Pep Guardiola's tenure, and in order to solve some defensive situations, Alonso has recently been reinvented as a centre back. An incredible but genuine decision and taking into account his manager's quote a year ago: "Xabi Alonso is the worst player in the world from a defensive perspective," the crazy decision now seems to be stroke of genius.
This story began two weeks ago, against Bayer Leverkusen. Alonso once again, showed just why he is such an valuable member of Guardiola's Bayern, who could not line up Medhi Benatia, Jerome Boateng and Javi Martínez due to injury and suspension. Leverksuen's relentless pressing was a major threat for the Bavarians, so Pep suggested that the midfield maestro make his debut as a centre back in order to limit their rivals' pressing.
"We had to play without Boateng and Benatia, so the coach decided that I had two positions at once and we talked about what he wanted from me: centre back when defending, more in front when attacking,"Alonso said after the match, according to the club's official website. "I felt good with it, I was aware we were playing against a very good team, but I think our performance was reliable, we won 3-0 but we could have scored more goals.
"As for my new position, you have to be ready for that and know how to play as centre back. It is a very dynamic one, in fact, it is two positions in one game, so it was different but I was ready for it and it worked very well, we know we have to deal with rivals' pressure sometimes, and I am ready to play wherever Pep Guardiola wants me to play."
"What Alonso did today was simply mad," said Guardiola after the match. Madness that we will continue watching along this season, as Alonso was deployed at centre back during the game against Augsburg. "The forwards tried to take advantage of pressure and looked for spaces in Bayern's defense, but Xabi sorted everything out," Spanish journalist Bruno Alemany explained. "I am Xabi Alonso. I solve problems." He later returned to the midfield, leading his team to a thrilling late 2-1 win.
In order to analyse this new role in Alonso's career, IBTimes UK contacted his brother Mikel, former Bolton Wanderers and Charlton Athletic player, who said: "He is very smart, very wise, he has a wonderful ability to complete long and short distance passes with calm, even under pressure. It is true that he feels uncomfortable playing with his back to goal.
"But he reads situations better than anyone, he makes decisions very fast and that has been a key fact during his career. Will we see him playing as a centre back during the coming months? Well, I think it will be something occasional, his position is attacking conductor, there is where he participates more, where he has a big impact on the games, where he is able to control the speed of the games."
Mikel, now playing for Real Union de Irun, adds that this "experiment" will be repeated under certain conditions. "It will depend on the rivals, Bayern Leverkusen's pressure was a threat for Bayern Munich, and if you have a player like Xabi, who can distribute the ball from the first row, from the defense, that gives you more chances to avoid falling into the trap."
Xabi has a new challenge in his wonderful career, to emulate Clarence Seedorf's achievement, winning three Champions League with three different clubs. Guardiola knows better than anyone that the difference between winning and losing when it comes to the continental competitions is a matter of detail. This madness or genius, whichever you prefer, may be one of the differentiating factors. Adapt or die, something Charles Darwin – and John Travolta – know very well.