Player Profile: Paco Alcacer
An ability to roll with the punches is one of the key ingredients in the extraordinary reawakening this season of Borussia Dortmund’s on-loan striker Paco Alcacer, the Spanish hit man whose avalanche of goals for club and country has caused ripples of admiration all over Europe.
Just last summer the 25-year-old’s career was effectively in no-man’s land. His €30million move from Valencia to Barcelona in 2016 had not worked out – yielding just 18 La Liga and Champions League starts in two seasons – and some two-and-a-half years had elapsed since his last cap for Spain. And with Barca deeming him excess baggage, a transfer downgrade was looming.
Once regarded as one of the brightest young prospects in Spanish football, he was linked with such sides as Fenerbahce in Turkey, Premier League strugglers Southampton and mid-ranking La Liga outfits Alaves and Celta Vigo. A fall from grace, indeed.
In hindsight, he would have been wise to resist the Camp Nou siren song. For all the goalscoring prowess he displayed for Valencia and various junior Spain sides, he never was going to supplant the likes of Messi, Suarez, Neymar, Dembele and Coutinho. But at least he tried. And ever the positive thinker, he insists he has no regrets.
“While some will suggest that I’ve wasted the last couple of years, I don’t think so,” Alcacer told Spanish sports daily AS. “Of course, I’d have preferred to have more time on the field at Barca, but as a player and a person I improved a lot. I learned a great deal.
“Working with Messi made me a better player. In fact, many of the goals I scored at Barcelona were from his passes.” After Barca informed him he was free to go he had a simple decision to make: either take the soft option of a non-Champions League relaunch or stick to his guns and hold out for another top-level tour of duty.
Eschewing the idea of a tactical retreat, he got straight back on a thoroughbred mount and signed a loan deal in late August with Bundesliga big-hitters Dortmund. No one was expecting him to instantly find his feet at the Westfalenstadion. Apart from the huge task of eliminating two years’ worth of match rustiness, he also had to adjust to a new league and, crucially, he had missed Dortmund’s entire pre-season.
Sensibly, the Plan A of new Schwarz-Gelben coach Lucien Favre was to ease him in gently and use him in small doses; a sort of watch, listen and learn brief.
However, the Spaniard did not receive the script and in his first three league outings for Dortmund – all from the bench – he would score no fewer than six times: a brilliant left-footed strike as Eintracht Frankfurt were seen off 3-1, a brace in a 4-2 win at Bayer Leverkusen and a glorious 34-minute hat-trick in a 4-3 victory at home to Augsburg.
Six goals in only 81 minutes of action; that’s what you call supersub efficiency. Only one other Bundesliga player – Hamburg’s Charly Dorfels in 1963 – has ever proved as prolific in his first three top-flight games and he required much longer to pull it off (224 minutes).
The Augsburg match – a topsy-turvy encounter with all bar one of the goals coming after the interval – was Alcacer at his explosive, time-restrained best. Scoring to make it 1-1, he equalised again for 2-2, and then fired in a wonderful free-kick deep into time added-on to win the game. “Sensational,” exclaimed Dortmund skipper Marco Reus, while general manger Michael Zorc said: “Nobody would have expected Paco to have performed so well, so fast. It’s almost a modern-day fairy tale.”
Alcacer has not only been piling up the goals in the Bundesliga, he was also on target in a 3-0 Champions League victory against Monaco. And on earning a recall to the national team in October he swiftly made his mark, twice on the scoresheet in a 4-1 friendly victory over Wales and then heading home another in a 3-2 Nations League loss to England in Seville.
Hot streaks do not come any more blistering than this. In sports-psychology speak, he was slap-bang “in the zone’”.
“It’s a bit of everything,” he explained when discussing his renaissance with Spanish national broadcaster RTVE. “I’m in a good run of form, am confident, have the minutes on the field and above all, work hard every day when I don’t play. That way, I’m in a good place when I do return to the fold.”
Looking at the nuts and bolts of his loan switch to western Germany, it’s clear that Dortmund pulled off a masterstroke. The loan deal itself only cost the Ruhr outfit €2m for the loan fee and around €4m to cover his wages. And for the cherry on the cake they were also able to negotiate a cut-price right-to-buy option of €23m. Not surprisingly, Dortmund have already set the wheels in motion to trigger it, offering him a permanent contract until 2023.
The irony here is that early in the summer Dortmund were showing little interest. Number one on their wish-list of new strikers was Juventus and Croat star Mario Mandzukic – and even when Juve refused to play ball the initial reaction in the Westfalen corridors of power was not to seek an alternative leader of the line. Instead, they were tempted to go with an in-house solution: the redeployment of Maximilian Philipp or Marco Reus as a false nine.
Almost as an afterthought Zorc began to ponder the merits of Alcacer, a name he was extremely familiar with. “We’d known about Paco for a long time,” he explains. “We’d scouted him several years ago when he was playing for young Spain sides. Back then he’d shown much quality and promise.
“He scored lots of goals and at the age of just 22 was appreciated enough at Valencia to become first-team captain.
“After he moved to Barcelona we continued to keep an eye on him. We thought he’d be a good fit with our playing style. Besides being a talented striker he gives his all for the team. On talking to him that collective mindset shines through. It’s impressive.”
Much of Alcacer’s pronounced work ethic and desire flows from the most tragic of circumstances: the moment in August 2011 when his 44-year-old father collapsed and died of a heart attack outside Valencia’s Mestalla stadium.
On hand to see his son score in a pre-season friendly against Roma, Francisco Snr, a labourer on an orange farm, would have been a very proud father at the final whistle. An hour later, while leaving the ground with his wife Inma and hero of the hour Paco, he would be cruelly struck down.
For his son, who was just a fortnight shy of his 18th birthday, the age of innocence was over. Forced to quickly mature, Alcacer became even more focused on his career. And what better way to pay homage to his father than to aim for the top. His success on the field and his dad’s memory remain inextricably intertwined.
Every time he scores a goal, he celebrates in the same manner: eyes closed, his head tilted back and his arms extended towards the heavens.
“Whenever I step onto the pitch and score, I think of him,” says the striker, who has the tattoo “Always in my mind, Papa” inked on his left bicep. “Each day I remember him and I’m sure that when I’m playing he’s out there with me.”
Football played a vital role as Alcacer looked to navigate the bereavement process. Five days after his father’s passing he was training at Valencia again, finding comfort in his team-mates’ kind words and a return to routine. An article at the time in Marca summed it up as “ball therapy”. He would make his La Liga debut five months later, coming on as substitute against Real Sociedad.
Personality-wise, Alcacer is a chip off the old paternal block. He is modest, unassuming and hard working, does not especially do social media and has never been one for the party lifestyle, preferring to stay home with his partner, Beatriz Viviana Lopez, and their eight-month-old daughter, Martina.
The scars left by the premature loss of his father will probably never heal. But they have served one useful purpose – rendering him much more resilient to adversity. He does not lose his nerve when the walls appear to be closing in on him; he knows how to keep perspective.
Rather surprisingly for one so talented, he has experienced his share of tight spots. His lack of opportunities at Barcelona; his struggles when Valencia loaned him to Getafe for the 2012-13 season; his battle to establish himself in the Valencia first team on his return; and the disastrous 2015-16 campaign at the Mestalla when the club sank like a stone, consuming four coaches – including current Wolverhampton Wanderers manager Nuno Espirito Santo and ex-England full-back Gary Neville – en route to a poor 12th-place finish.
That was the season Alcacer had his first and only taste of team captaincy, with Neville regarding him as a stronger influence than the previous wearer of the armband, Dani Parejo. It was one ray of sunshine in an annus horribilis.
His decision to leave Valencia for Barca did not merely spawn sporting disappointment, it led to acute emotional pain too, with many Valencia fans turning on a player they once idolised. Shirts bearing his name were publicly burned, he was trashed online and in his first game at the Mestalla as a Barcelona player he was roundly abused. Some Valencia supporters even thought it a good idea to set light to a copy of the Barcelona-based daily Sport.
To have ended up as public enemy number one at Valencia would have cut him to the quick. A local lad, born just down the road in the town of Torrent, he was a lifelong fan of the club and had been with them from the age of 12, going on to rise effortlessly through the ranks of their Paterna academy – the alma mata of talents such as David Silva, Juan Mata, David Villa, Isco and Jordi Alba. He was a living, breathing regional success story and the fans loved him for it. Pity it all had to end in tears.
It’s fair to say he did not handle his departure for Barcelona in the most diplomatic vein and was particularly ill-advised when seeking to justify himself by publicly describing Valencia as a poorly run club. Yet why blame him for wanting to better himself?
If this was the messiest of transfers, it was for one reason only: the mixed messages coming out of the Valencia boardroom. First the club’s owner, Peter Lim, appeared ready to do a deal. Then the chairman, Layhoon Chan, adamantly told a meeting of supporters that the Spanish international was going nowhere.In order to save face following the completion of the deal, Layhoon Chan attempted to put the divorce squarely at the door of the player, saying: “He didn’t want to be a Valencia icon”. In truth, Valencia were as happy to make the trade as Alcacer.
Nor has everything gone swimmingly for him in his international career. Despite over four years in the senior Roja orbit he has yet to feature in the finals of a major tournament and would have felt especially hard done by to not make the final cut for Euro 2016. Spain’s top marksman in qualification with five goals, he seemed to have completed the hard yards, only for coach Vicente Del Bosque to controversially scupper his chances.
Del Bosque’s obtuse explanation was that Alcacer had paid the price for Valencia’s domestic woes in 2015-16, explaining: “I don’t want to be mean. While Alcacer has had a good year, Valencia have not. The [poor] performances of Valencia have weighed down their Spanish players.”
A winner of back-to-back gold medals at the Euro Under-19 Championships of 2011 and 2012, he still has a long way to go to recreate that all-conquering buzz with the seniors.
Part of the problem for Alcacer is that at first glance he appears to be lacking in several areas. He is not especially tall or quick or skilful, is not a potent threat in the air and is no physical beast either. But in terms of the big picture he is a class act, excellent in his off-the-ball runs and eye for space, mobile and altruistic, ever willing to fulfil his pressing duties, and a predatory marksman with either foot.
“Paco has his own unique technical style,” Dortmund keeper Roman Burki reveals. “I’ve never seen anything like it before. He strikes the ball with the very highest part of his foot. He sends the ball on a straight end-over-end trajectory, not sideways.”
Applying the finishing touch is in his blood. Goals galore at all levels for Valencia, more of the same for Spain, Dortmund and Barcelona – where in spite of his bit-part status, he nevertheless managed the decent strike-rate of 15 in 50 matches – and a catalogue of decisive end-product for Spain at junior level, notably when winning the Golden Boot at the 2010 European Under-17 finals.
“Paco is a distinct type of footballer,” says Gines Melendez, the co-ordinator of Spain’s youth teams. “He’s always scored goals and that should never be forgotten. I’ve come across so many young players in my time in this job, but he has to be the best at slipping his marker at the near post. No one can match him.”
Are strikers born or manufactured? The Alcacer story makes a cast-iron case for the right genes. “Paco started with us when he was about five and though he was the youngest in the team he was from the start our ‘Mr Goal’,” recalls Ximo Requena, his coach at Monte-Sion Torrent. “We know from an early stage we had a diamond in our midst. He’d score eight, nine or 10 goals in a single game.”
Two decades later, that sharpness in the box is as relevant as ever.
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