Super-sub Paco Alcacer can't stop scoring for Borussia Dortmund and Spain
Sometimes you don't dare leave the room, dash to the kitchen and grab a drink in case you miss a goal. You're convinced you'll hear the roar the second you're standing there in front of the fridge, rushing back in only to miss the replay, but this isn't one of those times. Not if you're a Real Madrid fan, anyway.
Now, if you're a Paco Alcacer fan... well, that's a very different story.
Real Madrid have gone six hours and 49 minutes without scoring. Count added time and it's well over seven hours. In other words, you could have popped to the kitchen, got a can, come back and put "Star Wars" on instead, watching from start to finish. You could have then watched "The Empire Strikes Back" and "Return of the Jedi," too. Hell, you could have even followed that up by watching an hour of "The Phantom Menace" -- not that you'd want to -- and you still wouldn't have missed a goal.
Sorry for the silly start but this is getting silly now. You see, while Madrid fans can go right through the trilogy and out the other side, right now Paco Alcacer fans barely have time to watch the trailers.
On Thursday night, Spain beat Wales 4-1. Alcacer, making his first appearance for the national team in two years, scored two of them. Not included in Luis Enrique's first squad a month ago, Alcacer got his call-up despite having not started a single league game for his new club, Borussia Dortmund. Mind you, by the time he arrived at Spain's HQ in Las Rozas, he was somehow the Bundesliga's top scorer... without starting a game.
Alcacer had come on as a sub to score in Dortmund's win over Eintracht Frankfurt. He then came on against Bayer Leverkusen. There were 27 minutes left when he appeared and the score was 2-2. Alcacer scored twice, in the 85th and 94th minutes, to give Dortmund the victory. Next, he started and scored in the Champions League victory against Monaco, receiving his Spain call-up the next day. And that weekend, he came on as a sub again, this time against Augsburg, which was when it happened all over again, only more so. It was the 63rd minute and Dortmund were 1-0 down. By full-time, they had won 4-3. Alcacer scored the equaliser to make it 1-1, another equaliser to make it 2-2 and then, with the score at 3-3, scored a 96th-minute winner.
You might have lost track already, so let's tot it all up: Paco Alcacer had scored six league goals despite never starting and he's done it in just 81 minutes. A goal every 13.5 minutes. He was running at better than a goal every 24 minutes, including the Champions League. And now, here he was in Cardiff, eight minutes in, scoring again.
But don't rush to the fridge just yet. Because then, 21 minutes later, he scored another.
Paco Alcácer's numbers this season are unreal. pic.twitter.com/IoV7MEj1gQ— ESPN FC (@ESPNFC) October 12, 2018
All of which, you'll probably agree, is a bit silly. Almost as silly, you might think, as letting him go this past summer, which is what Barcelona did: they sent him on loan to Dortmund, who, not surprisingly, are already determined to activate their purchase option at €23 million. Almost as silly, you might also think, was him having gone to Barcelona in the first place. And yet, it's really not so daft. Nor is it quite such a surprise to see him back with Spain and scoring again.
It is headline news, though, which is hardly surprising. Sport talked about "the triumphant return of Paco Alcacer" but that return is to Spain, not Barca. "Paco Alkaiser," Marca called him. "Paco the Kaiser," El Mundo Deportivo called him, a little less imaginatively. Inside, the editorial referred to him as "Pacogol."
Alcacer has always had goals, and he's always been quick to get them -- if not quite this quick. He says that there's something intuitive about goal scoring, but there's work behind it too. When he was at Valencia, Alcacer would spend time after training sessions practicing with the club's goalkeepers and then-assistant coaches Miguel-Angel Angulo and Phil Neville. He admired the Brazilian Ronaldo but always saw himself reflected more in Raul.
Alcacer did one thing better than anything else: the near-post run, his arrival timed just right, and the immediate finish. The risk was that it could sometimes feel like that was the only thing he did. It's easy to be reminded of the remark made by the editor of one of Madrid's sports dailies when he sniped: all Michael Owen does is score goals. All?! It was, that editor added, a bit "vulgar" for a galactico. It sounds absurd but there may be something in it; certainly, some coaches have thought so.
Like with Raul, and maybe even Owen too, you could watch Alcacer and perhaps not see some obvious characteristic that made him different from the rest. His skill set was subtle: he played with intuition, intelligence, movement and touch, things that don't immediately leap up and hit you between the eyes. "He's a player for inside the area, always looking for passes," said Ernesto Valverde. There, the finishes seemed simple, which served to undermine their significance even though the simplicity lay the skill. He's not big, he's not fast and he's not especially skillful. And he rarely tried anything flashy, anything that made him stand out.
"You have to know your limits," Alcacer once told El Pais.
He admitted that when it came to trying to dribble, he would "get the ball and fall over." In one game against Espanyol for Barcelona -- a game stumbled across largely at random while going back over his brief career at the Camp Nou -- he went 31 minutes without even touching the ball. Alcacer has talked before about making run after run, knowing that most will not be seen by even his teammates, let alone fans, but that one run will and when it is, it's all worthwhile. Perhaps the biggest surprise to come from Germany was that one of his goals was a direct free kick.
Few really expected him to score like that; few expected him to even take it. But scoring? Goals? Yes, you can expect them. Maybe not in industrial quantities, but plenty of them. Alcacer scored 14, 14, and 15 in his last three seasons at Valencia. There was a reason that Barcelona came for him, paying €30m. There was a reason too that he wanted to go to the Camp Nou even though Valencia, who wanted the money from the sale, manipulated it to make him the bad guy. How, he reasoned, could any player not want to take that opportunity?
The risk, he knew, was that opportunities would be limited. He was always likely to be an alternative, not a starter. The man who signed him, Luis Enrique, is the same man who has now brought him back into the Spain squad, underlining that it was not so much a lack of trust that stood in his way, as an inescapable reality: Neymar, Lionel Messi and Luis Suarez. In that first season, Alcacer played 1,297 minutes compared with 3,087 in his final year at Valencia. He made only 11 starts. In the second season, even without Neymar, 18 players played more minutes than him: Barcelona had sought solidity, above all.
When Alcacer did play, he largely produced but at the same time, though, when he didn't play, so did Barcelona. He scored in a Copa del Rey final. In November 2017 one headline summed it up, calling him: "the striker who plays little and scores a lot." In his first year, he was getting a goal every 141 minutes, spread thinly over the season. He got eight goals in his first season, seven in his second. It doesn't sound like much, but look at the league record and it's not so bad: four goals in 695 minutes, six goals in 849.
Alcacer's minutes, meanwhile, were few and getting fewer. Nor was it just happening at Barcelona: He was Spain's top scorer in qualifying for 2016, getting five goals -- admittedly against "only" Macedonia, Slovakia and Luxembourg -- but he didn't go to the Euros with Spain and hadn't returned since. Until now, of course, and now he has scored two more: that's eight goals in 14 games for the national team. At times, it has seemed like the way he moves, the astuteness of his play, the finish, made him better suited to la seleccion than other strikers. But those other strikers have always been there too, and often ahead of him -- sometimes rightly, sometimes less so.
On Saturday morning, Alcacer is projected as the striker again. Yet on Monday against England, it is likely to be Rodrigo or Iago Aspas who will start, and there could be few real complaints if it is. Rodrigo had scored in both Spain games under Luis Enrique before Thursday night. Aspas may just be the nearest thing they have had to David Villa since 2014. Last season, those two scored 41 league goals between them.
In the wake of the Wales game, there's been a sense of revival and with it comes a touch of recrimination. Why leave? Why let him go? There's also a sense of Alcacer being a new man, somehow. Confidence is a word, important of course, and yet when it comes to Alcacer's own contribution, he's actually been reasonably consistent. What he hasn't had is continuity. It is often suggested his coaches didn't believe in him, but that's a simplistic view. Luis Enrique was one of them, and he just called up Alcacer when he hadn't even started a game yet. Simpler is the counter-argument: look who else is there.
Asked Thursday night to explain what is happening to him and his success, Alcacer replied: "It's a bit of everything: just one of those runs, confidence, getting minutes, working daily."
Above all, perhaps, it is opportunity; this, after all, is not so dramatically out of step with what he has done before when he's had the chance.
There is a film about the generation of Spaniards who had to go abroad to work in the 1960s and 1970s seeking opportunities they didn't have at home. Released in 1971, it's called "Come To Germany, Pepe." Dortmund changed Pepe for Paco. Alcacer wanted to play; now he is.
"I left Barcelona to be happy," he said this week. "I didn't have the protagonism I would have liked. At Barcelona it is hard to play with Messi, Suarez and [Ousmane] Dembele. I left to be happy playing. I decided to look elsewhere for minutes." In Germany, and in Wales, he got them. It wasn't many -- barely time to get to the fridge and back -- but it was, it turned out, more than enough.