For Liverpool, the arrival of Xabi Alonso from Real Sociedad coincided with the team’s return to their famous passing game. Gerrard Houllier’s regime was a nightmare for fans as Liverpool were never known for their direct, long ball tactics. There’s still a directness in Xabi’s style of play, but his ability to spring 50-yard passes with speed and pinpoint accuracy makes long ball actually fun to watch. He’s the soccer’s equivalent to an NFL Quarterback, who knows when to go long looking for the runners or play it short and simple. He controls the tempo of the game expertly and brings a much needed composure to Liverpool’s midfield. In short, he’s a midfield extraordinaire.
So what’s with the above title? What makes Xabi Alonso dispensable if he really is that great?
First, it’s the arrival of Javier Mascherano. When Liverpool signed Javier Mascherano, the club suddenly had two world class defensive midfielders to choose from. True, the two possess different attributes. Xabi’s passing and craft is very different from Mascherano’s tough tacking and relentless energy. Yet, they still occupy the same area of the pitch: just in front of the back four. Both of them are key to Liverpool’s midfield, but, ideally, only one of them should start.
Benitez‘ decision to play with ‘only’ Torres up front and Gerrard in a supporting role was a masterstroke. With Gerrard playing in a more advanced position, the two central midfield position picks itself, right? No, not really. We have to remember that Benitez‘ main target was Gareth Barry. Sure, Benitez would love his versatility, but the Spaniard wanted Barry to occupy the central midfield position. The transfer was never materialized, Xabi Alonso was back in the fold and played his best football last season. Xabi formed a formidable partnership with Mascherano, occupying the two central midfield positions.
Life was good for Liverpool fans as they can boast about having arguably the best central midfield partnership in Europe. Bright future seemed to be ahead, until Real Madrid declared an interest to the player. Benitez keeps on saying he wants Xabi to stay, but somehow there’s an impression that he’s willing to let Xabi go for the right price.
Why, after such a marvellous season, Benitez doesn’t seem to worry about the potential loss of Xabi Alonso? Money aside (30M-pound price tag plays a big part, of course), Benitez knows that Xabi–Mascherano partnership is not exactly ideal. That’s why Benitez wanted Barry in the first place.
What’s not ideal about the partnership? As mentioned above, the two have different attributes that actually complement each other. For the partnership to be effective, however, one has to stay back while the other makes a lot of forward runs to help the attack. For all Xabi’s quality, if there’s one attribute that he’s lacking, it’s his ability to go forward. Xabi Alonso is a dying breed, there are not too many deep-lying playmakers nowadays. Andrea Pirlo is the only world class player who resembles Xabi’s style of play. Xabi picks the ball well inside his own half and he dictates the play from there. That’s what he’s good at. He can never be a box-to-box midfielder like Gerrard or Lampard. Unfortunately, a box-to-box midfielder is what Liverpool need. Gerrard is the only reputable box-to-box midfielder in the team but he has cemented his own position further up the pitch. Lucas is a good candidate, but he’s still too young and too experienced to be a regular starter.
That explains why Liverpool have been linked with the likes of Steven Defour, Joao Moutinho, Lee Cattermole, and most recently, Alberto Aquilani. They are all technical players with good visions, but more importantly, they can run up and down the field to help the attack when needed. Liverpool aren’t blessed with a plethora of attacking prowess like Barcelona or Real Madrid. Torres and Gerrard are brilliant, but the same can’t be said about Kuyt, Riera, Babel, or Benayoun. At times, there has to be somebody to help the attack, and that has to be from one of the central midfielders.
Losing Xabi Alonso would be hard for most Liverpool fans, but with a quality replacement, it might not be as bad as many people think. Better yet, the change would possibly bring new fluidity to Liverpool’s play. A more attacking Liverpool couldn’t be bad for football, could it?