Keeping Alonso Is Key To Success

Keeping Alonso Is Key To Success
July 12, 2009 Paul Tomkins

It seems that Real Madrid aren’t going to go away. They think that Xabi Alonso is uniquely talented, but they aren’t prepared to pay what he’s worth.

It’s a little ‘rich’ to suggest the price is too high when you’ve just spent £170m on four players.

Perhaps as fans we can’t be too critical of the ultimate vulturine club, as it circles voraciously overhead, given that it’s a similar situation to the Reds’ pursuit of Gareth Barry last year – although Liverpool are never as brutal or cocky in their pursuit of their targets, and don’t plant stories in the media to such an alarming degree. All clubs play the game, but Real Madrid have an astonishing arrogance.

If Liverpool have put at £35m price tag on Alonso, then that’s good news. Any less would be a steal, and as such, it sends out a fairly strong ‘hands off’ message.

Having said that, I think selling the Spaniard at any price would almost certainly leave the Reds weaker next season, no matter who the money helps buy.

I trust Rafa to know what he wants to do, and also the fact that he gets it right more often than not. Even when people have thought he’s been wrong, he’s tended to turn the situation around. So I won’t panic if the worst happens, providing he has sanctioned it.

But I just think this is a critical summer – one where continuity is more important than adding new players. And while improving the squad is important, it shouldn’t be at the expense of what’s already working. I just don’t see a replacement for Alonso that doesn’t involve too much of a gamble, be it someone already at the club or bringing in someone new.

Lucas is a better player than he’s given credit for, and a youngster with potential to get a lot better, but he’s not in Alonso’s class, and never will be. He’s also a different type of player, so it’s not a fair comparison.

Some fans are salivating at the idea of selling Alonso and procuring someone like David Villa, but even allowing for the lack of reality in such dreams, dropping Steven Gerrard back into midfield would break up the best front pairing in world football, with their near-telepathic understanding one of the things that can genuinely help the Reds win the league. As a pair they are beautifully balanced.

I also think it’s virtually impossible to expect someone to come in as a direct replacement and immediately replicate the understanding and balance exhibited by Alonso, Mascherano and the players both behind and in front of them on the pitch.

Almost all players can be replaced in time, but Liverpool won’t be helped by returning to transition, at the heart of the side, when the team is close to peaking. A year or two ago I might have felt differently, but I sense that for the Reds the time is nigh.

Alonso himself is entering his prime, and losing him would mean too much uncertainty. Therefore I feel it should be resisted at all costs – even above £35m – unless, of course, he kicks up a stink and asks to leave.

I expect that he’s too professional for that. Madrid may appeal to him for obvious reasons, but he’s got a special place in the affections of the Kop, and has a chance to achieve something truly historic at Liverpool.

Obviously all footballers are concerned about their pay packet to some degree, and the fact that the Spanish state deducts 23% from a top-bracket earner’s wages, compared with the new 50% tax-rate in England, may play a part in any player’s thinking. Then there’s the strength of the Euro to the pound.

But if Fernando Torres, one of the most in-demand players in the world, can look past such things, and have no interest in leaving, then surely Alonso – another very decent human being with his head screwed on – surely can to.

Having been at the club for five years, and helped get the team closer to the title than it has for almost two decades, Xabi must want to be part of the momentum that is clearly building. I also think success at Liverpool would mean more to any player who has been at the club long enough to understand what it means, than success elsewhere, particularly that which is clearly bought.

In a World Cup year, he could also use the stability that Liverpool gives him, not least a manager who believes in him as a player. Who will manage Madrid in a month’s time, let alone six months, is always hard to know.

Xabi might have had his differences with Rafa Benítez in 2007/08 but they were no longer an issue last season; anyone who thinks that they were must have slept through the campaign. And if that’s what you get when the two men are unhappy with each other, long may it continue!

Keeping the spine together is paramount. So therefore the same applies to Javier Mascherano, who is being courted by Barcelona. I can’t think of a price that makes breaking up this team worthwhile.

Personally, I’d be slightly less concerned if Mascherano left rather than Alonso (while understanding that a lot of top managers value the defensive midfielder above all else), but the ideal situation is that both stay, and crucially, remain committed to the cause. Both are up there with the very best in the world at what they do, which is why Spain’s two giants feel that they need them.

But if either Alonso’s or Mascherano’s heart isn’t in it, then it’s a case of getting the best market price. Having said that, it’s not like they are going to be forced to have a horrible time at Anfield; they are going to play regular football in front of an adoring crowd, in a team challenging for honours and competing in the Champions League, and being well paid for the privilege; they are not being frozen out at some relegated club.

The strength of Liverpool’s side now has to be attractive to them both.

The addition of Glen Johnson, in theory at least, adds to the overall quality of the Reds’ first team. That is an important step towards a 19th title, and hero worship.

It’s also hard to know what £35m is worth right now. Madrid have raised the bar in transfer fees, therefore all clubs will be looking for more money for their prize assets.

The other problem with Alonso leaving is the lack of time to find a replacement and reinvest the money.

I felt that one of the reasons Robbie Keane was sold in January was to avoid the usual brinkmanship and haggling that drags on throughout the summer; Rafa wanted the money for the start of the window, something keeping Keane would have denied him. Had Spurs still wanted to buy the striker, it’s clear that they’d never have met the asking price before the last day of August. That’s how some clubs work.

Owen and United

As for Michael Owen, I honestly don’t blame him for joining United. He is a professional who had a seriously declining career to worry about. I’m sure he wanted to rejoin Liverpool, but I also understand why Benítez chose against it. I wouldn’t have been averse to Owen coming back to bolster the numbers, but it’s certain that he wouldn’t have been happy on the bench.

And as we saw with Keane, too much of a circus surrounds leaving certain players out of the line-up. Fabio Capello was so sick of having to explain Owen’s absence from squads or line-ups that he got to the stage where you sense he’d refuse to select him if he was the last fit player in the country. (Not that Owen would stay injury free, even then.)

It must feel like Christmas for Owen, having been linked with clubs like Hull and Stoke, and after four dire years on Tyneside that ended with him captaining Newcastle to relegation – from the bench.

Of course, his move to Old Trafford doesn’t make me happy, either, because he is still a natural goalscorer, and seeing him in a United shirt holding aloft a United scarf just looked so wrong.

I personally feel he’s past his best in a number of ways, but there’s always the threat of poaching goals in a side that creates a lot of chances – or that used to, before two major departures. As most things went through Ronaldo, United may not necessarily create quite so many openings.

But Owen has a big game, big club mentality and certainly won’t freeze. So I don’t agree with those Reds dismissing him as washed up. That’s dangerous.

Obviously what United do is their business, but as a Liverpool fan I feel less concerned seeing Valencia and Owen in their ranks than Ronaldo and Tevez, or indeed, Benzema and Ribery. From what I’ve read, many United fans feel the same. With Scholes and Giggs nearing the end of their careers, and Ronaldo and Tevez gone, maybe a period of transition will derail them – even if it’s not for long, crucially it could be long enough.

So this could be a good chance to take advantage, with Chelsea also experiencing upheaval in the form of yet another new manager. We can’t assume that either club will definitely suffer, but as things stand Liverpool are the only club to not have lost key men.

No doubt United will add more quality to the squad, and as champions will still be the team to beat. But I sense they still have to find other players just to be somewhere near as good as last season, having lost two special attacking talents who, like Torres and Gerrard, had a good understanding with their team-mates; understandings that transcended the sum of their parts.

By contrast, Liverpool, with Glen Johnson, have added a necessary new component: the fast, overlapping full-back, something United had held as an advantage over the Reds (in the form of Patrice Evra, whose style Liverpool could not replicate).

And with Torres having missed half of last season, he will be like the proverbial new signing. If he stays fit, Liverpool can clearly go up another level from last season.

Despite a few injuries, he’s played more football in the past two years than Owen has in four, and scored almost twice as many goals in that shorter period of time – without a single penalty, either, unlike Owen. The Spaniard has also scored for Liverpool at a faster rate than Owen used to – and let’s not forget, Owen was a pretty special player back then.

Meanwhile, Steven Gerrard now scores at a rate like Owen used to, but crucially, does a hell of a lot more too.

A lot can still change before the end of August, so it would be wrong to crow or get too optimistic. But the way things are shaping up, it’s a great time to be a Liverpool fan – especially with Kenny Dalglish back at the club.

However, keeping Alonso and Mascherano could make it the perfect summer.

“Red Race: A New Bastion” will be released at the end of July, and can be pre-ordered from www.paultomkins.com. This book, which also comes in a special edition boxed version, will not be available from retailers.


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