Adios Alonso

Adios Alonso
August 5, 2009 Paul Tomkins

This is a piece sent to .tv this afternoon, but which I’m guessing might be problematic for the official site to run. In the meantime I’m posting it here, in case it doesn’t get approval.

Like most fans, I’m sad to see Xabi Alonso taking his talents back to Spain.

He will perhaps go down as a Liverpool great, although he leaves before cementing the true legendary status he was capable of attaining. And perhaps that is what saddens me most; that this team is on the cusp of great things, and he was just coming into the form of his life.

To my mind, a league title with Liverpool – and with Alonso I felt that the Reds would be favourites – would be more of an achievement than anything with Real Madrid, not least because any success they attain will have been bought. Spending £220m in one summer says it all.

But every man should have the right to return to his homeland, if he feels the time is right, and if, having previously signed a long contract, another club is prepared to offer suitable recompense.

It’s hard to keep players against their will. You can do so, but it can be counter-productive in the long term.

Personally, I’d have been more optimistic about the season if Alonso had stayed, because we knew what we were getting. His departure brings with it the element of the unknown.

While I don’t doubt the Spaniard’s professionalism, or that he would have knuckled down had he stayed, it’s also true that players fully committed to the Liverpool cause are essential for the club to progress. It’s not that he was unhappy at Liverpool, but he wanted a new challenge. You have to accept that. Once he’d handed in the transfer request a line had been crossed.

So it’s debatable whether or not he would have reproduced last season’s fine form had he been forced to stay; we saw with Cristiano Ronaldo last season how his level dropped when his heart wasn’t quite in it. Emmanuel Adebayor was another whose form fell away after a move was denied him.

So maybe once Real Madrid made their move, and his head was turned, it took away the chance of a fully focussed Alonso; so the player I wanted to see remain at Anfield in essence no longer existed.

But let’s not forget that Liverpool won 4-1 at Old Trafford without Alonso, so the potential is there – even though overall the Reds only won two of the five league games he missed.

However, if a player is sold, it’s a different scenario, because a new player will be on hand to fill that void.

So it’s not like he’s simply out of action with no option of a new recruit – and that could mean the arrival of a player with a different skill set, and the chance to offer something new and surprising. The introduction of Glen Johnson already offers a new dimension, so there will be some kind of development to the side.

The timing of Alonso’s departure isn’t ideal, with the opening game only a week and a half away, but once one of your players is targeted, and he wants the move, you balance holding out for the optimum fee with the time needed to find a replacement. Liverpool could have accepted an earlier, lower offer, but the club is not there to be exploited.

Benítez appeared to take a firm stance, and that was encouraging. I don’t know the ins and outs of the deal, but usually if you don’t compromise to at least some degree, and choose to hold out till the very last day of August when the transfer window closes, then you might get every last penny you wish for, but no time to reinvest it in the side.

I felt that Spurs did this last season with Berbatov; they held out and held out, then found themselves stranded at the foot of the table, short of fire power, with no time to buy a replacement. Was the extra million or two worth it?

In the end they sacked their manager and spent a lot of money buying back players already sold, as they spent their way out of relegation trouble, suggesting holding onto Berbatov those extra weeks was a false economy. But at the same time I understand the desire to get what is seen as the full worth for a player.

So how do Liverpool move on? Well, it’s clear that the sale of heroes like Kevin Keegan and Ian Rush led directly to the arrival of Kenny Dalglish and John Barnes, arguably the club’s finest ever players. So there’s no need to panic. One door closes and another one can open.

In this case, it looks like Alberto Aquilani is the man to fill the void.  There’s no doubting the lad’s talent, it’s just a question of adaptation.

So, as is being seen at United, with the loss of Ronaldo and Tevez, and at Arsenal, with the loss of Adebayor and Toure, and at Chelsea, with the arrival of a manager new to English football, and at Manchester City, with the arrival of… (I lose count), Liverpool will be a little bit more of an unknown quantity in 2009/10.

To me that’s a shame, as I felt it was what set the Reds out from the rest of the favourites, but football is all about adapting, and overall Rafa has an excellent record in the transfer market. If anyone thinks and plans ahead, it’s him.

As well as Aquilani, there are options already at the club. The title won’t be won and lost in the first few games of the season (look at United’s slow start last time out), so if it takes a little time to bed in someone new, so be it. Central midfield is a position that is not exactly understaffed at present.

Personally, I’d be loath to move Steven Gerrard back, because Liverpool have the best front two in world football, in terms of individual talent and in terms of understanding. But it remains an option; the captain excels wherever he plays.

It’s well known that I’ve been one of Lucas Leiva’s staunchest defenders, but I was glad when he acknowledged, towards the end of last season, the need to beef up a bit; at times he would be brushed off the ball too easily, and that allowed him to be dominated by tough opponents.

Against Espanyol he already looked bigger and stronger, and greater physical power can lead to increased confidence on the ball; if you feel strong, your whole game can benefit, by feeling more in control. He was one of very few good performers on the night, and really impressed me.

He is a fine passer of the ball, but in his first two seasons had a deferential air around players like Gerrard and Alonso, giving them the simple pass so that they could be expressive, when he has that ability himself. Superb passes away at Newcastle and Old Trafford in the build-up to goals showed that he can spot an incisive ball, even though it’s a side of his game he can still develop further.

Interestingly, Alonso started neither of those games, and they were two stunning attacking performances, with nine goals scored away from home.

So maybe Alonso’s departure will give Lucas the chance to take more control of games, although he’s certainly not an identikit replacement (and like-for-like isn’t always essential). It’s a big void to fill, but the Brazilian is only now at the age the Spaniard was when he signed in 2004. So he is an improving option.

A change of emphasis in the way the Reds play might be necessary, with both Mascherano and Lucas terrier-types (chasing, harrying, snapping into tackles) who are also good on the ball, without being known as playmakers.

But these types of highly-mobile midfielders (who can get back quickly to cover) can enable others to get forward more easily, particularly the full-backs, and provide insurance for someone like Daniel Agger to step into midfield.

(Some fans have suggested Agger starting in midfield, and while an option, it can be more effective if he moves into that space, to build momentum and add numbers, with the element of surprise if he times it right, rather than beginning further forward.)

Fabio Aurelio also looked good in the centre of midfield last season, while Damien Plessis and Jay Spearing are two further options.

But these two youngsters are not blessed with a lot of experience, and it can be a tough learning curve in a team expected to challenge for the title. It’s easy to say throw the kids in, there’s nothing to lose, but then there can be little patience while they adapt. Games can be lost, and more crucially, the confidence of these kids can be damaged.

Liverpool aren’t in transition anymore, and a lot is expected this year. So youngsters need to be pretty special to force their way in.

On this theme, I’m interested to see if another rookie, 21-year-old Francisco Manuel Durán, after three serious cruciate knee injuries, can bid his horrific luck farewell and rise to the challenge; the few times he has played for the reserves he has looked like a very gifted playmaker, but it’s hard to know where he features. Big things were expected of him when he arrived from Malaga in 2007, but he’s become something of a forgotten man.

Despite Alonso’s departure, Liverpool still have a world-class spine to the team, with age on its side. The Reds also now have increased quality on the flanks, with the arrival of Johnson and the improvement of Kuyt and Benayoun, not to mention the emergence of Insua. And the manager has money to spend.

And maybe the departure of Alonso will lower expectations a little, and that always helps reduce the pressure on any team. To be successful in life you have to turn adversity into a positive, and that’s what Liverpool must do here.

If he passes his medical, there’s a chance that Aquilani – skilful, mobile and with a ferocious shot – could help the Reds improve on last year’s showing. He certainly has world-class potential.

I’d like to wish Xabi Alonso luck, but even better fortune to the man who replaces him.

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