While many Liverpool fans will obviously feel unhappy about the sale of a prized asset like Xabi Alonso, and some will even point the finger of blame at Rafa Benitez, it is worth considering the sale from the manager’s point of view.
Fans may feel aggrieved, but many of the same fans would have backed Rafa’s campaign to get fuller control of club affairs last the season. Having done so, they should at least try and understand the reasoning of the man they seem to have backed so unflinchingly.
The negatives are obvious. Alonso had probably his best season in a red shirt in Liverpool’s title challenge last term. Evidence of the Spaniard’s influence was clearly shown in the number of red card fouls perpetrated against him by sides who had clearly singled him out as the player who made Liverpool tick.
In Alonso, Liverpool are losing the best passing midfielder in English football, and one of the very best in European football. Moreover, they are losing a playmaker capable of dictating the tempo in a game – a skill more or less absent in English football, despite the wealth of talent on these shores.
Ultimately, in a season where Liverpool should be genuine challengers again, the loss of Alonso is a major set back before a ball is even kicked in anger.
Right up to the end, Benitez insisted that he did not want to lose a player he tried to flog the season before. Many may feel this is disingenuous. But if there is any truth in his protestations, it may lie in the fact that Alonso surprised him with his level of performance last season – causing him to rethink. Had Madrid not come knocking, it is unlikely that Benitez would have sought a buyer for the player this season.
There is merit in the argument that Alonso, disgruntled that Benitez was prepared to move him on last season, was always going to look for a move – and that Rafa only has himself to blame. But from the manager’s perspective, the Alonso that he was looking to replace with Gareth Barry was not the player that attracted Madrid in the first place.
The two seasons before last term were at best mediocre for Alonso. Having sustained a series of bad injuries in those campaigns that appeared to have restricted his mobility, Alonso was a shadow of the player Liverpool had signed from Real Sociedad. There was little to suggest that he could recapture his early Liverpool form. As Benitez looked to strengthen his side with proven Premier League performers, the dependable, and increasingly influential Barry looked more likely to survive the rigours of a season than the brittle Alonso.
That Alonso turned things round is a great credit to both his quality and professionalism. He could rightly feel upset that Benitez felt he no longer fitted in with his plans, but in the end, the manager’s prerogative was to do the best he could for the club.
Benitez’s judgment on the matter will be put seriously to the test this season. The purchase of Alberto Aquilani cannot end as the purchase of Robbie Keane did. With control over transfer decisions and negotiations now in his hands, the failure of the Italian to perform would be damaging to the Spanish supremo. Should Aquilani prove a success and Liverpool challenge again, the Alonso affair will be consigned to history.
Benitez may defend himself and argue that given that Alonso wanted to go – there really would have been little benefit to the club in trying to make him stay against his wishes. Despite losing a valued asset, Rafa may feel satisfaction over the manner in which the business has been handled. If Rick Parry were still in charge, he would surely argue, would Liverpool have wrung so much from Madrid – and would a replacement have been drafted in as quickly? If the evidence of Liverpool’s (and Parry’s) past dealings with Madrid are anything to go by, then the answer is probably no.
The loss of such a pivotal player will clearly require a period of adjustment – and a change in playing style. Aquilani is not a direct replacement – and would appear to be a player who likes to do his work further up the pitch. Reading into Benitez’s thinking, it would appear that he has realised that the secret to changing the kinds disappointing draws that derailed Liverpool’s title challenge last season lies in getting more players of sufficient quality into offensive positions. Glenn Johnson should provide an attacking improvement over Alvaro Arbeloa on the right. And perhaps, given Alonso’s poor goal return in his time at Anfield and despite the solid platform that he and Mascherano provided for the team, Aquilani may actually provide more bite to the club’s attacking efforts.
So while it is sad to see such a rare talent as Alonso leaving the English game, Liverpool fans may well console themselves that Chelsea and Manchester United have dominated football in England in recent times without the services of a specialist midfield playmaker in the Alonso mould.