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SO XAB TO SEE YOU GO
THERE CAN’T BE A RED ALIVE WHO WATCHED ALONSO IN THE WORLD CUP AND DIDN’T FEEL A TWINGE OF REGRET THAT HE IS NO LONGER AT ANFIELD. JOHN ROACHE WAS NO DIFFERENT.
IT IS New Year’s Day, 2005. Location: Anfield. Opponents: Chelsea. Xabi Alonso picks up the ball in the centre circle, flashes a look around the pitch and pulls back his leg to execute yet another life-affirming pass.
Before the foot can connect with the ball, Frank Lampard slams his studs into the Spaniard’s ankle. Yellow card. Broken bone.
The very shirt Alonso wore that day was donated to a local auction for a young lad with leukaemia; there was no way anybody was out-bidding me that night (and they did try – I’ve got the bank statements to prove it).
In his first few months at Anfield, the ex-Sociedad midfielder had swept away the hangover from Houllier’s last year in charge with masterclass after masterclass on what to do with a football.
The ‘puppet-master’ metaphor has become something of cliché in recent years, with observers trying hard to describe the vice-like yet fluid control exerted by players like Veron, Pirlo and Scholes from deep-lying positions.
But Alonso seemed able to work on a level quite apart from wiry strings and wooden marionettes.
His authority over the flight, velocity and destination of the ball was extrasensory, telekinetic: Xabi on a good day reminded more of an oracle than a puppeteer.
So when the opportunity arose to get hold of a top worn by this nailedon future Liverpool legend, I wasn’t going to miss out.
Now it hangs before me on the wall, both an artefact of Alonso’s
JOY OF EX: Former Reds Arbeloa and Alonso with their World Cup medals brilliance and a sad nod to the fact that his Anfield career ended under a cloud of quiet backroom discord.
Even more presciently, it has often been said that the injury inflicted by Lampard on that day induced the returning Alonso’s 18-month dip in form, and Rafael Benitez’s subsequent wish to sell him on.
Something must have gone quite cataclysmically wrong in order for Benitez, in the transfer window of 2008, to attempt to flog his playmaker for a mere £12-14million.
Even more alarmingly, no clubs were willing to pay that price, less than half of what Real Madrid would happily fork out just a year later.
Theories abound on the root causes of Xabi Alonso’s somewhat uneven Liverpool career.
John Toshack, who mentored the Basque-born midfielder during his formative years at Sociedad, reckoned that the big clubs were loath to take a gamble on him due to his remarkable lack of pace.
Benitez put his hand in the fire, banking on Xabi’s technique and intelligence to overcome a lack of athleticism.
But add a frail ankle joint to the equation and the outcome is potentially very bleak. When Alonso first arrived on the scene, he had time, space and confidence.
His early 04/05 performances, particularly at home, were imperious.
On returning from injury, the rules of the game had changed. Teams now closed him down in split seconds rather than seconds.
He looked nervous about being clattered and all too often gave possession away inside his own half, robbed by opponents whilst ponderously searching for the next pass.
Benitez has been blamed for reining in Alonso in an attempt to create a more solid central spine, something which was dismally lacking during the Spaniard’s first season at the club.
In 05/06, Alonso was suddenly hitting passes no longer than ten yards, rarely ventured forward and looked to be pre-occupied with the tactical and positional side of his game.
Benitez’s reputation as a control freak does not help. His desire to mechanise each individual in his team is well-documented; his titlewinning Valencia XI was nicknamed ‘The Machine’.
Thus there was outrage on some sides when, having failed in his alleged attempt to turn Alonso into an effective defensive enforcer, the manager looked to sell him at a cut price and bring in Gareth Barry (for £18-20million, no less).
Barry is a player I like: versatile, intelligent, consistent.
However, whilst Alonso is capable of conducting a sublime symphonic orchestra, Barry is a functional but flat speaker system, the kind you get softly humming muzak in elevators.
He can ‘do a job’, but you’d much rather have the real deal.
And some have denied that Alonso’s performances were ever that bad anyway; certainly he never showed the same lag in Europe as he did domestically, contributing memorable displays in crucial games against the likes of Juventus and Chelsea.
Those supportive voices were joined by the many fans who, despite admitting to the midfielder’s less polished performances, referred more strident critics to the old cliché about the fleeting nature of form and the permanence of class.
To them, having even an out-ofform Alonso on the books was more valuable than having an in-form Gareth Barry.
These were the people who, in 08/09, could sit back smugly as Alonso rose back to his former heights and beyond, liberally peppering Liverpool’s best season in 20 years with immaculate demonstrations of defensive capability and attacking prowess from an ideal position, just ahead of Mascherano. When Alonso handed in a transfer request last summer, there was inevitably a brigade of fans quick
XABI ALONSO FACTFILE
Age: 28 Signed from: Real Sociedad £10.7m, August 2004 Sold to: Real Madrid £30m, August 2009 LFC games/goals: 210/19
to jump on the manager’s back for upsetting the No.14.
Indeed, his departure for Madrid is often cited as a key moment in Rafa’s demise and eventual sacking.
How easily they overlook the fact that the well-rounded, nigh-on complete central midfielder who emerged out of that unforgettable season was a result of Benitez’s insistence on discipline alongside creativity.
Alonso’s crunching tackles and ability to read opposition attacks elevated him to the realm of the ‘world class’, but such vital defensive attributes were not as noticeable a part of his game when he arrived in Liverpool.
They emerged as elements of Alonso’s game only after a slow and difficult transitional process, instigated by Benitez.
Perhaps Alonso was temporarily ‘stifled’ by his manager, perhaps his manager grew frustrated and lost patience with his player’s prolonged attempt to evolve his game beyond the awesome passing. Whatever the case, it is hard to deny that Alonso would not be plying his trade at so glorious a club as Madrid right now (and clutching a World Cup winners’ medal) if it wasn’t for his ex-manager’s constant criticism and demands.
Finally, perhaps understandably, it all got too much for Alonso; yet he should not forget that the code which has brought him such success was formed not just in Sociedad, but also in Benitez’s Liverpool.
The shirt hanging above me shall thus continue to be one of my most prized possessions, signifying so many things: the joy of watching Alonso, the third goal in Istanbul, Benitez’s hard-headed determination never to stand still (for better or worse), and the season I nearly got to witness us win the league.
In short: many of the reasons why I love football – and Liverpool.
More from John at: allthingsred.co.uk