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A Meditation on Xabi Alonso

by James Dutton // 27 February 2013 // 19 Comments

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You’ve probably seen that video on the BBC website where Xabi Alonso, in his dreamy Basque-English accent, wistfully reflects on Liverpool, a club he still feels ‘attached to’ and one which he still claims to support:

“I still feel really attached to Liverpool and I still consider myself a Liverpool fan. After five years, I think I needed a change. It was the right time. Some things happened, not that summer but the summer before when they tried to tell me I wasn’t as important as I thought that I could be. It came to my mind that my position was different and the following summer I decided it was the right time it leave.”

Last Saturday lunchtime during Alonso’s appearance on Football Focus, Match of the Day aficionado Gary Lineker tweeted to 1,412,770 followers:

Huge error from Liverpool letting @XabiAlonso slip away.

This, in turn, was retweeted by 1,415 people and generated a number of comments. Vinny Shepherd opined:

‘@GaryLineker If i remember rightly Benitez pushed him out as he wanted Gareth Barry? Was the start of a mini exodus i think?’

According to SempreInter:

‘@GaryLineker To think that this due to FSW wanting to get rid of Alonso to sign Gareth Barry instead. Instead ended up with none of them

John Dawkins:

‘@GaryLineker unbelievable that rafa wanted to pie him off for gareth barry ha ha embarrassing really. Leagues apart’

And let’s not forget Carolyn Hughes’ two cents worth:

‘@GaryLineker Absolutely, the team photograph was never quite the same again either #eyecandy’

It’s a convenient summary of the ills that have befallen Liverpool since the departure of the ginger-bearded Spaniard. This February marked the four-year anniversary of the club’s historic 1-0 victory at the Bernabeu, which was conveniently bookmarked with two demoralising 2-0 defeats to West Bromwich Albion and Zenit St. Petersburg.

But Lineker’s 10-second tweet cannot begin to explain the nearly four-year diagnosis which has seen Liverpool’s domestic and continental fortunes plummet into mediocrity.

Lineker’s statement is one that merely confirms the narrative, which with the benefit of hindsight neatly sidesteps the issue of context. In the summer of 2008 there were very evident noises emanating from Anfield considering allowing Alonso to leave.

It was a situation which, just three years before, was barely unthinkable. With Steven Gerrard on the cusp of leaving following the breakdown in his contract extension, there was a genuine school of thought that believed Liverpool would not suffer from the loss of their captain due to the presence of Alonso.

That is a testament to the remarkable impact that Alonso made on the club in that 2004-5 season. He arrived as one-half of the beginning of the Rafalutionalongside Luis Garcia; the first seeds of spring in Rafa Benitez’s Anfield vision. In the early season defeats of West Brom and Norwich at home, and then the unforgettable comeback at Fulham, Alonso was instrumental; his metronomic passing was something the Kop had not witnessed since the days of Jan Molby. His goal during the first-half of that victory over Arsenal, the first signs of what would become the Benitez mantra, was picture-perfect.

His absence from the New Year, due to a broken ankle at the hands, or feet, of Frank Lampard was keenly felt as inconsistency in the league grew. Yet he made his return in that defiant display in Turin in the Champions League quarter-final, one which shaped the end of Liverpool’s season.

The season ended in glory for the Spaniard, his goal which drew the club level in Istanbul etched his name into Anfield immortality. He had impressed enough to grant himself status alongside Gerrard, both in stature and positionally on the pitch.

His second season cemented the promise of the first; a goal from his own half against Luton Town in the FA Cup confirmed the ability he possessed.

But despite the phenomenal success of those first two seasons, the Basque entered a period of sustained decline between 2006 and 2008. It is a decline that many have since neglected, preferring to focus on the form in his final season which earned him his move to the most successful club in world football.

Aside from another, even more impressive, half-way line goal against Newcastle in September 2006 Alonso didn’t do a lot in those two seasons. His 2007-8 season was wracked by injury; he sustained a metatarsal injury early in the campaign, only to aggravate it during his comeback game against Arsenal at the end of October.

The Basque took time to settle back into the side, facing stiff competition from Javier Mascherano and the new arrival Lucas Leiva. Rumours abounded that his relationship with the manager had broken down, no doubt fueled by Alonso’s refusal to travel to a Champions League game against Inter Milan due to the birth of his baby.

Two moments from those two seasons stick in the memory. A reckless foul on Kaka in the 2007 Champions League final which led to Milan’s first goal and inexplicable hesitation on the edge of his own penalty area against Barnsley in the 2008 FA Cup. This was not the Alonso of 2004-2006. Many conveniently neglect the decline and focus instead on the circus that defined the summer of 2008.

The public pursuit of Gareth Barry is now regarded as an embarrassing episode in Liverpool’s recent history, used as a stick with which to beat Benitez for his supposed lack of grip on reality. But it ignores the contrasting trajectories of their respective careers at that time. Barry had made a considerable impact on a stale England set-up and become one of the most consistent performers in the Premier League; Alonso for all his genius had become a frustrating talent, and little more than a bit-player for a glittering Spanish side.

Many forget that Alonso’s stock had fallen so rapidly that he was placed on the bench for the first game of the 08-09 season. A certain Damien Plessis, now of Arles-Avignon, was preferred. It’s easy to blame Benitez (#blamerafa) for Alonso’s estrangement, but who’s to say his career would have taken the stratospheric turn that it has without the experience of that summer?

In that summer of 2008 he was heavily linked with a move to Juventus, a period in which La Vecchia Signora were feared more for their reputation than their ability. There was no hint of the future that awaited him in his homeland, both domestically and internationally, for he played little part in the country’s Euro 2008 success.

Lineker is correct, looking at it from a 2013 angle it was indeed a ‘huge error’, but it made sense in 2008, despite the hurt it caused in 2009. Yet the idea that the club ‘let him go’ is a fallacy in itself; Alonso did, after all, hand in a transfer request. And who would begrudge his desire for a move to the most decorated club in world football, after they had just spent over £130m on the two most recent recipients of the Ballon d’Or?

Many point to Ferguson’s ability to coax another season out of Cristiano Ronaldo, but that ignores the second-coming of the Galáctico era in 2009 which effectively swung Alonso’s head. Without his orchestration of the 5-0 aggregate victory over Real Madrid just months earlier, would they have come calling so relentlessly that summer?

In a perverse way Alonso owes his career to Rafael Benitez, not for bringing him to England in 2004 but for giving him a reality check in 2008.

@jimbodutts

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19 Comments

  1. Couple of points; Barry subsequently went on to play a key part in a title-winning team with plenty of other options availale to them, so not so obviously a stupid option for us 3 years earlier; and Alonso was available for £15M in 2008, and Wenger amongst others thought he wasn’t worth it. And any Liverpool fan using the FSW acronym needs shooting.

  2. Succinct post. The funny thing is, 9 times out of 10 when you try explaining all of this to people, they look at you like you’re talking martian and immediately label you a ‘Benitez apologist’.

    People remember what they want to, I suppose.

  3. Finally, someone speaks the truth!

  4. Agree with every word of this, James, top stuff.

  5. It just goes to show how opinions in football can be swayed to suit a particular argument.

    I fully agree with the views in the article, Xabi had a great first season and a monumental final season, but the middle two were pants.

    I remember thinking during Xabi’s final season, that Rafa was a man management genius of the old school, threatening Xabi with expulsion from a club he obviously loved, only to see him knuckle down and play out of his skin. Shankly would have been hailed a hero for such a turnaround in the players performance.

    Unfortunately for Rafa, money talks in the modern game and all the real power rests with the players, so when Real came calling it was “addios amigo”.

    You never know with our young team and Xabi’s affection for us, there may still be a place in our side for him, but if he does return lets hope its the Xabi of his final season with us….

    Top article, on the button yet again.

  6. ‘Dreamy’ is one way to describe him. ‘Drop-dead gorgeous’ would be another.

    It’s weird, both Sami and Xabi had the same two season dip in form before getting back to their imperious bests again in their last year (in my opinion, Hyypia made up for not being as physically dominant as he was in his prime by being a better footballing defender with his feet in 08/09).

    The Alonso-Barry saga is a stick for everyone to beat Benitez with but people forget the context which you’ve outlined in this article. I think most fans would have made the “class is permanent” argument with Alonso having been genuinely world class as opposed to the perma-solid but rarely spectacular Barry, but you can at least see Rafa’s perspective. Xabi raised the ire of Rafa and people’s Dads everywhere by missing Inter away.

  7. true.

  8. I don’t blame Xabi for missing the Inter game. Family comes first. I also don’t blame Rafa for eyeing Gareth Barry. Everything in hindsight is 20/20 and there is no point for ruing the past. I’m glad Xabi is still a liverpool fan and i’m happy that LFC is working its way back to top 4. YNWA

  9. The important thing to note was that Benitez was effectively being forced to sell ” the family silver” and more than doubling the money we paid for Alonso was deemed to be good budgetting logic, plus as the article states, we still had Gerrard ( who would himself have a major injury crisis).

  10. You left out 2 points:

    1- Barry could also/was being bought to play on the left and was going to play somewhere and solve more issues than Alonso can.

    2- Aquilaini is a more attacking player than Alonso and this switch will make Liverpool more dynamic going forward, and more of a title threat.

  11. Good read that – I was one of those who have rued the Xavi loss – Nice take onthe flip mside of the coin, and considered alternative. Thanks

    Excellent work

    Paul D – Kop season ticket holder

  12. agree 100%, the amount of ‘people’ that beat rafa with the barry stick is bizzare

  13. Lineker described that as the start of a mini exodus. I remember it as the start of us turning in to a circus. There are very few clubs that have bared their arses in the way we have since then, with one non footballing stunt following another. If Aquilani had played football for us, and we had managers that played our best players, maybe Alonso going might not have been such a great loss. We are what we are at the moment because of people who have made decisions who should not have been empowered to make them. Thankfully most of those are not around now, and we would hope that the owners are learning quickly from their mistakes, ditto our manager.

  14. Thankls James. That’s a welcome change from the usual posts which take ‘Rafa’s side’ in the Alonso ‘debate’. It has the virtue, at least, of admitting that Rafa was happy to see Alonso leave and the courage to say that the coach was right – ie that by 2008 the magical 2005 Alonso had deteriorated to the point where Gareth Barry might have been a better option.

    I think it’s wrong though. I think the article underestimates how injury-ravaged Alonso’s 2007-08 season was and exaggerates how poorly he played when he returned to the side. Certainly the Kop was (famously) in no doubt about the continued importance of Alonso to the team in the summer of 2008 when it serenaded him throughout the pre-season game at Anfield and even told Rafa where to ‘stick’ Barry. Maybe that wasn’t the Kop’s greatest moment, but it was hardly the behaviour of a crowd who felt Alonso had deteriorated or which agreed with the manager that his no. 14 had somehow lost it.

    I’m curious about your method too. You remember the ‘reckless foul’ on Kaka in Athens where others might remember the brilliant ‘roulette’ in which Kaka was destroyed. At the very least they might remember the complete hash Carragher made of his clearance which led directly to Alonso’s foul on Kaka (to his credit Jamie held his hand up for that one).

    You also remember the ‘inexplicable hesitation’ v Barnsley in the Cup while choosing to forget – say – how brilliant Alonso was on his return to the team v Arsenal and how poor the team instantly became when he had to limp off again. And, sure, we can all have a laugh now that Damien Plessis (of Camberwick Green FC or wherever he currently plies his trade) was preferred to Alonso for the opening game of the following season. But at whose expense? Surely Rafa’s. That choice wasn’t an indication of Alonso’s decline, but the temporary madness of his manager. Fortunately the boss saw sense at half time, withdrew the bewildered young Frenchman and restored Alonso to a team which – instantly again – found its pulse and went on to win the match.

    If Alonso had a poor season by his high standards in 2007-08 you need look no further than his double injury. A brilliant start (2 goals in 5 unbeaten games) was interrupted by the dreaded metatarsal. By the time he was back in the team for the close of the season he was finding his old range and rhythm (P 12 W 9 D2 L 1). And, sure, he didn’t walk straight back into the Spanish XI for the Euros, but he did feature in 6 of their 8 games (captaining them the side in one of them) – a clear sign that he was still highly regarded by the champions of the tournament.

    We’ll have to wait for their respective memoirs I guess to find out what really went wrong between Rafa and Xabi. I suspect,as you also do, that the Inter debacle was the turning point. I was once told that the two men hardly exchanged a word after that – right up to the moment that Alonso left. I don’t know if that’s true – though I cannot doubt the sincerity or the connection of the man who told me – but it might explain why Alonso felt he was living on borrowed time from that moment on. We can be grateful, I guess, that we got one stonking season more from the maestro, even if it didn’t culminate with the prize we all crave for most.

    • I think the author makes some good points which when read is believable. I think you go even deeper and nail the argument. Agree with you whole heartedly.

  15. Nope, I’m with Mark H on this one. Xabi may have had two substandard seasons but Rafa at times seemed reluctant to give him adequate backing. I don’t see it as ‘taking sides’ necessarily, but the Inter situation could have been handled better by the manager, and arguably some ‘arry style arm round the shoulder nonsense may have helped in the two seasons in which injury was a factor. Form is temporary, class is permanent. We miss him, we’d be much better off with him and maybe if things had played out differently he wouldn’t have left. I’d have him back in the morning.

  16. Oh for the sustained decline of someone like Alonso now.

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