At the moment, the Anfield future of Alberto Aquilani hangs in the balance. His agent Franco Zavaglia has made more u-turns than the coalition Government in Westminster – often only a matter of days after a statement declaring that Aquilani will definitely stay, another statement is released to the contrary. Another season long-loan has been mooted, and the absurdity of that discussed widely – even if his wages are paid by the club loaning him in, surely his value will only diminish as his contract runs down? Moneyball must have a chapter on this!
When Alberto Aquilani signed for Liverpool in August 2009 for £17 million, it must be said that not much was known about him. This is despite him being a full Italy international, and a key component of a Roma team that finished 2nd in Serie A the previous season. It must also be said that 2 years down the line, not much more is known about him than was then.
It also appears that Rafa Benitez might not have known much about him. Aquilani was supposedly bought as a replacement for the departed Xabi Alonso, who had moved to Real Madrid, but they actually play very different roles within the bracket of central midfielder. He is perhaps closer in style to Steven Gerrard, playing higher up the pitch and breaking into the box during attacks. And seeing as Liverpool’s talismanic captain is 31 years of age, looking for a replacement is something that might have to be done soon. Gerrard isn’t one of those players who will last forever, his high tempo powerful game has taken its toll on his body, particularly his knees. But, so it was – Alonso went to Madrid and Liveprool signed Aquilani. It must be very difficult to replace a fans’ favourite, particularly one who is talked about by those who say they know about football as probably more important to Liverpool’s performances in recent seasons than even Gerrard. An injury delayed debut only heaped more pressure on him, and his fitness was often questioned. He made 26 appearances in the 2009-10 season, some as substitute. The season before his move to Liverpool, Aquilani played a mere 20 games for Roma, and his injury record over the previous 3 years definitely puts him in the box marked “prone”.
Roma, alongside most major European clubs, played a variant of the currently popular 4-2-3-1 formation, and Aquilani was for the majority the focus of the three-man attacking trio, although he’s displayed some versatility by being used on either flank, sometimes as one of the double-pivot holding midfielders, and also as the trequartista when Roma witched it up a bit. He has scored a few spectacular and important long range goals for Roma and his reputation in Italy is significantly higher than it is in England.
In 2009-10 Liverpool also generally played 4-2-3-1, but Aquilani was generally used as one of the two holding players, and even then was third choice at best behind Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva – a tough double act to break up, especially if it is not your favoured position. The preferred players in the attacking trio behind Torres were Kuyt, Gerrard and Babel/Maxi/Aurelio/Riera.
Still, 26 games for an injury hit debut season isn’t too bad, and it’s often the case that a player brought in from another league takes a season to adjust to the style of the Premiership. There was a feeling among Liverpool fans that the best was yet to be seen from Alberto Aquilani. However, Benitez made way for one of the most unpopular managerial appointments in recent years – the doomed Roy Hodgeson. Hodgeson decided that Aquilani should be sent out on loan, back to his mother country in order to gain match fitness – obviously not putting much faith in the physiotherapy and physical training facilities at Melwood. He went straight into the team at Juventus, where he played in the middle of a 4-4-2, as the more creative of the central pair alongside Felipe Melo, a defensively minded player.
Since his return to England, Aquilani has been making the news simply because people are finally finding out that he’s not a bad player. You don’t get to represent Italy at all levels from under-14 upwards if you’re a bad player. Owner John W Henry misspelt his name on twitter, such was his urgency to declare Aquilani as Liverpool’s “missing link last year”. Strange comments from an owner who has just forked out a medium-sized fortune on Jordan Henderson and Charlie Adam. They’ve now got about 8-10 central midfielders, depending on who makes the first team squad. To put that into a perspective that the average man might understand, that’s like your boss buying two new computers for the office, then finding one under his desk and saying it’s the best model. Add into the mix Assistant boss Steve Clarke praising fellow Chelsea old-boy Joe Cole, and you’re left wondering if they’ll bother with defenders or attackers in the coming season.
With Liverpool generally reckoned to be playing either a 4-2-3-1 or a 4-3-3 (or somewhere in between) next season, you’d have to say that competition for places is going to be fierce.
Looking at further length into the likely starters in a 4-2-3-1, it’s probably fair to say that the double pivot of holding midfielders will be Lucas Leiva and Charlie Adam. Leiva fulfilling the destructive element of that pairing, and Adam playing as a deep-lying playmaker, in the mould of Andrea Pirlo, or indeed Xabi Alonso. Back-ups to these positions would be Poulsen if he’s still there, and at a push Spearing and Meireles. The make-up of the attacking trio behind the main striker is a little harder to speculate. On the wings there are the options of Aquilani, Downing, Henderson, Joe Cole, Rodriguez, and of course Kuyt has been used there, as has Luis Suarez – even Steven Gerrard could do a job there, although he’ll probably be nailed on to play the central role of that attacking part of midfield. The position behind the front man, Aquilani’s favoured position, is also one that could be assigned to one of many. As I’ve said, Gerrard will get the most starts there, but if he remains at Anfield, Aquilani is certain to be a contender for that place, given Gerrard’s poor showing last year, and the question marks over his fitness now. Other contenders for that job are Joe Cole again, and perhaps Jordan Henderson.
What Liverpool are doing here is assembling a squad of players who are specialists at one position, but have the versatility to play one or more others. This gives them quality cover for injuries, options for rotation, and intense competition for places to motivate the players to perform consistently. They do not yet have the strength in depth that was the hallmark of the Manchester United and Chelsea title winning teams of the last decade, but their not far off. So, whilst I wouldn’t say that Aquilani is the player who will win them a Premiership title, he’s the kind of player you need in your squad to have the strength to challenge.