The Pass Master

Posted by Garstonite on May 4, 2006, 06:42:09 PM

I watched the 1986 FA Cup final replay on Monday with admiration.  Footballers of days gone by took to the pitch once again, showing that what may have been lacking in their legs was compensated for by their minds. Kenny showed the magic was still alive. Rush showed glimpses of his old spark and, amazingly, Molby showed he retained that special touch of class.

Despite being as round as a beach ball and visibly unfit, he spreads play and maintains possession with an aura of composure and guile. The Jan Molby's of the world are a dying breed. There are not enough players with raw ability anymore. Players who define the word "footballer". Fortunately for us, we are lucky enough to have a player in our very own Xabi Alonso in this mould = though thankfully not literally in Jan's physical mould!. When speaking of the comparisons between himself and the Dane, Alonso said "I feel great about that because I knew that he was a great player. He did great things here and if people start to compare us, it's a great honour for me."

Alonso’s eloquence and attentiveness is like a game of snooker: positioning and placement are both decisive. His passing range varies from the short and simple, to the outrageously obscure. He finds angles noone else sees. His maturity has helped him establish himself so quickly and he is the touch of class our midfield lacked in order to both accompany and act as a foil for the all-action Steven Gerrard. In addition, as seen in the most recent Merseyside Derby, he can also grab a game by the scruff of its neck and take control.

His actual role is somewhat of a mystery, however. There is no doubting his ability, but some people think he and one of Sissoko/Hamann are too cautious together as a partnership; yet when Gerrard is alongside him that particular pairing is exactly the opposite – too attacking-minded and lacking defensive cover.

Opinions are divided and mine, personally, is Alonso is a holding midfield player – but one, however, in the mould of Andrea Pirlo – who operates in a position the Italians would call a ‘pivot’ rather than your more traditional sitting midfield players, like Vieira, Makelele and, of course, are very own Didi Hamann. It is clear the coaching staff at Melwood have been working heavily on enhancing the defensive elements of his game.

Besides, should Benítez employ his favoured 4-2-3-1 formation which brought in so much success at Valencia, we could very well have the best of both worlds: Xabi Alonso partnering Momo Sissoko in central midfield, with a Gerrard or a Garcia playing in a more advanced role, supporting a lone striker.

When Alonso first arrived at the club, I didn’t know what to expect. On one hand, I had heard rave reviews about him from people more knowledgeable on Spanish football than myself. On the other, I was immediately going to be pessimistic over any player we buy for over three pence, bearing in mind recent transfer dealings.

Such fears were short-lived however, as Alonso, in the absence of the injured Gerrard, put in a magnificent display against newly-promoted Norwich. It was a performance that even credited acclaim from the opposition manager that day, Nigel Worthington. He claimed: “If I was a fan, I’d pay money to see him”. From then until January, Alonso was Liverpool’s best player. His most influential moments came at Craven Cottage in an inspirational second-half display which turned the game from a two goal deficit, to a four-two win, and in the home win at Arsenal, where he completed a sublime team move by thrashing the ball past Jens Lehmann into the top corner of the goal, sending Anfield into delirium.

Just as Xabi's season was ready to explode, his remarkable progress in English football was cut short at the hands of Chelsea’s Fat Frank Lampard, who broke Alonso’s ankle on New Year’s Day. Over the period of fourteen weeks in which Xabi was absent, Liverpool struggled domestically, losing to teams like Southampton and Birmingham, as well as the Carling Cup Final to the eventual Champions, Chelsea. There is no doubt that we missed Alonso’s presence, composure and ability in possession in such games. His return saw him play an immense 90 minutes away to Juventus which saw an injury-ravaged LFC progress to the Champions League semis.

Although it was clear a player in the style of Mohamed Sissoko would be necessary for the team to make progress in the League with its more physical aspects, Alonso had brought all the gleaming attributes which scream a world-class player – touch, vision and, most crucially, the capacity. In an age where athleticism seems to be something as important as these mentioned aspects, it is refreshing to have a player who does, quite literally, “let the ball do all the moving for him”.

It is also fair to say that, along with Steven Gerrard, we have two of the greatest midfield players in Europe. Considering that neither are even into what is traditionally seen as being a footballer’s “peak years”, it is an exciting thought. One of the most extraordinary things about Xabi which surprises people is his young age, due to the fact that he plays with so much wisdom and care – something which you would associate with a player in, say, his early 30s, rather than early 20s.

Earlier this season, Alonso, despite scoring frequently, was not performing to the standards we witnessed pre-January last season. However, since the turn of the year, he has been back to his inspirational self. Games like Sunderland away (where Alonso created both goals with transcendent passes) and Luton in the Cup show the advantage of having a player like him in your side: all it takes is one moment of magic to create an opportunity, find a player in space or find the back of the net with a drive from range.

It is obvious Benítez has done a magnificent job here at Anfield, thus far. He has built his success on the basis of a solid back-line and an industrious and creative midfield. Alonso is an essential ingredient to the future of this club and although spending £10m+ is always a risk, it is clear that this is certainly one that was worth taking.

© Garstonite 2006

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