Total Control: How Our New Midfield Will Elevate LFC

Posted by Paul Tomkins on August 20, 2004, 10:39:15 AM

By the time you read this, Liverpool FC could have their most exciting midfield for nearly two decades, and one to rival Arsenal's - the perfect current model (although Arsenal still have better depth to theirs, but their squad has been assembled over many years), and Man U's from the 1990s, when they bossed the centre of the park. Those who thought Steven Gerrard might be irked by his mate Michael leaving, will now realise how pleased he will be - seeing quality players making their way into our club to play alongside him.

Xabi Alonso is a player Real Madrid wanted to sign, and the club's legendary ex-player Michel said Alonso had much more to his game than Vieira; being a Spaniard, you felt Madrid would rather overlook Alonso for a foreign superstar. Benitez goes for super players, not superstars. He is building a team, not a collection of trophies (and by that, I mean that at Madrid the superstars are the trophies; and yet the more they procure, the less silverware they seem to collect).

After Alonso comes Garcia, reportedly in Liverpool for his medical. He is a player the Barca management team would dearly love to keep. He has been scoring goals for fun from midfield this pre-season for the Catalan side. But they've spent heavily in other areas, so it seems Riikjard is losing a player he was looking to, as Barca look to build on the amazing second-half to last season. When you get players from top clubs, and they would rather not be selling, you know you're onto a potential winner.

Some have questioned the wisdom of signing Nunez, a Real Madrid reserve. I felt it was a really good bit of business, but you have to say the lad will now find it twice as hard to settle into English football, as by the time he is fit again, the Premiership players will be match fit. Maybe the other players will be looking at him and thinking "what have we got here?" as he fell over and twisted his knee in his first training session. It could have been freakishly poor luck; or he may be one of those players who fall over a blade of grass. I suspect the former, as Rafa likes tough but skillful players. He's not into lightweight luxuries (even Aimar, at Valencia, is a tough cookie). The positive aspect is that Nunez can have more time to settle in England and get some reserve matches under his belt; expectations will be lower.

Garcia, meanwhile, is a left-sided midfielder (although reports differ on that!) who, like Kewell, can play behind the main striker. While one could quite easily switch to the right (in the way Pires plays better on the opposite flank, cutting in on his favoured foot), there is always the option of playing 4-5-1, the formation Rafa favoured in Spain. With Owen, Baros and Cisse, it almost demanded two play while one rested - something I suggested even before Rafa took over at Liverpool; now we've only got two established strikers, there is less talent to make use of. Sticking with two strikers could present problems if one gets injured; Pongolle will play an important role this season, but he is still raw.

Should it come to it, I've no problem with Kewell playing off of Cisse or Baros. I think Harry is great in that role; he's a natural finisher, and great in the air. As he showed against Graz, for the second goal, he sees others in the box.

Either way, Rafa wants to see width. It doesn't always have to come from "wingers". Arsenal get theirs from Cole at full-back, and Henry drifting wide. It will be interesting to see how our wide midfielders work in tandem with the full-backs. I don't feel Riise is a good overlapping full-back; he's a good attacking full-back, but doesn't go wide to cross or hit the byline, instead preferring to cut inside and work a shooting opportunity. When he did that under GH, there was no-one out wide to act as a decoy and provide him that space inside, and he often ran into a crowd. Similarly, if someone stays out wide, Riise would have the option of playing the ball out there. Carragher was never any good at attacking, while Josemi appears to have the pace to get forward and make a nuisance of himself. So that's an area already improved.

Even if they swap and change, you want players out wide when in possession, opening up the pitch. Narrow midfields, as we had under GH, keep things tight, and when your team doesn't have the ball it makes sense to go narrow and "compact". But width - lacking under GH when we attacked - gives you greater options when on the ball, and it also makes it easier to go through the heart of teams, as they can't afford to have their defenders so close to one another if full-backs have got one eye on our wide players.

The New Man: Alonso

As I write, Xabi Alonso is undergoing a medical at Liverpool. Yet again (as with Cisse), a player has chosen us despite overtures from other - supposedly more glamorous - clubs. Players still want to play for our club, and also for our manager. It can only lead to good things.

A couple of nights ago I had my first proper look at Alonso, as I went on a scouting mission: studying the video of the match, broadcast on TVEi, Spanish national TV, where Alonso came on as a 64th minute substitute.

It's hardly the ideal amount of time to make an impression, and I expected to see him make the occasional pass, and the final whistle to blow. I wasn't expecting much in the circumstances. In truth, he was involved more in those 26 minutes than many players are in 90. I could see for myself what others had commented on: the lad is class, pure and simple.

He is tall (6ft 1, I believe), and looks slightly ungainly when he runs, but looks quite sturdy and fairly well-built. On the ball, he is transformed: he looks full of grace.

In his first five minutes on the pitch, there were three occasions where he sprinted (looking encouragingly quick, but not super-quick) to dispossess an opponent in a very Didi-like fashion, nicking the ball away rather than needing to make a full-blooded tackle. If you can read the game well and react quickly, and then have the pace to act, you don't need to go flying into challenges. The second of these interceptions led to a goal.

What I liked most about him was his first touch: always the perfect weight; not as in the case of certain (unnamed) players, where their first touch is closer to a shot on goal, but also making sure he gets the ball out of his feet. It was always just perfect. Instead of just receiving the ball and then thinking "um, what now?", he turned his body half-on to the ball, anticipating his next move; always turning to where the space was. Always looking around, finding space, finding time. Totally unhurried. When in possession, he had the air of a magician like Glenn Hoddle, who could make the ball do what he wanted; I'm not sure if he can hit 70-yards passes to feet like Hoddle (although reports say Alonso's long-range passing is special, I still don't expect it to match up to Hoddle's or Molby's), but of course he made more tackles in 26 minutes than Hoddle made in 18 years. And he did covered more ground than Molby did in 18 years.

While I rated Danny Murphy's ability to spot a pass, this guy has the awareness that Danny lacked; sometimes Danny would see something special, but other times he dallied and dawdled, and never seemed to know his next move until the ball was under control. Alonso will have less time on the ball in England than he did in this particular game, but players this good can always find solutions to new problems.

I'm a big critic of the weight of a pass; too many pros just can't judge it properly, even with ten or 20-yard passes. Alonso's passing was unerringly inch-perfect, whatever the distance: always running the ball into someone's path, rather than at them or behind them. Oh, apart from the one stray pass he made (and another 40-yarder was delightful, but cut-out by a desperate defensive lunge).

I don't see Alonso as a box-to-box player, as some people have suggested (or hoped for). He'll play in front of the back four, but unlike Didi, who does a great job there breaking things up, Xabi will be the springboard to our attacks rather than just a conduit moving the ball on without imagination. Gone are the days of Hyypia passing five yards to Hamann, only for Gerrard to come back and take the ball from him, and start to direct play - or Didi simply laying it back to Sami. With Carragher's passing against Spurs looking very crisp (always on the deck, and did he give a single ball away?), we can build attacks gradually, through the middle of the park, as opposed to launching them like hand-grenades - where the pin is pulled, the missile launched, and you hope for an explosion within a handful of seconds. To continue the analogy without wishing to get bogged down in too much war imagery, instead of one all-out assault, we will have skilled assassins approaching from all angles. We will be using stealth and intelligence, not looking for the quick, easy and explosive outcome that backfired so much in the last two seasons.

Alonso will advance to the edge of the opposing area on occasions, but his main work will be done either side of the halfway line. He is being bought to control the tempo of games. Love him or loathe him (okay, we all loathe him), but in his prime (i.e. before the sad sight he has now become), Roy Keane's biggest strength was that he controlled the tempo of a Man U performance. His passing over distance has never been anything special, but he used to patrol the centre of the park, knocking balls at the right time to the right people. He was box-to-box, but not like Lampard, who goes from box into box - just as Gerrard will this season.

While I think Steven Gerrard is a far better player than Keane in nearly every other respect, Gerrard cannot control the tempo of a game in the way Keane, at his best, could; Gerrard can inject a new tempo, a new burst of aggression, but it is always full-on attack. He has yet to learn to slow a game down; Alonso, it appears, has that knack already, at just 22. Maybe Gerrard's strength is that he is so direct and positive in everything he does, but if we need to kill games off at 1-0 or 2-0 up, Alonso can help take the sting out of a game, and get everyone keeping the ball.

What Alonso offers that Keane and Hamann could never is long-range passing ability, and exceptional vision. If Alonso only gets to within 40 yards of the opposing box, it only takes him a 20-yard pass into the strikers to unlock a defence. He doesn't need to be busting a gut to get into the box. Similarly, if he is picking the ball up deep, he'll be able to lay it simple, or, if it is on, find the raking ball to the midfield runners - and Gerrard, Kewell and Garcia (if he signs, too), will be only too willing.

If I had to make comparisons, I'd combine two I've already mentioned: I'd say Alonso has some of Hoddle's elegance, but also Didi's tenacity and ability to break up attacks. That makes for a pretty special player in my eyes.

It may still be too soon to expect a title challenge, as these players will need time to settle and adapt. This season is a transitional one - we must never lose sight of that. But it's clear that Rafa is taking the nucleus of great players left to him by GH, and adding his own - the missing ingredients? The final pieces to the puzzle? We've heard that before. But new players, in a new system, with new direction and leadership from the manager, to me offers new hope.
© Paul Tomkins 2004

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