Alberto Aquilani: £20million flop or just under-rated?

Alberto Aquilani: £20million flop or just under-rated?

  • Former A.S. Roma playmaker withdrawn from Liverpool’s midfield set-up since Benitez’s departure in 2010.
  • Adam and Henderson signings to strengthen Red’s British bias leaves little space for Italy international.

Italians becoming successful in the Barclays Premier League is as common as English footballers playing abroad. It’s scarce. Dale Jennings’ dream move to German Bundesliga giants F.C. Bayern in mid-July, much to the envy of talented youngsters across the nation, is an exception to that cherished rule. Robbie Fowler, Dwight Yorke and even Wayne Rooney’s brother Adam are few names, but even then they don’t play in some of Europe’s top leagues. Two of them are not anymore anyway. But talking about Italian footballers in the English game, Paolo di Canio springs to anyone’s mind that saw this fiery-tempered, bicycle-kicking 5 ft 10 forward.

Alessandro Diamanti, Rolando Bianchi and the oh-so-dreadful Massimo Taibi however, are on the opposite end of the scale. Diamanti’s brief spell at Upton Park somewhat reminded the fans of Di Canio and actually became a temporary fan-favourite until he swapped life in East London for a move back to Italy and into the arms of a rising Bologna. He was not poor as such, but not a huge success. A club favourite perhaps, like Sam Dalla Bona was for Chelsea in the early 2000’s.

Rolando Bianchi, another, who entered England by virtue of Manchester City’s then-recent takeover did not exactly set the Eastlands alight. 19 appearances and 4 goals meant that his time was up and left the club to go on loan to Serie A outfit Lazio, but to only then sign permanently for Torino. Another who returned home and found solace in the Italian top-flight. And last but not least Massimo Taibi – arguably the worst goalkeeper to have ever set foot into Old Trafford and set the mark for his then successor, French shot-stopper (or letter-inner) Fabien Barthez. An embarrassing mistake courtesy of Southampton’s Matthew Le Tissier pretty much summed up the career of ‘The Blind Venetian’ at United, alongside 4 appearances which prompted him to follow the other three back to Italy in Reggina, Atalanta, Bologna and Ascoli before retiring in 2009. A laughable buy from Sir Alex and one of the most humiliating for the club in its history. Fingers crossed De Gea isn’t reminiscent, after paying £18million or so.

But when Rafael Benitez signed Aquilani in August 2009, many were sceptical about what sort of impact he would bring. This was at the time that Steven Gerrard, Javier Mascherano, Yossi Benayoun and Lucas Leiva were Benitez’s main options, so the inclusion of this holding player kind of fluctuated that. At the time too, the continuous pledges for Gerrard and Torres to link up in the 4-2-3-1 put more strain on the players in Aquilani, Gerrard and Torres, but also the manager himself. But it had some logic in it too.

Aquilani was regarded at the time as one of the most talented midfielders in the Serie A for i Giallorossi, as well as key to both Spalletti’s plans. His place as a holding midfielder was upheld by fans alike alongside Daniele de Rossi, but versatility to function as an attacking midfielder. His eloquent and fluid passing was indispensable almost and, notwithstanding Roma’s poor finish in the league at the end, he was very important – even if he was fairly non-existent due to recurrences of injuries.

When Liverpool finally completed the signing of Aquilani, Benitez expressed his delight in the signing of the player, within a press conference. He said:

“Alberto is a very good player and I’m delighted we’ve reached agreement with Roma for his transfer,”

Before adding:

“Alberto has a winning mentality and great experience in both Serie A and the Champions League. He has long been recognised as a top-class talent in Italy, captaining his country at both Under-19 and Under-21 levels before establishing himself in the senior national side.”

So, he clearly had belief in him. Someone who was already inculcated as one of Italy’s best midfielders and could be mentioned in the same breath as Andrea Pirlo, Riccardo Montolivo and fellow countrymen Diego Perotta and Daniele de Rossi obviously puts someone of high order. Psychologically, he was in order and there can be little blame (if not any) on Rafa. But then it also begs one to pop up with the defending argument that any player, regardless of their status, can flop. Well, let’s look at some of the other aspects.

 

Criticism and lack of playing time

He took a lot of it (criticism). The fans, former players and pundits all criticised Aquilani’s performances for Liverpool and not giving them the attacking verve that they had expected of him. Making his debut and then first start in Liverpool’s 2-2 and 2-0 wins over Birmingham City and Wolves respectively, he did give fairly impressive performances from midfield that included good passing, in and around the centre of the park as well as in the box towards the final thirds of the pitch (vs. Wolves)

But he would still face the wrath and scathing words of Gary Lineker. He wrote, on The Guardian newspaper’s website five days before Aquilani would make his first start for the Reds, about the Italian. The title of the article; 12 months of tears, rants … possibly the worst £20million ever spent on a player. Bit harsh?

He wrote:

“Alberto Aquilani cost more than Defoe – but you wouldn’t have realised it from his appearances this season. At a reported £20m, he’s got to be the worst buy. He was meant to replace Alonso but spent the first three months injured and hasn’t been pushed into the team by Rafa Benitez now that he is fit. It suggests the Liverpool boss is not confident about his ability to fit into the English game.”

 

But his quote only just answers the question. “… but spent the first three months injured …” His fault? “… and hasn’t been pushed into the first team by Rafa Benitez now that he is fit.” Now, to be fair to Alberto, there are probably two reasons why Rafa decided against pushing him back into the first team after injury.

  1. The injury was suffered even before he had actually made his debut for the Liverpool reserves. He came on as a substitute in a 2-0 win and most likely still needed time to nurture his ankle back to strength. It could have easily been aggravated had he been put back in, and would have only made the situation worse?
  2. The midfield pairing of Lucas Leiva and Javier Mascherano whilst Gerrard supplied the attacking from deep was proving to be very strong. The Reds went unbeaten throughout November after losing 3-1 to Fulham at Craven Cottage, but then being defeated by Arsenal and Portsmouth. They then went on another unbeaten streak from Boxing Day 2009 until February – still consistently using the South American double-pairing. In fact, Aquilani did play briefly in one of the matches, but was still soon replaced by a fitter Mascherano, and returned to the bench. Let’s also not forget the fact that they were in-form and trying to get every point they could to catch Manchester United.

It was always going to be difficult for him to break in, so it’s not much fault for Aquilani in him living up the £20million he was bought for, by not being able to show it on the pitch. But even then Ian Rush reportedly commented several times on him. At the start of the season, he had bespoken of the potential within Aquilani to evolve into an important and key member of Liverpool’s threatening in the final thirds and a strong back-up to Steven Gerrard. Ian Rush, in an interview with Mirror Football, said:

“As the man signed to replace Xabi Alonso, it was inevitable that he would find himself under the spotlight and there have been some encouraging glimpses of him.

“Has he really done enough though? The simple answer, sadly, has to be no.”

 

To which he went on to say:

“One bold display against Tottenham apart, he has found things very difficult and he is in desperate need of a big effort very soon to ease some of the mounting pressure.”

 

Before finally adding:

“Aquilani can clearly pass the ball well, but, at the minute, he seems very much in the safety-first mindset, heading backwards and sideways rather than forwards.”

I had to scavenge through the manipulative text before I could clearly get the quotes – which were quite true. This was very much unlike Lineker, who commented on his lack of appearances, whereas Rush picks out his games, but in the sense of his passing game against Spurs.

 

So I looked at the match via the Guardian’s Chalkboards and Aquilani’s passing game that match. 24 passes completed against 17 incomplete, totalling up to 42 attempted. That’s a percentage of just under 60%. Looking at the game, it was evident that his passing was directed into the final thirds and putting on a much more attacking – acting more or less as an assailant from midfield with infiltrating passes through the Spurs back four.

Steven Gerrard was absent for the game, so Aquilani compensated for the loss of him. Going into more detail, it was fair to say that he did not seem very adventurous with his passing – justifying the point that Ian had made about him. For the first half hour of the game, his passes were mainly directed inside his own half, and tried to lengthen them into the part of Dutch striker Dirk Kuyt. Unfortunately, they were inept.

 

After half-time, he started to pick it up, and look a bit more confident along the flanks. Kuyt, Carragher and Degen were all receivers and they were all met successfully. It is fair to say that he did have a good game that January evening in Anfield, and the fans were happy with the way that their £20million midfielder did against a fairly resilient defensive line in Spurs, with Michael Dawson, Ledley King, Gareth Bale and Vedran Corluka. He was eventually substituted in the 79th minute and replaced by David N’Gog, but this was most likely just to put on a fresh pair of legs in order to keep players on their toes. The same was for Albert Riera and Philipp Degen, before Kuyt scored late in the game, in the 93rd minute of injury time to seal the win.

Altogether, Aquilani made a total of 26 appearances that season in scoring two goals and going into the referee’s book once. In comparison to the other four more midfielders in Yossi Benayoun, Lucas, Javier Mascherano and Steven Gerrard, sounds far more inferior. Gerrard almost clocked 60 appearances that year with Benayoun making 45 and the other two in Lucas and Mascherano made 50 and 59 appearances respectively. It is quite obvious that the Italian could not even have a look-in if they were playing in almost every match available. There was little about psychological or social friction that stopped him from making it in, just that the competition was just too big.

 

But if he were to stay at Liverpool this season, alongside the new signings of Charlie Adam and Jordan Henderson to compliment the midfield, as well as Lucas emerging from the depths of contrariety, he cannot be played as a holding midfield. It would only mute his potential to be more expansive and free about his movement, passing and assisting the frontman – just like he did against Spurs. Dalglish recently left the door open for him to leave, but also talked about wanting him to stay. He doesn’t want to alienate him from the rest of the squad and put him into the reserves, yet he’s not going to stop him from going.

But it would be under the assumptions that Gerrard is no longer imperative to the starting eleven, now that there are (more) midfielders who are attack-minded and energetic, but also can cover one-another should the former be injured and the latter sitting on the bench, raring to go.

 

So what do we conclude with?

Well, we have distinctly separated the criticism from the playing time, and why he has not been able to play up the £20million he was paid for, but also agreed why he may not be right for Liverpool in the way that King Kenny will be opting to play ahead of the new campaign. A loan transfer back to Serie A would only be a temporary solution to what seems like a burden in some cases but altogether he cannot be classed as a flop. It’s not the majority of his fault and maybe if he had not been bought for the amount he had been the people could be a little cooler about him.

A permanent transfer back to Italy would resolve the issue that has been outstanding for a year now, relieving the pressure off fans about him being strung along like a ragdoll by a 6-year-old girl but it will also mark him on the list as another Italian player who could not cut it in the Barclays Premier League. Sad enough to say, but it is the truth. Perhaps he will join Bologna – just like Diamanti and Taibi.

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