Alonso’s accurate passing, both long and short, enabled Liverpool to control and dominate possession, an ability they sorely lack now
However, what is so much more important is the overall effect that his abilities has on the team; that is Liverpool were able to maintain possession of the ball far better and thus able to dominate play and create more attacking opportunities. How many times have we seen Liverpool lose the ball through a stray pass ever since Alonso left, especially during Benitez’s final season, when he was trying to mould Lucas into a capable central midfielder.
Furthermore, keeping possession of the ball mainly through Alonso’s passing had indirectly reduced the pressure on Liverpool’s defence. With the opposition seeing less of the ball, the defence, even with the old legs of Hyypia, were able to deal with any threat comfortable without worrying about an onslaught from the opposition attackers.
Alonso’s departure was inevitable though the effects were sorely felt when Liverpool’s form started to deteriorate. What made it worse was the fact that his 20 million pound replacement, a certain Alberto Aquilani, was injured upon his arrival and didnt make his debut until a good 2-3 months later. Having said that, Aquilani was a different player, prefering to be more of an attacking midfielder compared to Alonso’s deep-lying playmaker position.
If offense was the best defence when it comes to Alonso’s passing capabilities, the opposite can be said for his midfield partner, the hard-working, tough-tackling Argentine defensive midfielder, Javier Mascherano.
Mascherano arrived in the Premier League initially as a West Ham player, in the controversial deal that took Carlos Tevez to Upton Park as well. While Tevez was able to settle in towards the end of the season and played a pivotal role in ensuring the Hammers remained in the top-flight, Mascherano suffered the embarrassment of being relegated to the bench, with players such as Hayden Mullins considered more worthy of a place in the starting 11.
Amid all the gloom, Rafa Benitez must have saw something in the diminutive Argentine because a loan deal was sorted out and he arrived at Liverpool in the January transfer window of 2007. Making his debut against Sheffiled United in a 4-0 win, Mascherano was praised by his manager and teammates for an assured display. He went on to quickly established himself as a first team player, playing alongside Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard in a midfield three that would have certainly intimidated the toughest of opposition.
Mascherano’s combative style of play and his ball-winning prowess meant that Liverpool were able to recover possesion quickly once it was lost
Mascherano was simply put, a monster in the middle of the park. With pace to burn and strength that belie his small stature, Mascherano was a midfield dynamo who threw himself into tackles, winning the balls in difficult situations and emerging from tackles victorious when it seemed that the opposition player had the advantage.
What this meant to the Liverpool team was that they could always rely on him to win back possession for them as well as man-mark any attacking minded midfielder from the opposing team. This was demonstrated clearly in the 2007 Champions League final against AC Milan, when Mascherano kept Kaka well under check, with his substitution allowing Kaka more freedom to attack and ultimately provided the assist for Inzaghi’s winning goal.
With Mascherano gone, Liverpool’s midfield suddenly lack the bite that it needed to withstand any tough opposition. With Christian Poulsen being a huge failure of a like-for-like replacement, the responsibility for a ball-winner player fell onto the unfortunate Lucas, whom although tries his best in every match, cannot be compared to the likes of Mascherano.
If there is one pressing problem to resolve in Liverpool’s midfield, that would be the huge gap left by Alonso’s and Mascherano’s departure. These two players provided the perfect combination of a pair of central midfielders in that they maintain possession through completing passes and successfully winning tackles.
Forget the calls of a centre defender or striker. While it is important to get a left back and winger, Liverpool cannot afford to not plug the gap left in their midfield.
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