At the risk of angering Mrs Football Nerd, for she long ago grew tired of my near constant insistence that a certain Spanish playmaker was on the verge of signing for Arsenal in 2008 only for Arsène and the board to baulk at stumping up a reported £2 million more and instead watched him depart to Real Madrid for twice the fee a season later; I simply couldn’t let Xabi Alonso’s announcement of his retirement at the end of the season pass without paying tribute to a player that I have long-coveted from afar.
Xabi wasn’t a barnstorming box-to-box midfielder like the team-mate so often alongside him at Liverpool, Steven Gerrard, nor was he especially prolific in terms of goals or an impenetrable defensive wall; what he had, in fact still has having only watched him live last week, is a seemingly effortless touch and technique and a range of passing and ability to control a match arguably only bettered by that other Spanish midfield demi-god and almost namesake Xavi Hernandez.
Having only ever been able to watch the Basque genius live in direct opposition to the teams I have been supporting, for Liverpool, Bayern and even for Spain against Chile in the Maracana; has only elevated the esteem in which I have held him. There is a strange, grudging admiration that comes from watching a highly accomplished player in direct opposition to your team; however, in order to provide a full description of just how good a player Xabi was I called upon the help of my father, Roger, in many ways my guide into football obsession, who as a Kop season ticket holder and a self-avowed follower of Los Blancos of Real Madrid, has had the pleasure of seeing this midfield master on far more occasions than I, to provide his thoughts:
At first, there was some disappointment on the Kop with the unheralded Xabi Alonso as Benitez’s first signing. True, like all Spanish players, he was neat and tidy, with good control. But he seemed too one-paced and lacking in the running power and physical aggression to succeed in the helter-skelter world of the Premier League. However his authoritative displays in the heart of Liverpool’s midfield soon won us over. He might not be fast, but he was always in the right place at the right time; he might not fly into tackles, but he always seemed to win his challenges; and with sublime passing, short or long, he prompted and spurred the Reds forward. And of course, he became a hero in Istanbul, scoring the equalising goal of the great come-back.
The middle part of his career with Liverpool was satisfying, but never quite reached the heights that he would achieve with Real Madrid, Bayern Munich and Spain. He had a number of injuries and Liverpool’s team lacked the quality to respond to his skilful prompting. Rafa even tried to replace him with Gareth Barry!
But in the 2008-9 season he really blossomed and he became the true darling of the Kop. LFC acquired a team that threatened to win the Premier League. Even the ‘talking heads’ on Sky Sports’ Sunday Supplement show recognised the high class spine. Pepe Reina in goal, the indomitable Jamie Carragher marshalling the defence, the pocket dynamo Javier Mascherano protecting the back four, Roy of the Rovers, Steve Gerrard, discovering a new life as a number 10, and up-front the brilliant finishing of Fernando Torres. And in the middle, the incomparable Xabi Alsono, pulling the strings, spraying the passes, and orchestrating the ebb and flow of the Reds. And they came so close, until the balloon burst on 21 April 2009, when in a wonderful game, Arshavin scored all Arsenal goals in a 4-4 draw.
Xabi Alsono was now the heartbeat of Liverpool – providing the organisation to complement the undisciplined force of nature that was Steven Gerrard. But Benitez had unsettled him with his ill-advised pursuit of Barry. And when Real Madrid came calling with £30m in August 2009, the Kop was devastated, and Liverpool’s form plunged. And for the next 6 seasons, we could only watch with envy as he seemed to be the first name on team sheets of both Real and the Spanish national team with a string of excellent performances. Oh what might have been!
As the modern game increasingly becomes about pace, physicality and midfielders in particular are measured in terms of distance run and challenges won; it is refreshing and a reminder of how things use to be to reflect upon a player whose genius was based on his innate skill and vision, on the qualities that the truly great players are born with and that cannot be learned. The affirmation of his personal footballing philosophy that ‘Tackling is not really a quality; it’s more something you are forced to resort to when you don’t have the ball,’ said everything about how he felt the game should be played, the right way.
For a player that lifted every major honour both at club level and internationally, as he plays out his final few matches, no true connoisseur of football would begrudge him the chance of a third European Cup in Cardiff in early June.
On a personal level I feel honoured to have been able to watch and appreciate his cerebral talent and, just as Roger did, to reflect on what might have been, and say adios Xabi and gracias, if only Arsenal had met the asking price…