A popular topic of discussion over the past month amongst me and my friends, has been what will happen to Alberto Aquilani once Roy Hodgson has taken charge of Liverpool. One said it was dependent on what formation he goes with, another said that he’ll be a regular starter, whereas another sage soul hedged his bets stating that he’d be injured for the majority of the campaign again, but with Hodgson stating after Liverpool’s laboured victory over Turkish side Trabzonspor at Anfield that the club were willing to Aquilani leave on loan, and with a season-long loan move to Juventus already secured, surprising doesn’t even cover it and the player’s Liverpool future hangs by a thread
The problem most Liverpool fans have had in deducing what the futures of certain players such as your Aquilani’s, your Babel’s and your Kuyt’s has been, is that no one is sure as to what formation the new era will line up under.
This may sound like I’m placing too much emphasis on formations over players, (please take note Mr Redknapp), but most managers have preferred formations just as they do methods of training, and of course these formations can be changed depending on the personnel of your team, but whether a side lines up 4-5-1, 4-4-2 or 4-2-3-1 greatly affects the chances a player has of forcing their way into the starting line-up.
As of yet, it’s still difficult to gauge fully what formation Hodgson will look to go with for the entirety of the season as he’s yet to have a full squad back to choose from, but the early signs indicate that it’s not all too different from former manager Rafa Benitez’s 4-2-3-1 formation, with Hodgson rotating between N’Gog, Babel and when he’s come on from the bench, Fernando Torres, as the lone front man, a tactic familiar from his days at Fulham, although Hodgson did rather naively line-up with a basic 4-4-2 formation away to Man City last night, a move that proved to their detriment as they were on the receiving end of a 3-0 defeat.
With Christian Poulsen brought in, Lucas, Gerrard and perhaps even Javier Mascherano if his £25m valuation is not met, vying for the 2 spots in the centre of midfield, Aquilani faces an uphill battle getting in there. But anyone worth their salt who will have watched Aquilani at close quarters last season will have told you, it’s in the final third of the pitch where his main strengths ultimately lie, where his movement on and off the ball is excellent and his ability to play a killer pass is notable.
But the arrivals of Joe Cole and Milan Jovanovic , as well as the continued presence of Dirk Kuyt and Ryan Babel means it would appear that Aquilani has been crowded out here too, and with Gerrard just as likely to play just behind a lone front man as he is patrolling the middle of the park 15 yards further back, Aquilani’s face again doesn’t fit.
Allowing Aquilani to leave when their still appears to be a dearth of creativity in the squad remains a puzzling decision. Jovanovic, has for all his bluster thus far proved himself to be more like another Dirk Kuyt than an Andriy Voronin, which is something to be thankful for at least, but the flanks are still being used to contain the opposition rather than attack them and so the emphasis falls largely to what the side can create through the middle with Gerrard and Cole sharing the burden. Surely keeping Aquilani around would serve the club more than letting him go and lighten the load on the aforementioned duo.
Hodgson stated in his post-match press conference after the Europa League tie on Thursday night that “At the moment we are considering loaning him to an Italian club. I didn’t want to use him tonight in case the loan goes through because for Aquilani it’s very important this year that he plays regular football, every week as the number one man on the team sheet. I can’t promise him that here so if a loan move to Italy could help him in that respect it might be good for all parties. It would certainly be what he needs, it would certainly protect the value of the player and when he does return to Liverpool no doubt we will see the Aquilani that we signed before he came here injured last year.”
While I do not doubt that Hodgson is sincere in his want for Aquilani to play first team football, something he is much more likely to acquire at Juventus, and even that for the time being at least that he may want him to return to the club further down the line, but it’s in the sentence ‘it would certainly protect the value of the player’ that I find most interesting. It suggests that a loan move back to Italy is predominantly being used so as to precipitate a bidding war involving Serie A’s elite next summer should he be successful in an environment that he’s thrived in previously. If Liverpool received an offer approaching something near the £17m the club paid for him a year ago next summer, you can bet your bottom dollar that the board would snatch their hands off and take the money and run. Reports today have even linked, rather hastily may I add, that Juventus are already earmarking a £15m bid for next summer should his loan deal turn out to be a success.
Aquilani looked to be a gamble of a buy by Benitez last summer, mostly because he was signed with a proven injury record and was injured for his first few months of the season. He was not, as is often ignorantly claimed, a like-for-like replacement for Xabi Alonso, as they are completely different players who just happen to come under the blanket label of central midfielder.
What was worrying last term under Benitez though, was that Aquilani was mollycoddled to such an extent that his exclusion from the starting line-up when he eventually became fit was headline news and became nothing more than a stick to beat the media’s favourite punching bag Benitez with. But what is even more worrying is that successive managers have now deemed him incapable of dealing with the rigours of the Premiership, and when managers talk about ‘protecting players value’ it means that they’ve gone from being seen as a precious first team commodity to something which they hope to sell for the highest price possible in the future.
What they see in training every day must of great concern to the Anfield hierarchy and they don’t want to be left flogging a dead horse so to speak, if the player fails to break through into a regular first-team player again this season, as his market value would seriously decrease and the chances of Liverpool taking a larger financial hit greaten. Aquilani’s stock in Italy, while not what it once was, is still reasonably high from his time at Roma, and he won’t be short of takers back in Serie A if all goes to plan for the Old Lady this season.
Aquilani has undoubted talent, and this season is a big season in his career, but I do question the wisdom of letting him go on loan for a full season, especially with the squad at Liverpool at the moment hardly overburdened with proven talent. A short-term loan until the busy Christmas period would have suited the club more than a full-season one, as it means that when the inevitable fixture pile up takes over during the congested festive period schedule, the club will be bolstered by the return of a hopefully fit and firing Aquilani to its midfield ranks, a prospect which looks all the more tantalising seeing as Javier Mascherano moved one step closer to the Anfield door, with the club now in negotiations with Barcelona and the distracted player left out of the defeat at Eastlands to Man City.
Make no bones about it, this is Hodgson’s biggest decision thus far as Liverpool manager, yet the simple fact remains, you don’t loan players out that are key to your team’s progress, no manager would do such a thing, which does lead to the question, is the Italian already deemed surplus to requirements after just one injury-hit season?
I for one would be extremely surprised to ever see Aquilani pull on a Liverpool shirt again, which is a shame, because towards the back end of last season he looked like he was finally getting to grips with the pace of the league, despite Benitez’s reservations, which rather unfortunately for the player, seem to be shared by his new manager too. To call him a flop would seem a tad harsh, and has more to do with his fee than what he’s produced on the pitch but I think it’s fair to say that he hasn’t been given a fair crack of the whip, and in football a little faith goes a long way. If Liverpool can recoup anywhere near the significant outlay they paid for the creative midfielder, then Aquilani’s Liverpool career has to be in some serious doubt.
Written By James McManus