Each week on Football FanCast we will be celebrating those special breed who lit up the Premier League with their unique brand of utter genius. This time out we pay homage to a classy centre mid who changed everything.
Liverpool at their best do things in threes.
This season and last their ferocious attacking trio of Firmino, Salah and Mane have torn Premier League defences to shreds while back in the day Europe was conquered with a Scottish spine that consisted of Alan Hansen, Graeme Souness and the king Kenny Dalglish.
In between these eras was a midfield threesome that had Reds dwelling in dreamland and had neutrals and haters alike admiring the perfect balance of attributes. That they won precisely nothing in their three years of playing together remains a travesty because they could so easily be put forward as the greatest engine-room in modern times.
At the base was Javier Mascherano, the ‘Little Chief’; an outstanding fulcrum described by his manager Rafa Benitez as ‘a monster of a player’. Ahead of the Argentine roamed Steven Gerrard, the energy and entitlement of the side (entitlement equating to necessary arrogance in this instance). Gliding sleekly around these two meanwhile; moving like a recently-fed panther beneath an afternoon sun, was Xabi Alonso.
This was of course prior to the Spaniard becoming the James Bond of Hipsterville; the model of easy coolness with a style that has graced the front page of every aspirational sporting publication across the globe. Back then Alonso was in his early 20s, handsome for sure, but otherwise reserving his dapperness and general mastering of life to his sumptuous passing and scampering from deep. It was little short of a treat to watch. That his smooth, natural scheming dove-tailed with Gerrard’s hurricane marauding only made it more so.
The midfielder from the Basque town of Tolosa arrived on Merseyside from Real Sociedad in August 2004 for £10.7m. Along with Luis Garcia he was the first influx of Spanish recruits brought in by Benitez as the goateed-one sought to revolutionise a Liverpool side that lacked continental tekkers. Garcia certainly had his merits but it was in Alonso where gold was struck in this regard.
His poise looked unbecoming in the Premier League. Centre mids didn’t usually ferret back possession with such elegance on English soil and they definitely didn’t caress the ball like it was a family heirloom being handed to a stranger.
We had become used to foreign talent exploding with forward flair and even acclimatised ourselves to continental-style defenders due to Hierro at Bolton and Carvalho at Chelsea. But even as recently as 15 years ago those stationed centrally in an English football side were expected to be muscular and impactful. Vieira? No problem: tall, rangy and with enough edge to his game as to be borderline dirty. But out-and-out elan? That was more suited to Milan.
Alonso changed that perception and he did so because he was the perfect prototype that became an architype. He moved gracefully and thought his actions through with care. He tried tricks in the centre-circle and swept play around the pitch like a conductor. But he also ‘had a bit about him’ as an old-school pundit might say; he had that edge.
His legacy – if that is not too strong a word – can now be seen in every Premier League team, stocked with at least one midfielder who values technique over strength, possession over passion.
If that were not enough he also, should you need to be reminded, twice scored from his own half. For the rare few others who pulled off the feat at the highest level it was a once-in-a-career moment. For Alonso it was a party trick.
Against Luton Town in a tremendous FA Cup clash in 2006 the game was tensely set at 4-3 going into injury time. The Hatters keeper Marlon Beresford dutifully thundered up for a corner and when the ball was cleared it fell to the cleats of the Spanish master. A touch was needed to right himself and furthermore to escape a desperately back-tracking Beresford and then Alonso unleashed a seventy yard daisy-cutter that rolled into the unguarded net.
That one was live on the telly. That one had the nation’s dads choking on their brews.
Then a year later he incredibly repeated the achievement. On this occasion Newcastle’s Steve Harper lost his footing in blind panic as the ball honed into view but that doesn’t detract from the execution and ambition, thwacking a ball into the abyss where others would look for a through-ball.
For these two acts alone Xabi Alonso is deserving of genius status but that’s just the half of it. The goals were scored with first his left then his right foot. That’s just showing off.