When Xabi Alonso left Liverpool for Real Madrid last summer, Alberto Aquilani was swiftly brought in from Roma as an ostensible replacement. It was by no means a like-for-like exchange – Aquilani typically played further forward in Italy, poses more of a direct goal threat and cannot quite match Alonso’s superb passing range – but it is worth remembering that Alonso himself was a more attacking player when he arrived at Anfield from Real Sociedad in 2004 and the expectation was that Aquilani would be groomed to succeed him in the deep-lying midfield regista role.
“He is a fantastic player on the ball, very technical,” said Aquilani’s former team-mate and one-time Liverpool man John Arne Riise. “He is different to Alonso but he is the sort of player who can break teams down. He is a very good passer of the ball; he runs a lot; finds space everywhere and he likes to get in the box to score goals.”
Rafael Benitez, meanwhile, responded to Aquilani’s arrival on Merseyside by hinting that the Italian would be deployed in a more advanced role than Alonso.
“He is a very good player on the ball, and hopefully he can produce the sort of passes that we missed last season,” said the Liverpool coach. “Certainly at home against packed defences when we could only draw important matches.”
An ankle injury kept Aquilani out of the side until late October though and he has since been unable to wrestle a starting place away from Lucas Leiva. The Brazilian has become an unfortunate scapegoat for Liverpool’s woes this season despite performing capably alongside Javier Mascherano in the midfield engine room and he continues to attract criticism for the simple reason that he is keeping Aquilani out of the side. Fans and pundits alike long to see Aquilani alongside Mascherano but, largely because of injury to the former, the partnership has been granted little time to establish itself.
Aquilani has made just five Premier League starts this term, but on all five occasions Liverpool have won – 2-0 at home to Wolves on Boxing Day, 1-0 at Aston Villa three days later, 2-0 at home to Tottenham on January 20, 2-0 at home to Bolton on January 30 and 4-1 at home to Portsmouth on March 15.
“Alberto has got desire and he is working very hard,” Benitez said after seeing Aquilani score his first goal for the club in an impressive performance against Portsmouth last month. “When we have him available, he can give us a different approach on the pitch in different games.”
In most of those five matches, as demonstrated by the below screenshot from ESPN Soccernet highlighting his average position against Portsmouth, Aquilani has played in a central role slightly ahead of either Lucas (21) or Mascherano (20), providing a direct link between the team’s defensive third and the attacking talents of Steven Gerrard (8) and Fernando Torres (9).
In a comparable fixture (the last home game against a side Liverpool were expected to beat in which Lucas partnered Mascherano), the 2-2 draw at home to Birmingham on November 9, Lucas played in a similar position:
And now Aquilani:
(A Guardian Chalkboards comparison of their passing statistics highlights the unsurprising fact that Aquilani plays slightly further forward than Lucas and is more involved in Liverpool’s approach play around the opposition penalty area.)
An obvious caveat is that while Birmingham are one of the most defensively disciplined teams in the league, Portsmouth have one of the most porous defences in the country. Nevertheless, the diagrams above clearly show that Aquilani brings more attacking thrust to the team than the more defensive Lucas, who has managed to keep hold of his place in the team due no doubt to Benitez’s desire to achieve supremacy on the pitch by controlling as many ‘zones’ as possible.
In remains curious, however, that Aquilani has been used so sparingly. It is true that he has struggled with injury but he has still been fit enough to make seven starts and seven substitute appearances in all competitions since Christmas and he has been an unused substitute on a further five occasions in that time. Liverpool manifestly lack the fluency they had with Alonso when Mascherano and Lucas play together in the midfield holding roles and in recent weeks Benitez appears to have sought to remedy that shortcoming by moving Gerrard back into central midfield and bringing Dirk Kuyt (18) infield from the right flank, most notably in the 3-0 win at home to Sunderland on March 28:
But if Benitez wants an extra spark in midfield, why not play Aquilani in front of Mascherano and keep Gerrard in the advanced role behind Torres that is clearly his best position? When Aquilani starts, Liverpool tend to win and they have scored 11 goals with just one conceded in the five Premier League matches in which he’s made the starting XI. Mascherano, Aquilani, Gerrard and Torres – the predicted spine of the team’s midfield and attack prior to the start of the campaign – have started together in the Premier League just once, in the 4-1 win over Portsmouth.
Much of Aquilani’s frustrations this season boil down to his troublesome ankle and Benitez hinted in the aftermath of Liverpool’s 2-1 Europa League defeat to Benfica last week that the problem was as much psychological as physical.
“Does he think he needs another operation? We don’t know,” said Benitez. “He has some pain, and we will have to analyse that with the doctor. It is the same ankle as before. Some players can manage with pain, but not all. There are some players who cannot, when they have pain. When you talk of pain, you never know. It depends on the individual, and that can make it really difficult.”
Injuries and illness aside, however, Benitez has appeared reluctant to put his faith in Aquilani. The 25-year-old’s ankle has undoubtedly cost him playing time, but he has still been fit enough to make eight starts, 12 substitute appearances and spend a further nine games twiddling his thumbs on the bench, despite having cost the club up to £17 million last August.
So it is solely about the injury? Is Aquilani refusing to play through the pain? Does Benitez just prefer the defensive cover afforded by Lucas? Does he know what Aquilani’s best position is? Or does he simply not trust him? In the absence of any single compelling explanation, the Italian’s failure to make any kind of impact in his Anfield career to date remains something of a mystery.