By the time you read this there will already be another twist in the story. Another wrinkle in the best laid plans of Rafa Benitez Roy Hodgson. The problem is, we’ll probably never hear about it. Such is the modus operandi when it comes to Liverpool midfielder Alberto Aquilani.
The ghost. The enigma. A walking injury wrapped in doubt or flu or some absurd excuse (SIDEBAR: my favorite was when Benitez said he wouldn’t risk fielding Aquilani because the pitch was bumpy). Aquilani has been in the books on Merseyside for over a year and many Liverpool fans still haven’t gotten a proper introduction. Before that even happens, he could be gone. Shrouded in mystery are the circumstances of the Italian, so much so that all we can do is speculate. So, let’s!
1. Why did Rafa buy him?
He was supposed to be the direct replacement for Xabi Alonso– I think that much is clear. AA was allegedly 1-2 months away from fitness, hence his “bargain” price of £18 million. Once he was ready, he would slot right into the central midfield position (back to the bench, Lucas!) with Mascherano.
Only he wouldn’t. As I argued, he isn’t the same type of midfielder as Alonso. He operates with movement, not positioning; he likes to create from forward, not from the back; his passing game is one of quickness and misdirection, not lengthy precision… The point being, if I can see this then surely Rafa must have as well. Which leads us to question number two:
2. Was Rafa to change the formation to accommodate AA, or vice versa?
Something had to give, right? Given the expensive transfer fee and timetable of Aquilani’s rehabilitation, Rafa could not have bought him merely as backup to Gerrard or Lucas. I just don’t think I could believe that– and you shouldn’t either. AA must have been a major cog in Rafa’s plans at the time of the transfer. But to make him a permanent fixture in the starting lineup would require some shuffling around.
Either Rafa planned on allowing his team to flow freely with the advancing style of Aquilani or he thought he could make AA into an Alonso-type player. (SIDEBAR: Rafa did the same “strapping the harness on a midfielder” trick to make Lucas more defensive right around the time he went from long hair to grandma hair– which also wasn’t the best idea considering how it worked for Shevchencko). It had to be one way or the other.
But something happened.
3. What the hell happened?!
This is the abridged version of what we saw unfold above the surface last season. AA takes much longer than expected to reach fitness. But then he doesn’t play. Either he has some sort of bug, or slight knock, or something like that every weekend. Even when he is “fit” he’s often not risked. Other times there’s simply no explanation for his omission. He finishes the season with 9 Premier League starts, 1 goal, and 6 assists. Pretty respectable stat line for a midfielder (can’t confirm but I believe he had the highest assists-to-starts ratio in the Prem); furthermore, he passed the eye test with flying color(s)– red and more red. So much talent, so much promise.
At this time in the story, Rafa leaves Liverpool. It was maddening to make sense of the AA saga, but most of us were willing to accept at face value that Rafa had thrown in the towel on the season and wanted to make extra certain that Aquilani was fit and ready for this year. There was a lot of hype bandied about the Italian for his first full, healthy season at Liverpool. I bought into it, we all did.
Then something else happened. Enter Roy Hodgson.
4. Why does Roy want to loan him out?
This is a trick question, because it’s really like 50 questions. Let’s go all Paul Pierce on this and take a stab. Here are the theories that I can see.
- Roy planned on inserting AA in the starting lineup just off Torres, but jumped at the chance to sign Joe Cole when that fell into his lap. He saw an opportunity and went for it. I don’t blame him for making a gut decision even if I disagree with it. But Joe Cole hasn’t exactly been a paragon of fitness in recent years, so I don’t see how Roy could assume Cole (or Gerrard, for that matter) would be good to go in all 38 Prem matches. I mean, he’s already banned for the next 3, so how could he not slot AA immediately in Cole’s spot? Right now, against City, arg!
- AA felt hard done by last season and made up his mind during the summer to get out of Liverpool like a bat out of monkey hell. It’s possible, but unlikely for two reasons. First, the club invested a humongous chunk of resources to nurse him back to health– he doesn’t seem the unreasonable type to not feel indebted to them and repay their faith. Also, the regime change should’ve rejuvenated his aspirations at Liverpool.
- Roy screwed up with the Mascherano situation and found himself with too many central midfielders on the wage bill. It looked dead set that the Argentine was on his way out, so much so that Hodgson went out and bought Christian Poulsen as his replacement. (SIDEBAR: World’s Most Expensive Meat Cleaver). But Roy also balked at inferior bids for Mascherano, and now it looks like he’ll stay on with the Reds. Ipso Facto someone has to go. But why Aquilani?
- Roy doesn’t rate AA. Maybe he’s atrocious in training while Lucas looks like Zidane. Um, I’m really clutching at straws. It’s a possibility though– just one that presupposes that he’s absolutely horrendous in practice, enough to overwhelm his magnificent displays in actual matches.
Poulsen, the Pass Master
But the thing is, none of these theories really answer the initial question, so I’ll ask once more, with feeling.
5. Why LOAN him out?
Do you see now? The above arguments would hold more water if it was the sale of Aquilani rather than a loan deal. So now we’re getting closer to taking a bite out of the crux burger of the issue.
- Roy really wants AA to play for him, but sincerely thinks he needs to play every match this season (guaranteed) to get back to the Liverpool standard. He’s loaning him out to make him a better player for the Reds… Gosh, that would be neat, but highly unlikely. Dude is 26, not 19, and he’s already shown what he can do in Serie A. A loan to West Ham is justifiable, but not one back to his home country. Ask Fergie why he won’t loan Macheda anywhere in Serie A. If AA goes to Italy, he’s probably never coming back…
- Roy wants to sell him, so he’s giving Italian clubs a taste of the goods. Juventus is the club getting name-checked, perhaps Roy is guessing the Turin giants are tiring of Diego’s partyboy antics. (SIDEBAR: AA in for Poulsen has got to be the greatest trick the devil ever pulled, right?). But Aquilani is still highly regarded in Italy, so a loan is unnecessary bait. Unless…
6. Is there is an underlying problem with Aquilani?
It breaks my heart to delve into this, but I can’t ignore the warning signs. Aquilani may not be driving around in a bulletproof vest chugging Grey Goose, but there’s an unspoken uneasiness lurking about his state. Let’s just get this part over with. Here are some ideas.
- AA has serious fitness problems. The medical team last year discovered something persistent and it’s in Liverpool’s best interests to cut their losses with the crock. Roy hopes AA keeps it together long enough for Juve to pay up.
- AA is psychologically destroyed. Somewhere between the injuries and the move to a foreign country he lost his drive/confidence. Language, food, weather, whatever– it’s not working for him. Maybe he’s scared to take the field for the risk of aggravating his injury problems. There are a number of alterations of the “psychologically hindered” theory, but I believe the English term is what is called a “flop.”
- He’s been a truant within the club. Perhaps he has an infectious bad attitude or something else nasty about him we haven’t seen. Maybe he’s had a bust up, a la Riera.
If any of these are even potentially true, then we must revisit last season. There’s another question that’s been bugging me.
7. What caused Rafa to change his mind on AA?
At some point last year Aquilani dropped from Rafa’s starting plans into the cornhole of obscurity. In light of Roy’s recent determination to loan him out, do we really still believe (as I did at the time) that Rafa just wanted to save him for this year? Benitez must’ve known something. Something happened– but what transpired, and when exactly? There’s too much damning circumstantial evidence for me not to presume that Rafa made a calculated decision that AA could no longer be the successor to Alonso. Which leads us into our final question.
8. Why the secrecy around Aquilani?
This is the most frustrating aspect of the story. And I’m afraid it only plays into the “underlying problem” theories. Rafa Benitez may have made a reputation for himself as a bullish “tell-nothinger,” but Roy Hodgson is very much an open book. Yet even Roy is tight-lipped and mysterious about Aquilani’s position. Is there any possible way that both managers playing coy on AA could actually be a good thing? Yeah, I didn’t think so.
I sense something bigger and darker churning the wheels of this ongoing Shakespearean drama. There’s something amiss with Alberto Aquilani– just wish I had the answer to one last question, what is it?
And so it goes with the talented Italian who can’t get a game for Liverpool. Perhaps on Monday, when the loan to Juve is set to be finalized, the turbulence behind the scenes will finally be revealed in full. Maybe the deal will collapse and there’ll be another wrench convoluting the master plan. Most likely, we’ll never truly understand. I know I don’t.