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Alberto Aquilani: Why Liverpool Need ‘The Little Prince’ This Season

With the return of Alberto Aquilani, Dalglish may have found the key to unlocking the stubborn opposition defences which proved Liverpool’s undoing last season. Aquilani’s vision and understanding will be crucial to getting the best out of the other players on the team, provided he can remain injury free, and he could well be crucial to Liverpool’s return to the top.

Very few people would’ve thought the Italian would have been staying at the club this Summer with speculation rife about a return to the Serie A, but Liverpool’s principal owner John W Henry recently gave his fans hope with this statement on Twitter,

“One missing link last year: Acquilani. Put the ball near Ngog and the goal and it’s going in. Too much talk of them somewhere else.”

Looking past the misspelling of the name, that statement is a huge confidence booster going into the new season. While I’m not overly excited about Ngog staying and would put down the fact he keeps scoring to the good work of others, the announcement about Aquilani is a huge relief.

The good news is, Kenny Dalglish seems to be a fan too, releasing this statement to the press earlier this year,

“He went out on loan and has done very well over there. If he was to come back here, for me that would be like a new face coming in.”

And Aquilani too seems to be glad to be back too,

“I return to Liverpool with great enthusiasm. This is not a problem. It’s not true that I didn’t want to return to England”

So, it looks more than likely he’ll stay and for Liverpool, that can only be a good thing. Aquilani seems to divide opinion. Some supporters see his injury record as too much of a burden to carry. Last season for instance, he was in the starting lineup for 31 league games, the first time he’s started in more than 20 Serie A matches in his career.

In his debut season for Liverpool, the Italian only managed 12 starts and 12 substitute appearances in all competitions. Not a great return for the £20 million Liverpool paid for him.

Eventually, the media ripped him apart, using his injuries as an excuse to criticize the player, with the likes of Rory Smith labeling him Liverpool’s “worst player.”

However, that criticism was never justified. In the tail end of that injury riddled season ‘Il Principino’ really started to show his qualities, scoring two goals and providing six assists.

More important than goals and assists though, is the way the Italian approaches the game. His vision, touch and movement set him apart from any other player that Liverpool have. His artistry on the ball is what we have so desperately needed in recent years, when our first instinct has increasingly been to knock the ball into the air and hope someone is their on the end of it, we needed someone with the presence of mind to look for the killer pass.

That presence of mind will be especially crucial with the temptation of Andy Carroll to aim at when players come under pressure and will get the best out of the likes of Stewart Downing and Luis Suarez. Aside from injuries, perhaps the reason so many fans were disappointed with Aquilani was because of the expectation left by the departure of  Xabi Alonso.

Aquilani was seen as a direct replacement for the Spaniard. Liverpool fans were expecting the 60 yard passes and outrageous attempts from inside the halfway line, but in reality those are not Aquilani’s strengths.

While he is capable of picking out players with a long pass, ‘The Little Prince’ plays his best football further forward in midfield, linking up with other players in short one touch patterns and then either releasing another player through on goal or having a go himself.

That vision and composure was one of the things Liverpool lacked so badly in the 2010-2011 season and left us struggling to break down teams we should’ve been beating. Had Roy not loaned Aquilani out we may well have been playing European football this season.

Rafa Benitez described his qualities perfectly when he said,

“We can see in every training session that he has quality, game intelligence and good movements”

With Adam now at the club, perhaps some of that ‘Alonso’ burden can be taken away from him. Perhaps now Aquilani can leave the long passing game to Adam while he concentrates on what he does best, further forward on the pitch, creating chances for others and scoring his own goals.

It’s difficult to assess just how big an impact Aquilani could have on the team this year, given the different style of the Serie A to the Premier league, and the limited time we have seen him in a Liverpool shirt.

However, to give you an indication of how influential Aquilani was for Juventus, last season the ‘Old Lady’ was without him for five games and lost four of those. His vision, passing and ability to control the tempo of the game are reflected in the fact that he made an average of 50 passes per game with an overall accuracy of 82 per cent.

Now, that might indicate Aquilani was playing in a slower league where he had more time on the ball, but for me in the last part of 2009-2010 season he showed that same vision and range of passing in the quicker, more physical premier league.

If he can bring that same dominance and quality to the Premier league, then Liverpool could do really well this season. For a while there this Summer, I was seriously worried that Liverpool were looking to create a purely British team, with whispers that the likes of Meireles and Aquilani were on their way out and Adam and Henderson were there to replace them.

Now, don’t get me wrong, the players we have bought are good players, albeit vastly overpriced, but when was the last time a side won the Premiership with a team of only British players?

Granted top teams, need a core of local players with a passion for the club but there is so much quality in Europe and South America that their talent is needed in order for a team to succeed. If you look at the most successful English side over the last two decades — Manchester United — their British players have always formed the core of their team.

In the last few years; Ferdinand, Scholes, Giggs, Neville, Fletcher and Rooney have been at the heart of United’s success, all talented players but more importantly, players who have always played with passion and spirit for their club. However, would they have been quite so successful without Ronaldo, Nani, Berbatov, Chicarito, Evra and Van Nistleroy providing that extra bit of quality?

At the other end of the spectrum you have Arsenal. They have a team of foreigners who play more beautiful football than anyone in the country, but who have consistently lacked any sort of bite in defense — as well as a sense of spirit and passion — and have suffered a trophy less spell ever since.

Liverpool too seem to have lacked that extra bit of passion in recent years. To succeed in this league, Liverpool need to find the balance between homegrown talent with passion and exceptionally talented foreigners to supplement that pride.

In addition, they also need to find a balance between the power and strength of Andy Carroll, the long ball game of Charlie Adam, the crossing prowess of Stewart Downing, and the poise and vision of Steven Gerrard, Raul Meireles and especially Aquilani. Therefore, it’s a positive thing that Kenny Dalglish is bringing players like Adam, Downing, Henderson and Carroll into the club and that British talent is rising through the youth ranks again, just as it was in Liverpool’s heyday.

Those players understand the club. They know the history and will play for the shirt and while the younger ones are being groomed in the slick Spanish style of Rodolfo Borrell and the other youth team coaches, and will one day form the majority of the Liverpool starting 11, the current senior British players will form the basis of a solid team.

However, until Liverpool’s youth prospects are fully blooded in to the side, Liverpool must use the foreign talent they have available to them. If Liverpool want success, they can’t afford to lose their best foreign players. Not only in the interest of Liverpool’s huge international fan base, but due to the immense quality the likes of Meireles and Aquilani possess.

Provided they do stay, Liverpool’s biggest problem this season will be who to pick in the centre of midfield with Jordan Henderson, Charlie Adam, Steven Gerrard, Raul Meireles, Jonjo Shelvey, Jay Spearing, Lucas and Aquilani himself all vying for a spot in the middle of the park.

Raul Meireles is a quality player with vision, touch and energy and will also be an important player for Liverpool this coming season. Steven Gerrard hasn’t looked his best lately but is still one of the best midfielders around on his day.

However, Liverpool won’t get the best out of Meireles, Gerrard or any of their other players if Aquilani doesn’t play a big part this season. If his form is anything like it was at Juventus or at the back end of 2009-2010 Liverpool will be well placed for a top four finish, particularly with the feel good factor at the club and the new found passion and pride that comes with the signings of British players.

If Dalglish can strike the right balance between British and foreign, and between power and poise, and if Aquilani can remain injury free, Liverpool can at least start their comeback to the summit of the Premier league and maybe continue to the lay the foundation for further success.

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