After Rafael Benitez introduced Xabi Alonso to the English game, critics and fans alike were soon lauding the young Spaniard's obvious talents—even comparing him to Liverpool legend Jan Molby.
High praise indeed, especially considering that Molby agreed.
Despite missing four months with a broken foot, Alonso provided the perfect foil for Steven Gerrard in his debut season. His presence was particularly impactful in the second leg of the Champions League quarterfinal against Juventus, when his steadying play helped Liverpool reach the seminfinals for the first time in 20 years.
At the end of the 2005 season, then, Liverpool fans and media "experts" seemed justified in claiming that the club had a franchise centerpiece for the foreseeable future.
But things haven't quite turned out that way.
Two years later, fan message boards regularly call for Alonso to be dropped—or even sold. Critics cite his lack of speed, his susceptibility to pressure, his defensive shortcomings, and his general ineffectiveness on attack.
But is Alonso really done at Anfield?
Given the arrivals of Javier Mascherano and Lucas Leiva, that may just be the case. But in this writer's opinion, Alonso's critics have missed the bigger picture.
The speed issue is irrelevant; how many times did we see Molby sprinting across the Anfield turf, leaving opponents in his wake? As far as defense—Alonso won more tackles then ANY other Premiership player in first season with Liverpool.
Besides, in a midfield that typically features Mascherano or Sissoko, wouldn't Alonso's talents be better used further up the pitch?
While it's true that Alonso HAS at times lost the ball under pressure from tenacious defenders, can you name one player who's made a seamless transition to the English game from slower-paced Continental competition?
Don't forget that Alonso is still a maturing player.
For any shortcomings he might have, Alonso greatly improves Liverpool's offense. Without him on the field, the club's ball retention can be downright awful.
Gerrard's habit of pushing forward at all costs makes Liverpool easy to predict and defend against. Alonso's more controlled style allows Jermaine Pennant, Ryan Babel, and Harry Kewell (when fit) to stay on the wings, thus expanding the attack. It also allows strikers to thrive and backs to come forward, thus creating the "red wall" of attack that the kop cry for week-in and week-out.
The combination of Alonso's passing ability and Fernando Torres' pace and skill should make any fan drool.
The bottom line, then, is that Alonso's critics need to recognize how he makes his teammates better. He's key to Liverpool's success—if Gerrard provides the fire that drives the club, Alonso is surely the match that lights it.
If and when Liverpool finally claim that elusive 19th championship, you can be sure that Alonso will have been as integral as any other player—if not more so.