Cast your mind back several years ago to the tail end of Gerrard Houllier’s reign at Anfield. Shortly after the incredibly successful period that included the famous cup treble and a run at the title, that was denied only due to an unstoppable winning streak from Arsenal, the club had fallen into the doldrums, failing to capitalize on previously successful seasons.
Towards the end of the Houllier era, Liverpool had become a one-dimensional, negative team, devoid of imagination or creativity. The core of that same team would go on to win the European Cup under Benitez, but no one would have predicted it in the Spring of 2004.
One of the most frequent complaints about Houllier during his last two seasons were about his unsuccessful forays into the transfer market. As a result of his failed recruitment policy, the team had to rely on players such as El-Hajdi Diouf, Vlad Smicer, Emile Heskey, and an over-the-hill Harry Kewell to create scoring chances for Michael Owen.
None of these players were really fit to fulfill Liverpool’s ambitions. Due to this fact, an otherwise solid group of players looked impotent trying to undo the defences of teams headed for relegation.
Every now and then frustrated fans would mention a certain name. A highly successful Finnish senior international with experience at Ajax and Barcelona, who had inexplicably been released by Liverpool after just one season. That player was Jari Litmanen.
For those who don’t remember him, Litmanen was a classy playmaker in the Jan Molby mould. Gifted with terrific vision and passing ability, he also had a tendency to score spectacular goals. After signing him, Houllier called Litmanen "one of the most exciting (signings) we've ever made. We've brought in a world-class player."
Despite the proclamation, Houllier never really took to him. Through a combination of being overlooked by the manager and injury problems, Litmanen only made 26 appearances in a Liverpool jersey before returning to Ajax—where he went on to help the club have their best Champions League run of the decade.
Liverpool’s bad decision with Litmanen made watching Diouf and Heskey all the more irritating. The solution to Liverpool’s creativity problem had been there, on the books, and then allowed to walk out the door after making him feel unwanted by the club. It wasn’t until the signing of Xabi Alonso that Liverpool again possessed a playmaker of similar calibre.
And now in the present day with Alberto Aquilani, I fear Liverpool may be about to make a similar mistake.
Often lazily written off as a "flop" by newspaper hacks, Aquilani was actually one of Liverpool’s more impressive players in the second half of the 2009/10 season. The negative view some people have of him is down to the large transfer fee paid to Roma, and the fact that injuries limited him to just 18 appearances in his first season. But as he has proved at Juventus this past year, when he is fit he really is a hell of a player.
If anyone ever wants proof that intelligence is not a requirement to become a highly paid figure in the Premiership, I would just show them a photo of Roy Hodgson. Sending Aquilani to Turin and bringing in Christian Poulsen from the other direction, would be my nomination for the worst transfer move in Liverpool history—if it weren’t for Hodgson’s recruitment of Paul Konchesky.
Fortunately, Aquilani is officially still a Liverpool player. I sincerely hope it stays that way for years. Central midfield is an area where the squad is relatively well stocked for options at the moment even without Aquilani. However, Aquilani does possess certain creative attributes which were notably absent in middle of the park last year.
Under Dalglish, it looks like Liverpool’s style will revolve around the old pass-and-move tactics. This requires players with good technique; something we already have. But problems could arise against well-organized defences—problems that usually require midfielders capable of conjuring something unexpected.
In this department LFC are lacking, and signing the likes of Charlie Adam will not help. Aquilani is the player with the kind of finesse and imagination which can make the difference between a draw and a win against stubborn opponents.
It looks like Aquilani’s future may depend on whether or not Liverpool land Charlie Adam. He would be a decidedly inferior option to Aquilani. Adam is a decent player, but he is a very direct sort of midfielder. At Blackpool he has been the focal point of their entire attack, something which I think makes him look better than he really is. He would struggle to stand out in a more gifted squad (his failure at Rangers adds to my suspicions).
A glance at the stats would also suggest Liverpool are better off sticking with the Italian. Adam’s pass completion percentage sits at a very unimpressive 70 percent—this past season at Juventus, Aquilani achieved a 93 percent completion rate. In his previous season at Liverpool, Aquilani also achieved the highest ratio of assists per-minute-played by anyone in the top five European leagues.
The team Dalglish is building looks like it will have a strong contingent of British players, and that’s fantastic. But it might be a good idea to keep a little bit of a continental flavour. That’s why I really hope Alberto Aquilani is not about to become the new Jari Litmanen.