7 Aug 2008

Why Rafael Benitez is to blame for the downfall of Xabi Alonso

Rafael Benitez's complete mismanagement of Xabi Alonso is the main reason the talented Spaniard is on his way out of Anfield.

****I originally posted this article on the 5th February 2008 in response to what I believed were obvious signs that Xabi Alonso was being mismanaged by Rafa. In light of the current uncertainty surrounding Alonso's future, I feel compelled to re-post the article.

I'd been arguing for months before that Alonso was slowly being pushed out of the door and that he would probably leave at the end of the season, something that now looks very likely.

Alonso is a true Liverpool-type player; if Rafa had used him properly instead of subjugating him and marginalizing his role in the team, things could have been very different.*****


When is Rafael Benitez going to learn that club affairs, whatever they may be, should be conducted behind closed doors?! The recent public spat between Benitez and Tom Hicks made the club a laughing stock and made a mockery of the Liverpool way of doing things.

Benitez should have learned from that farcical situation, but his latest comments about Xabi Alonso prove that he hasn’t learned a thing. Quite simply, Benitez's recent public comments about Alonso are graceless and completely unacceptable:

"Xabi needs to step it up. When you are not 100 per cent fit, you want to play every game because you need to play more games to build up your fitness. But if Gerrard, Mascherano or Lucas are playing well, it means there is competition for places, which is good for the team. Xabi knows he needs to work harder if he wants to have a place in the team."

What possible benefit does Alonso gain from these needless comments?

And if, as Benitez states, 'Xabi knows he has to work harder' then why is it necessary to say the same thing in public?

Benitez has repeatedly proven that he is woefully lacking in man-management and motivational skills, and it’s no surprise if his idea of motivation is publicly criticizing players.

In my December 2007 article ‘Has Rafa’s Rush Job Inadvertently Ended Xabi Alonso’s Liverpool Career’, I argued that Benitez’s handling of Alonso would lead to the gifted Spaniard leaving the club.

Well, with new reports indicating that Alonso is set to leave Anfield at the end of the season, it seems I was right, though, of course, no one would accept my contention at the time.

What makes all this worse is the fact that Benitez himself is arguably to blame for Alonso’s demise, for the following reasons:

1. Failing to utilize Alonso properly and play to his strengths.

2. Shunting Alonso around to accommodate Gerrard.

3. Forcing Alonso to change his game from skilful, creative playmaker to defensive midfielder tasked with doing all the donkey work for Gerrard.

4. Signing Javier Mascherano and Lucas, thus marginalizing Alonso’s role in the team and making the competition for midfield players too intense.

5. Rushing Alonso back from his early season metatarsal injury.

The last point merits further analysis, as I believe Benitez's poor decision to rush Alonso back after his injury has contributed to his stuttering season and inability to find form or consistency.

Let’s recap briefly: In the first months of this season, Alonso had already been an early victim of Benitez's rotation policy, starting 4 games and warming the bench for 3, including being an unused sub in two Champions League encounters with Toulouse.

With Gerrard out injured against Derby, Alonso seized his chance and proceeded to run the show as Liverpool battered the rams, with Alonso scoring 2 of the 6 goals that day.

Then disaster struck: Alonso was injured against Portsmouth on September 15th 2007 - a devastating blow for the Basque maestro, who was clearly high in confidence after his Derby heroics.

So Alonso was injured. It happens to most players at one time or another, so need for alarm. The fatal blow came 43 days later, when Benitez inexplicably rushed him back from injury and put him in the starting line up against Arsenal.

It was gamble by Benitez that spectacularly failed to pay off. Alonso aggravated the same injury he had suffered against Portsmouth and was forced off. Just for the sake of clarity, here is the proof that it *was* the same injury:

Portsmouth Injury Report: http://www.liverpoolfc.tv/news/archivedirs/news/2007/sep/20/N157043070920-0839.htm

Alonso was rushed back after just six weeks, which was a major mistake considering every player in world football who has had the same injury has taken much longer to recover. Examples: Wayne Rooney - 14 weeks. Steven Gerrard - 10 weeks. Daniel Agger – almost three months!

Xabi Alonso was rushed back into the team after 6 weeks.

As a result of that catastrophic decision, Alonso missed a further 5 weeks of the season, and since returning from injury, he’s been in and out of the team, with precious little time to build up any rhythm or consistency.

So, given the circumstances, for Benitez to come out and criticize him in public exposes a dispiriting lack of class – something I never previously associated with Liverpool’s Manager.

Benitez is developing a habit of negative public comments about players. Indeed, earlier in the season, he accused Steven Gerrard of ‘not playing with his brain’ and scolded Peter Crouch for not having ‘the right character and mentality’

Whilst I agree with the Gerrard comments, both were unacceptable public criticisms, and given the destabilizing period recently undergone, negative public comments should be the last thing coming out of the club.

The name of the game is UNITY at the moment. Public criticism of players has never been the Liverpool way, and Benitez should know that.

Far from having a positive, galvanizing effect on Alonso, I am sure Benitez's comments will just hasten his departure.

It would be a tragedy to lose Alonso, as he is one of Benitez’s finest signings and is blessed with an essential skill that Steven Gerrard just does not possess: the ability to intelligently dictate the pace of play.

He is a quintessential Liverpool-type player, cut from the same cloth as the likes of Jan Moby and Ronnie Whelan – an exquisite passer of the ball and an asset to any team serious about challenging for honors

The sad truth is this: Benitez has a depressingly cautious, defensive mentality, with the emphasis on not losing and preference for defensive-minded players. Javier Mascherano is symbolic of this, which is why he is the current midfield flavour of the month.

Conversely, Alonso is the opposite of Mascherano, and represents flowing, creative, expansive football, i.e. EXACTLY what Liverpool FC should be about. Such a style of play is, however, the antithesis of Benitez’s painfully dull Liverpool team, which is why Alonso will be forced out.

Ultimately, Alonso leaving will be a good move for the player; in fact, I would argue that it is essential for the further improvement of his game, because what is plainly evident is this: no creative player with creative instincts can thrive in a Benitez team.

And that is the most depressing thing of all.


  1. Your spirited defence of Alonso is passionate and reflects the opinions voiced by many Liverpool fans but I have to say his departure will be sad but inevitable in the financial climate.

    You raised 5 main concerns with Benitez's management of the player, which I'll answer:

    1) Fails to use him properly?
    Please expand on this! Everyone except Reina, Carra and Gerrard were rotated by Benitez. See pt 2.

    2) Shunting Xabi to accommodate Gerrard?
    Xabi plays a totally different role to Gerrard and has never created or scored anywhere near as many goals as the skipper. On the contrary, Gerrard has demonstrated his versatility for both club and country playing a number of roles with his trademark determination.

    3) Forcing Xabi to do donkey work?
    Donkey work? Tackling? Tracking back? Part and parcel of a midfielder's job I'm afraid. Ask Marcos Senna who played instead of Xabi in Spain's glorious Euro 2008 team.

    4) Signing Mascherano and Lucas?
    Both players are full internationals for the two most competitive international sides in the world. Mascherano plays the deep "dirty" Senna role which allows other midfielders more license to attack. Lucas is over 5 years younger than Xabi and one for the future and showed great promise in his first season. Signing players does create intense competition: look at our rivals Chelsea and ManUre who both boast at least 4 international central midfielders each as well.

    5) Rushed Alonso back from injury?
    The medical staff and the player must also take some responsibility. The player must tell the medical and backroom staff is he is not ready for action as Daniel Agger did.

    Your defence cites Xabi's "heroic" brace v Derby, a game which I attended). The opposition were officially the worst ever to grace the Prem and should not hide the facts.

    Alonso gets few goals (1 every 11+ games) and few assists. He will be replaced by a player who has scored twice as many goals since Alonso's been in England and whose left foot will bring balance, work rate and more creativity from set-pieces. We need to balance the books to sign Barry and Xabi is the weakest link of the current 4 central first choice midfielders and we also have the potential of Plessis and Spearing in reserve too. The future's bright without Alonso.

    Chin up, YNWA

  2. Hi Tom. Thanks for your comments. I'll address your points one by one:

    1. Alonso is *not* defensive holding midfielder! This is the role he has been forced to play to accommodate Gerrard, but it completely wastes his natural gifts as a player, i.e. creative play-making ability and a superb range of passing.

    Would the likes of Jan Molby and Ronnie Whelan have been as effective if they were forced to play so deep and spend most of their time doing donkey work for other players? No.

    Benitez started out using Alonso in the right way (i.e. the focal point of the team), however as soon as it became apparent that Gerrard could not form an effective partnership with him, Alonso was the one who suffered.

    Over time, Benitez tried to turn Alonso into a Mascherano-type holding player, thus neutering his effectiveness.

    When it became clear that Alonso was not the solution to the holding midfielder role (and why should he be - he's NOT A HOLDING MIDFIELDER!!!!), he went out and bought Mascherano.

    By this time, there was no space in the team for Alonso because Benitez was changing his formation to 4231 - basically two holding midfielders with instructions to be cautious rather than cavalier.

    People come up with the most ridiculous criticisms of Alonso, like 'he's slow' or 'he disappears in games' - what they (imo) are failing to acknowledge is that Alonso is just not suited to playing a defensive midfield role - he needs to be the heartbeat of the team; dictating the pace of play and directing the creative thrust of the team.

    Was Jan Molby fast? Whelan? Bearsley? McMahon? Souness? None of them were sprinters but it didn't matter because they were masters of their roles and, most importantly, they were played in their best positions.

    Benitez has singularly failed to do this with Alonso. Instead of building the team around him and playing Gerrard in his most effective position *for the team* (i.e. on the right), he has subjugated Alonso to accommodate Gerrard and as a result, Liverpool have suffered and Alonso's confidence has suffered.

    It is no surprise that the likes of Barcelona and Arsenal are interested in him - they play football the way it should be played; the way Liverpool *used* to play - pass and move, keep the ball and play positive.

    Alonso's expansive style unfortunately conflicts with Benitez's cautious 'safety first' approach.

    I have no doubt that if Alonso had been given a solid midfield playmaker role over the last two years, Liverpool would be closer to winning the title.

    Instead - like Peter Crouch - Benitez has completely wasted an exceptional player.

    2. Judging Alonso's goalscoring/assist record against Gerrard is pointless because Alonso has not been played in the right position to score/create plenty of goals.

    A more accurate comparison would be Mascherano/Alonso, considering they play in similar positions under Benitez. And how many goals/assists does Masch get? Practically zero.

    In his two highest scoring seasons, (last season and 05/05), Gerrard was played in offensive positions: last season it was behind the striker; 05/06 he was predominantly on the right.

    When he's played in the centre his goal/assist records are much less impressive. If Alonso played in a a creative playmaker role, he would score and create more goals. he might not score more than Gerrard but personal goalscoring is not the issue - it's impact on the team that matters.

    For example, how many goals does Xavi score for Barcelona? Not many, but his impact on the team is what counts.

    3. As I said above, Alonso has been forced to play a defensive-mid role, which has completely neutered his creative play-making impact. Instead of spraying balls around and carving out opening, he's spending 70% of his game doing donkey work. In fact, last season were occasions where Masch was playing higher up the field than Alonso! This is an utterly ridiculous state of affairs and Benitez must take the blame.

    4. Whilst Mascherano and Lucas are good players, there was a time last season when there were 5 first team mids competing for two spots: Gerrard, Alonso, Sissoko, Mascherano and Alonso.

    In reality, it was 4 competing for 1 spot because Gerrard is always going to play. And look what happened - Sissoko got fed up and left and now the same thing is happening to Alonso.

    Competition is good, but it must be fair and reasonable competition. Furthermore, if there is competition, the players must be managed effectively so that they do not become frustrated.

    5. I don't care how how it happened, rushing Alonso back from injury was managerial negligence. Every premiership player who has suffered a metatarsal injury over the last 10 years has had a much longer recovery time. Examples: Rooney and Gerrard both took over 10 weeks to recover. Alonso was rushed back after 5 weeks?!

    Even *if* the player says they're ready, the backroom staff/manager should overrule this and look at recovery times of other players instead of just taking the player's word for it.

    Alonso is not the weakest link - Benitez's constant tinkering and playing players in the wrong positions is the weakest link.

    He's already doing it with Robbie Keane! In the last friendly, Keane was played on the left! I guarantee that in the coming months, Keane will be played all over the shop.

    Benitez will once again be the cause of Liverpool's failed title challenge this year, and if Gareth Barry signs, he too will fall foul of stupid positioning choices and/or needless rotation.

  3. hi. i'm afraid this time, i cannot agree with your anything in your article. tom has made most of the points and i agreew ith him totally except for the last paragraph in his comments coz the stats are biased (i assume from the last season?).

    1. your points about rafa rushing him back early for the arsenal game (after 6 weeks), and then criticising rafa for not giving him to build rhythm subsequently (after another 5 weeks) when he recovers simply contraticts itself. could rafa (and the medics) be thinking that they'd better ease xabi back the 2nd time round? it also sort of proves that xabi was prob quite ready to be back since he only took 5 weeks to recover the 2nd time round.

    2. on rafa not using xabi. he brough (rushed) xabi back against arsenal. if i was alonso, i'd be deeply honoured. imho, this is a testament to how highly rafa thinks of xabi. in the run up at the end of last season, xabi was involved in ALL the important games, and rested for the "lesser" ones (i think he's injury has something to do wih that). i play in a team of 25 players and i know how alonso would feel in these situations. very, very happy.

    3. i think that it is the public opinion and maybe the media that's criticing xabi. even some fans. citing the fact the he played badly for the last 1.5-2 seasons. if you look at michael owen's form the 1.5-2 seasons before he won the treble, and the european player of the year, you'd see something similar. then came the phrase to describe owen, "form is temporary, class is permanent. i'd like to hear peple say this of alonso in a red shirt soon...

    4. as for rafa's comments. yes, his spat with the yanks was childish. but at the time he said those things for gerard, crouch and alonso. it wasnt with spite and it didnt quite sound the way you said it. the implication was such in gerard's case, i was angerd as i watched the game, and i commented to my friend that rafa will only be forgiven if lucas or momo (who should be the one taken off) scores or at least played a great 20 mins. well... lucas would have scored had it not been for neville, so i held my hands up and say kuedo's to rafa. he was right, what can we say? as for comments about xabi, xabi was coming back from injury, hardly anything too offbeat to say for soundbites to reporters. he prob wont say those things if it was gerard, but xabi was lacking in fitness at that time and well, there's only one gerard + one carra in the team.

    5. holding midfielders. growing up watching liverpool in the 70's. i'm sad to point out to you that whelan was the one pointed out to me when i asked "what is the meaning of a holding midfielder?". jamie redknapp was the same. passers of the ball in the holding role. the "fetch and carry" guy. i'll leave arguements for what is exactly a "holding midfielder" but i believe he is played in the right position as whelan, molby etc. simply coz he is a good passer, and we think we know that gerard bombs up beter tahn xabi, so it sounds like he should sit slightly deeper. from a deeper role, he can spray his 50 yard passes (compare that to gerard's 40yard "only".... ;p ) with that great intelligence and vision of his. xabi fetches the ball from defence, spray his passes, while stevie does the donkey work up front running about.

    as for doing the real donkey work behind, the monster is the one asked to do the dirty work. so, maybe we can even say that rafa bought mashcherano in to help xabi do the dirty work? has anyone looked at things from this angle? momo is the one that masch took over from. ;) (great exchange and even more excellent business dealing on rafa's part)

    i have absolutely no complaints how xabi is played, how often he's played and where he is played. rafa's definitely got that spot on. if xabi goes to arsenal, where do you think he'll play?? the holding player is what arsenal needs now, isnt it? at juve, del piero is likely to be the playmaker, so xabi will be back where he is, the holding role.... xabi is what i understand the holding player to be, fetch ball from defence, dictate pace and spray the passes.

    well. i must admit that in real life, i play the xabi role, in a team like xabi with 20+ players. i love the 4-2-3-1 system coz i get a masch kind of player with me (more like momo actually, and he looks like crouch!). i've been injured before and know how difficult it is recovering from such things. and i assure you i know about forms. i find that you do sometimes raise some pretty good criticism but you seem to lack the understanding of really managing a team, playing, or the actual working of systems. trust me to know when it's disappointing not to be involved? crouch would be devastated, penant would be happy enough but if i were xabi, i'd be thrilled.

    xabi i believe is sacrificed for sale for his "sell-ability". a real fund raiser. there are other fund raisers like gerard, torres, masch, maybe reina but they are top of the league. xabi, well, we have lucas, gerard, and barry who can assume his role. i'm not saying i prefer barry to xabi, i love xabi and my last jersey says "alonso". but barry is more versatile and plays in the left, and in defence too. i believe its all business and i think rafa got it spot on with his comments that "xabi is for sale but only at the right price". again, if it was explained well to me, i'd be happy enough if i were xabi.

  4. You are right Jaimie!
    Alonso is a creative midfielder and should get the playmaker role. If you compare him with Fabregas you´ll find he is as good in most aspects and better in others. He is of the same class passing the ball, he shoots as good as Fabregas, perhaps better, he has at least the same game intelligence and his tempo is as high. Furthermore he is a stronger tackler, better in the air and his work rate exceeds the one of Fabregas.
    Everybody calls Fabregas a world class playmaker. Alonso could be too if Benitez just gave him the responsability. Alonso needs encouragement, then he could develope into something really special, be a late bloomer just like Zidane.

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  6. Hi guys!

    Interesting comments, Boz. My stats are not biased. They are based upon goals in all competitions since Alonso's arrival in England.

    Over Alonso's four seasons at Liverpool, Barry has scored 27 goals in 142 Premiership games (1 per 5.3 games or around 7 a season) whereas Xabi got just 11 goals in 110 games (1 every 10 games - equating to 3/4 a season).

    This discussion could be futile in any case as Rafa may view Barry's best position as a left midfielder. I believe Rafa can keep Xabi and play Barry outside of him in a midfield three or four. The only question now is can the Yanks cough up the cash or can Rafa finally offload some more outcasts?

  7. hey tom.

    heh heh. i think the main bias is that barry takes most of villa's penalties whilst alonso takes only the few occasional ones (he did miss the MOST important one too, luckily, legend has it he got to the rebound. yay!). add the fact that barry has a more direct free kick roles, being captain hence playing more mins etc. it's likely to skew the stats a bit more.

    as for your next comment. that's what i've been telling my mates since barry's name is linked; and i think rafa has also pointed this out in his comments after the lazio game. barry is the left sided midfielder/defender. he replaces riise and kewell in one go. and is prob a better aurelio (if only for the facts that he's less injury prone and english - bearing in mind those new local player rules).

    he give rafa some versatality. if they're both playing, he could take xabi (or masch, esp when we're chasing a game) out, put in a another left player (like benayoun/babel) and switch barry to the middle. or put xabi in and switch barry out if the occasion demands. depending on whether we're chasing or protecting a game.

    barry is good for the team, i believe. and i believe he is not a direct replacement for alonso. but 18m is just a bit too steep. 10-12m is about right, maybe add 2-3 for being english and versatile...?