Liverpool Need A Midfield Controller This Summer, But Not Xabi Alonso

As sure as night follows day, canned laughter follows Miranda Hart and Arsenal’s title hopes fade by January, there is one major guarantee when it comes to Liverpool and the transfer window: without fail, the Reds are linked with a move for their former midfield model, Xabi Alonso. As we head into the final weeks of 2015/16, and Jurgen Klopp plots his summer’s business behind closed doors at Melwood, Alonso’s name has popped up once again, with the Bayern Munich man entering a period of uncertainty at the Allianz Arena as, with one year left on his contract, he is set to be subject to a change in manager.

Pep Guardiola, the man who brought him to Munich from Real Madrid, who installed him as a key feature in his midfield unit, usurping former mainstay Bastian Schweinsteiger, is poised to join Manchester City this summer, with Carlo Ancelotti taking his place. Ancelotti’s arrival will no doubt prompt a shakeup in terms of personnel, and with Alonso’s influence waning at the top level of the Bundesliga, he could be one of those to make way.

But while Alonso’s name will echo around Merseyside as the season comes to a close — with the Liverpool Echo’s Ian Doyle already campaigning for his return—he is not the man for Liverpool.

There is no denying that there has been something missing in midfield for the Reds this season, as though Steven Gerrard’s quality had diminished throughout the previous campaign, his departure to Los Angeles needed to be followed by the signing a high-calibre replacement, able to occupy the controlling role. For Brendan Rodgers, that player was James Milner, but on Rodgers’ dismissal and Klopp’s arrival, it has become eminently clear that Milner is far from his best in the middle of the park; his ability is best employed in a fluid role higher up the field.

Meanwhile, Jordan Henderson’s nightmare season — compounded by a potentially season-ending knee injury suffered in the Reds’ 1-1 draw with Borussia Dortmund at the beginning of April — has seen him fail to impose himself on Klopp’s midfield setup, with wayward passes undermining Liverpool’s buildup play. Emre Can stands as Liverpool’s best central midfielder at this stage, with the German’s development under Klopp a signifier of his potential and his manager’s ability to nurture it. But while Can will go on to become a world-class midfielder, but at just 22, can he really be the Reds’ only hope? With Joe Allen set to leave at the end of the season, Kevin Stewart, Cameron Brannagan and Pedro Chirivella relatively untested at the top level and Lucas Leiva’s limited skill set make him a poor fit for Klopp’s high-tempo, high-intensity tactical remit, another addition is required.

To accentuate Can’s all-round, box-to-box prowess and Henderson’s admirable industry and subtle creativity, Klopp should be pushing to find a midfielder capable of both controlling the midfield battle and driving his side forward: a role model for Can, and an established midfield general. With Marko Grujic signed already, and Piotr Zielinski seemingly on his way, it would make sense for this to come in the form of one player — not another smattering of loose-fitting squad options.

For Doyle, this man would be Alonso, and assessing the Bayern midfielder’s qualities on a basic level, it is understandable why he has come to this conclusion: Alonso is a supremely talented midfielder, blessed with the rare level of perception that allows him to take in the entire landscape of a game, whose vision, distribution and off-ball tenacity have allowed him to negotiate his creeping age. As Doyle points out, Alonso is also a proven winner, with two league titles, two Champions League winner’s medals and three major international honours to his name. Similarities can be drawn between Liverpool moving for Alonso this summer and Gerard Houllier’s signing of Gary McAllister back in 2000, with McAllister the wise head the Reds sorely needed.

But while McAllister brought patience, composure and methodical stability to Houllier’s midfield, helping secure a treble of trophies in the 2000/01 campaign, Liverpool’s outlook is much changed under Klopp.

In the first six months of Klopp’s reign, Liverpool have been at their best in a 4-2-3-1 system, with a hardworking two-man unit at the base of the German’s midfield — typically Can and Henderson — providing the platform for an interchanging, four-pronged attack to flood the final third. For this system to be successful, both of Klopp’s central midfielders need to be able to cover ground quickly and consistently, and aid Liverpool’s pressing game into the attacking sector. This is largely why Lucas has struggled in a midfield two under Klopp, and why Allen’s peripheral role remains a mystery.

Just like Lucas, Alonso would struggle to perform this role with any regularity; and while his return would come to much fanfare, the Spaniard would do himself a disservice returning to play a 15-start-a-season role under Klopp.

In terms of alternatives, Napoli’s Jorginho and Lyon’s Maxime Gonalons stand out as more suitable than Alonso, while a player regularly linked with a move to join Klopp’s Anfield revolution, Granit Xhaka, possesses a similar, all-round quality. If Klopp is intent on adding youth to his squad, Bayern’s Joshua Kimmich, Real’s Mateo Kovacic, Paris Saint-Germain’s Adrien Rabiot and Empoli’s on-loan Roma midfielder Leandro Paredes would prove better options than Alonso.

It’s the move that Merseyside has pined for since the chiselled Spaniard left for Madrid in 2009, but both Alonso and Liverpool should shun sentiment this summer.

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