There can be no greater demonstration for me of the merits of a defensive midfielder than Liverpool’s Champions League final victory in Istanbul back in 2005. Rafa Benitez surprised many by picking Xabi Alonso and Steven Gerrard in the centre of midfield, and it left the Reds back four exposed in the first half to the threatening runs of Kaka. Admitting his mistake, Rafa sent on Didi Hamann at half time, and the rest was history as they say. The German holding midfield gave a match winning performance as he stifled Kaka and AC Milan, helping Liverpool to make a dramatic comeback.
Benitez learned his lesson from that night and rarely ever played without a defensive midfielder again, with Mascherano replacing Hamann as the lynchpin in midfield as the German’s age finally caught up with him. With Mascherano and Alonso in midfield, and Gerrard in a more advanced position, it was the foundation of Liverpool’s nearly season in the 2008/09 campaign. The departure of Alonso to Real Madrid and the near exit of Mascherano to Barcelona changed it all that though. While a defensive midfielder was kept in Masch, Alonso’s exit meant there was a gap for someone who could pull the strings offensively in central midfield as well as being able to be positionally disciplined. Alberto Aquilani was the solution that Rafa came up with.
His injury problems however kept him out of action for longer than expected and Benitez opted to play Lucas in the position. Fundamentally an attacking midfielder at his time at Gremio, the Brazilian had been transformed into another defensive midfielder in the mould of Mascherano. Lucas could do a job but he would never fill the boots vacated by Alonso. The return of Alberto Aquilani did not see the straight swap of Lucas and the Italian in the team though. It became apparent early on that Aqua’s preferred position was in a more advanced role where Gerrard had been playing and this was demonstrated by his good performances in the role at the end of last season. A new manager though, brings new ideas, and Hodgson’s free transfer signing of Joe Cole spelt the end of Aquilani’s short career at Anfield. He was not a bad player but he was not the right type of player in Roy’s mind, and this is why I don’t think it was right to criticise his departure from the club. A new manager has his own ideas and will want to bring in his own players; Aqua was Rafa’s signing and Roy felt it was best for him to leave to get first team football.
So what was Roy’s plan? Well, fundamentally it sees Joe Cole in an advanced attacking midfield role behind Fernando Torres. This was only half the plan though. The departure of Javier Mascherano and the arrival of Raul Meireles reveals the other half of it. It means that for the first time in a long time, there will be the lack of an out and out defensive midfielder regularly in the starting eleven. Will this be a good thing? It will be if the Portuguese international lives up to his billing. Meireles is a box to box midfielder; he doesn’t shy away from a physical challenge but he can also pass the ball exceptionally well. The sale of Masch means the centre of midfield will see Meireles playing alongside Steven Gerrard with Joe Cole playing ahead of them. Lucas and Christian Poulsen will no doubt be used, but they will be reserved for games where defensive solidity is key. So far then we have not seen Roy’s plans in action. At the weekend against West Brom we played both Lucas AND Poulsen, something which we might see less of this season with the exception of the Europa League. The absence of Joe Cole through injury has necessitated this change but now with the purchase of Meireles, and Cole only one game away from a return, we can expect to have an exciting, creative midfield in the months to come. It is a job half done though because of the absence of genuine wingers and another striker, but it indicates to me that positive, pass and move football is the direction the team is going.
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