The departure of Xabi Alonso from the Liverpool midfield after five seasons is supposed to have derailed any chance the Reds have of winning their first league title in 20 years. And while on the face of it replacing Alonso ‘“ a member of Spain’s all-conquering midfield and worth Â£30m according to his new employers ‘“ with Lucas Leiva ‘“ a player who has yet to convince many of his worth ‘“ might seem to be a backwards step, it need not be.
Alonso will be missed, of that there is little doubt. His form in 2008/09, after three seasons bedevilled by inconsistency and injury, was outstanding and only marginally below that of his first year in England, which ended with a goal in the European Cup final to go with a winners medal. He and Javier Mascherano were made to play together as the 2 in Rafa Benitez’s 4-2-3-1 formation, offering the near-perfect combination of defensive solidity and possession retention. Lucas is clearly a different kind of player, one who might not have the raking, 30-yard pass in his locker like Alonso but who brings something different to the table. He gets forward more and is not quite the square-ball merchant he is crudely portrayed as so often. Still, it is fair to say he is not in Alonso’s league and the fact the club spent Â£20m on Alberto Aquilani suggests there are doubts that Lucas has what it takes to fill Alonso’s boots straightaway. The judgement is obviously out on the Italian recruit, who sounds like he will join in with the attack more than Alonso did. The wisdom of buying someone currently convalescing and whose injury record does not inspire confidence is open to debate, but until he shows what he is capable of it’s not a conversation worth having.
However, with Lucas in the side between now and Aquilani’s debut, the onus is on looking to others to fill the creative void Alonso has supposedly left behind. That Alonso only contributed six assists in the last three seasons is easily overlooked because he was such a proficient passer, but in Yossi Benayoun Liverpool could well have the answer to unlocking teams. The pressure on Steven Gerrard to provide assists and goals from midfield is, as everyone knows, enormous. But the form of Benayoun in the latter half of last season and already at the start of this suggests Liverpool have the man to help the captain shoulder the burden.
Benitez has proven himself to be, at best, an average spotter of a player but Benayoun at Â£5m was a snip. When he arrived I thought we’d at last found a replacement for Ray Houghton, but there’s possibly a case to be made for Benayoun being even better than the industrious Irishman. Drifting off either flank, he has the ability to beat a man, knows when to keep the ball and play the killer pass. Add in his ability to get on the end of things and score important goals and the Israeli is a genuine star. Underrated while at West Ham and discounted in his first season at Anfield, Benayoun has added consistency to his undoubted talent and sharp football brain. It was a huge surprise to see him start on the bench against Tottenham on the opening Sunday, but Benitez must have been swayed by Ryan Babel giving Glen Johnson the runaround for Holland against England in Amsterdam. Needless to say, the Dutchman was back to his infuriating worst against Spurs, never looking likely to make anything happen and forever chasing his heavy first touch. The assured Benayoun does not have this problem.
For me, then, this season, has to be about getting the best out of Benayoun. Yes, Gerrard and Fernando Torres are still Liverpool‘s main men going forward and Dirk Kuyt will run all day on the right. But getting Benayoun on the ball, allowing him to run at defenders, getting them to commit and opening space for others, should be a priority. If Lucas’ passes aren’t quite as adventurous as Alonso’s, he need only give it short to Benayoun, who is more than capable of linking up with the advanced, roving Gerrard and the spearhead of Torres. Johnson’s attacking prowess should also afford Benayoun more time and space on the ball in the middle of the part, where he’s at his most dangerous.
It’s clear that Benitez has learnt to trust Benayoun, if not quite enough. And there will be times when Albert Riera’s natural left-leaning inclination will mean that Benayoun will miss out. Ditto when Babel gets a rare, inevitably unproductive start. Benayoun can live with that, he’s never been one to rock the boat, even when he’s been left out, inexplicably. But he should no longer be considered merely a good squad player, whose versatility and impact from the bench means he misses out on starts. Liverpool don’t have the luxury of many creative players at the best of times and Benitez shunning Benayoun is counter-productive. He has a big part to play this season ‘“ stopping people talking about Liverpool missing Alonso’s inspiration would be a real fine place to start.