Generally, after the heights climbed of the 08-09 Premier League season, Liverpool supporters thought that this past season would be their year. Surely a squad that would have won the title if not for a couple of blunders against Middlesbrough and a draw with Everton, a squad that did the double over United, including a 4-1 thrashing at the Theatre of Dreams, just needed a few small additions, just a bit more depth, and Liverpool would be restored to the summit of English football where they belonged.
Obviously, the year did not turn out as planned for supporters, and many blame the transfers, where instead of adding depth, injury-prone players were signed, players who were inferior to the ones that left. With hindsight, the signings of Glen Johnson and Maxi Rodriguez can be given a passing grade, as both players showed appreciable effort and the one thing that supporters desire above all, the ability to make something happen offensively.
If Benitez succeeded with those players, there is one area where many say he has failed, with Alberto Aquilani, the most expensive player bought, and the biggest flop. Although however disappointing this season might have been, there is reason to believe that the next one might be better.
From the start Aquilani was destined to fail, as he was initially played (which was not often) deep in midfield with Mascherano. In the beginning Aquilani was viewed as some sort of like for like replacement for Xabi Alonso, which was never going to work because the two had vastly different skill sets. Aquilani’s strengths were not with holding possession, and linking defense and attack, but rather making things happen in enemy territory.
Towards the end of the season Aquilani gradually moved up the pitch until he was playing in something approximating Gerrard’s old role. His performances improved, and so did the team’s, truth be told, although there were disappointments against Fulham, Chelsea and Hull City late in the campaign, the Liverpool that finished the season was far better than the Liverpool that started it. One of the reasons for this is that with Aquilani playing further up the pitch, his natural tendency for attacking passes and long through balls caused less concern to the defense.
He also finished with the second most assists on the team, one less than Gerrard despite appearing in 18 games to Gerrard’s 33, and starting nine to Gerrard’s 32. While this may say something about Liverpool’s season as well as Aquilani, it also shows that he has vision, and is an asset going forward. When he was at his best, such as he was against Portsmouth, Aquilani also made the side more creative up top, often making initial plays to another attacker in space. For a side that often struggled to break down defenses, a fully fit Aquilani helped immensely.
There is no doubt he has his flaws. He seems to have the immune system of a toddler, and if he thinks he can take a game off every time someone kicks him in the ankle in the Premier League, he’s bonkers. But if he can come back next season fully fit, he and Liverpool can surprise a lot of people.