December 17th: The latest article in our TBT Advent Calendar series sees Dave Hendrick discuss former Liverpool number 17 Maxi Rodriguez. All together now: “Der der der der duh…”
January 2010. Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez is at his wits end. Denied proper funding to strengthen his squad as he looks to mount a second half charge at his usual top four finish, the Spaniard is forced to shop around in Europe’s bargain bin looking for players available on a free transfer.
Benitez did not have a particularly good record when it came to signing players on free transfers. The names Philipp Degen and Andriy Voronin are generally only dragged back into people’s conscious minds when they are thinking about potential “Worst Ever Liverpool 11’s”. Mauricio Pellegrino sits alongside Jari Litmanen as a player it would have been great to have signed five years earlier. Robbie Fowler was great for sentimental reasons but in truth God was well past his best. And the less said about Charles Itandje, the better. Only Fabio Aurelio and Bolo Zenden could be considered relative successes.
But then, somehow, Atletico Madrid had one of those moments where they revert from being a professional football club and lapse into circus mode and made Argentine international Maxi Rodriguez available on a free transfer. While Rodriguez was no longer a guaranteed first team starter at Atletico, he was a key squad player and had made 24 appearances, scoring 8 goals in the first half of the 2009/10 season. He was well on his way to having his best goalscoring season for Atletico and was surely more worthy of a contract extension than a free transfer.
Benitez pounced and Rodriguez found himself swapping Madrid for Merseyside. It genuinely was a bit of a coup for the Reds to land the Argentine international, who really made his name by scoring one of the goals of the tournament at the 2006 World Cup.
His first six months with Liverpool weren’t as prolific as his last six with Atletico, as he scored just a solitary goal in 17 appearances. It wasn’t until Maxi’s second season with Liverpool that he really began to show the Anfield faithful what he was capable of, but even that had to be put on hold as Benitez left the club and Liverpool took a half season break from playing actual football to become a pantomime with an owl faced villain and an American subplot played out on Scouse streets. The Hodgson era, the last remaining chalice of poison from Hicks and Gillett ownership of the club, kept a dark cloud hanging over Anfield until the return of the prodigal son.
Kenny Dalglish’s return to the managerial hotseat at Liverpool provided the spark which ignited Maxi’s Liverpool career as he teamed with Dirk Kuyt and new arrival Luis Suarez to form a lethal front three which carved open Premier League defences seemingly at will. Maxi seemed to develop a telepathic understanding with Suarez and the two South Americans seemed to take great delight in terrorizing defenders.
Rodriguez is, was, and always will be an understated player. Rather than being the centrepiece of a team, he’s a complimentary piece who made others look better but never sought the spotlight. His subtle passing and ability to turn on stealth mode when making a run into the opposition penalty area were the two biggest attributes. Maxi’s ability to ghost, unnoticed, into goalscoring areas and then finish with either foot or his head went a long way towards making him a hero among the Anfield faithful but it was his personality that really made Liverpool fans fall in love with him. A humble man from a working class background who didn’t allow his fame or success to change him, Maxi was someone the fans could relate to. There was also a clear passion to his game, which he displayed every time he scored a goal. Like Luis Suarez, Rodriguez was a man you would want by your side going to battle and in the second half of the 2010/11 season when, either by accident or design, Kenny Dalglish settled on the Kuyt-Suarez-Maxi front three, the Argentine was integral to Liverpool’s march up the table.
His hat-tricks against Birmingham and Fulham will go down as the highlights of his Liverpool career as he became Suarez’s executioner. After the Uruguayan had tortured, tormented and pushed defences to the brink, Maxi was often the man to deliver the killer blow. At the end of the 2010/11 season it seemed like Rodriguez would be a certainty for a starting spot the following season, his partnership with Suarez was so good that it made sense to build around that pair and add players who could fit into their style of play. Unfortunately Kenny Dalglish had other plans.
In 2011/12 Maxi found himself largely on the outside looking in as Dalglish stubbornly stuck with his signings Andy Carroll, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson at the expense of not just Rodriguez but the team in general. Liverpool had a torrid league campaign and struggled to score all season. Watching the season unfold, you couldn’t help but think that Rodriguez could have made a huge difference as Liverpool squandered so many gilt-edged chances. The type of chances that Maxi had put away with ease the previous season. That’s not to say Maxi’s 11/12 season didn’t have highlights. His goals in consecutive away games at Stamford Bridge and his brace in the chaotic 3-2 away win at Blackburn showed what he could have added to Liverpool had he been given more chances that season.
Rodriguez made the decision to return home to his native Argentina in the summer of 2012, buying himself out of his last season at Liverpool. He finished his Liverpool career having made 72 appearances, and, aptly, scoring 17 goals. His goal tally would likely have been a lot higher if more of those 72 appearances had been from the start of games.
In many ways it was a real shame that he left when he did. His personality and professionalism were a shining example to others and he was no doubt a calming influence in the dressing room. His partnership with Suarez was established, proven and deadly and his style of play would have been perfect for new manager Brendan Rodgers’ philosophy.
Rodriguez’s departure from Liverpool was handled with the class we’d all come to expect from the man. His open letter to the fans was short, to the point and perfectly put.
Looking at the current Liverpool team, it’s lacking goals from midfield. It’s lacking someone with great movement off the ball who can arrive in the box and finish off the chances created by Suarez and Philippe Coutinho. Maxi would in many ways be perfect for the role. If Brendan Rodgers does want to add an attacker to his team in January or next summer, then Maxi should be the blueprint.
You know what, F*ck it. Maxi, come back and run down the wing for us again!