December 18th: The latest edition of the TBT Advent Calendar sees Marco Lopes take a look at the 18 Spaniards who’ve played for Liverpool.
There’s little debate – football’s DNA has been significantly affected in recent years by Spain. Economic problems may linger amongst the community of Europe, but Spanish footballers are certainly an example of the Southern European nation’s most successful exports.
The country continues to produce ridiculously sublime examples of passing, vision, dribbling technique and masterful ball control that suggests a long term European giant may finally have awoken from its slumber, buried deep beneath years of gross underachievement.
It’s a trend that has slowly but surely invaded the Premier League – although, to be fair, Liverpool’s former manager, Spaniard Rafa Benitez gave the notion a significant jumpstart. Understandably, Rafa was familiar with the talent in his native land, and was a massive figure in the majority of the Spanish talents that have worn Anfield red.
As of Dec 2013, according to www.lfchistory.net, Liverpool’s historical Spanish contingent numbers 18, and as you’ll read on, some of these players have played (and could still play) massive roles in the future of the club.
Of the 18 Spaniards who have played for Liverpool, 14 were acquired under the gaze of Benitez. Rafa’s transfer policy creates feelings of ambivalence for many (both supporters and non-supporters alike), but it’s clear that many of the players he signed for the club all had similar threads of being good technical players; something which didn’t always fit the “blood and thunder”, high tempo style that the Premier League often demands its stars to play.
Benitez’s approach favoured teams that were very tactically disciplined and strong defensively and for the majority, the players signed generally fit a similar specification.
Four Spanish players joined before a ball was kicked in Rafa’s first season. Defender Josemi and midfielder Antonio Nunez were the first Spanish requisitions for the club. Neither player would last very long, making little imprint on their time at Anfield. The other two, however, left very special legacies.
Considering Rafa’s love of tactical discipline, it was somewhat unusual to see compulsive risk taker Luis Garcia arriving from Barcelona. The winger was an unpredictable, sublime creative talent, and in many respects, his five goals in the knockout stages leading up to that memorable night in Istanbul were as important as the trio of strikes that pulled Liverpool back into contention in the final. Injuries and inconsistency marginalized his chances in the team and he ultimately ended up back in Spain with Atletico Madrid – but his legacy with Liverpool spawned both affection and a song.
While a certain number 9 (who we’ll mention later) may have accumulated a stack of goals, no Spaniard has ever been more important up to this point for Liverpool than Xabi Alonso.
Alonso was one of those initial four new Spanish arrivals and his abilities would eventually peak into a midfield the envy of most European clubs. Destroyer Javier Mascherano, regista Xabi Alonso and the mercurial Steven Gerrard defined the best midfield Anfield had seen since the 80’s. Alonso was a critical cog in that wheel. It’s hard to define the quality that was most valuable. Over his 210 games for Liverpool, he would show off the full range of his talent. He had incredible tactical vision, and the passing range to back it up. He was an intelligent in defensive midfield, favouring excellent marking and well-timed tackles. He had a knack for scoring critical goals (Istanbul anyone?) and spectacular ones (think long range specials vs. Luton Town and Newcastle United). He had the tactical nous to set the tempo in games and dictate play from deep to release the attacking talents of Gerrard and the likes ahead of him. Liverpool still haven’t seen a midfielder anything near the equivalent of him.
More Spanish players followed; some, like Fernando Morientes, arrived with considerable reputations that unfortunately never manifested in the famous red shirt. There were promising youngsters Daniel Ayala, Mikel Rodriguez, Antonio Barragan, Dani Pacheco and Miki Roque, who all left the club without us seeing their potential fulfilled. Sadly, the last of those had his career cut tragically short after losing a battle with cancer at the tender age of 23.
There were successes too. Liverpool still haven’t seen a fullback as consistent or functional as Alvaro Arbeloa. Alberto Riera didn’t shine for long, but when on form, his performances produced exciting, creative football.
Cast your mind before his slump in the last couple of seasons, and Pepe Reina easily becomes arguably the best goalkeeper Liverpool have had the pleasure of using in the Premier League era. His early years produced match winning shot-stopping ability, and his distribution abilities are mostly still the stuff of dreams for a team capable of a counter attacking master-class. It’s such a pity that many of us struggle to remember his best form for the club.
Then of course, comes HIM. We all know the red side of him very well – our former record signing, the most expensive Spaniard Liverpool have purchased, a goalscorer blessed with magnificent finishing abilities coupled with excellent pace. A lethal striker, capable of the simple and the sublime. It’s unfortunate that Fernando Torres wasn’t rewarded with silverware at Liverpool – his contribution deserved it. And all of his 81 Liverpool goals were special. We all have our favourites. Mine isn’t his most technically brilliant, but his goal after embarrassing Nemanja Vidic in THAT game against the old enemy will forever be etched in my mind. Say what you will about his acrimonious departure to Chelsea – he gave his best years to the crowd at Anfield.
As it stands now, Liverpool currently have four Spanish players on their books. Left back Jose Enrique still divides opinion amongst most fans; what positives come from him possessing the correct physicality often aren’t evened up by his horrendous, inconsistent decision making – but perhaps we can forgive him if he creates a wonder goal (remember that one against Newcastle?) for Luis Suarez a few more times. New signings Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto also seem to have created ambivalence in many fans. For all of his pace and technique, Aspas’ contributions haven’t been particularly impressive, while Luis Alberto’s composed abilities to hold and distribute the ball have many people excited about the potential he could bring to a side playing Brendan Rodgers’ preferred football style.
The most exciting of all these talents is without a doubt young Suso. The attacking midfielder is currently racking up a fantastic collection of assists while on loan at Almeria. Suso’s technical ability with the ball is the most promising feature of his game, and it’s a very encouraging thought that the passing vision and dribbling finesse of Brazilian Philippe Coutinho could be further supported or covered for next season with Suso’s skills available at Rodgers’ disposal.
While we’ve not seen much of it this season, it’s still reasonable to expect that Rodgers’ ideology of a playing style that favours excellent movement, short passing, emphasis on possession and ball retention, and extremely high standards of technique could ultimately see more Spanish players join the club in future. This isn’t to say that England, or other countries, don’t or can’t develop such players but Spain seems to have these types of players in considerable supply, and one only needs to cast a brief look across the Premier League to see the evidence. From Mikel Arteta and Nacho Monreal to Santi Cazorla, from David Silva and Álvaro Negredo to Jesús Navas, along with David De Gea, Juan Mata, Michu, Roberto Soldado, Gerard Deulofeu, and of course, Liverpool’s own set it’s clear to see Spanish football is in wonderful health.
Some of the 18 Spaniards who have played in Liverpool red have produced some of the most special memories in the club’s history. Here’s hoping a few of the next Spaniards who play for the club surpass those memories in the years to come. Olé!