Nothing comes easily for Aquilani
Viewed as one of Serie A's brightest prospects of the last decade, Alberto Aquilani represented Italy at every level. During 2006, aged just 22, he established himself as a regular for Roma and broke into the full national team, no mean feat in a country that still views youth with a large amount of suspicion. In August 2009 he became one of very few Italian players to move abroad during the peak years of his career, completing a €24 million ($34.2M) transfer to English Premier League side Liverpool.
Largely a result of the inept manner in which his former side was managed by the Sensi family, the move was one made with some reluctance by both club and player. Roma was in such a dire financial state that it was forced to sell one of its top players just to cover its losses, while Aquilani himself never imagined leaving his hometown club. Then Roma president Rosella Sensi admitted the sale was difficult but necessary, saying at the time:
"This was a painful sale, but he deserves a big club. We are not taking Roma apart, merely doing what we must to balance the books and be responsible. It will allow us to keep all our other players."
Just 12 months after the move was completed the owners relinquished control to their main creditors, financial institution UniCredit, who in turn sold the club to a U.S. consortium in the summer. Even today the fallout from that ill-fated regime continues, with new majority owner Thomas Di Benedetto discovering more details on a seemingly daily basis as the true depth of the problems are revealed.
Aquilani's respect for Roma, combined with a need to play in the Champions League and test himself in the toughest of environments eventually led him to Liverpool -- a club that, from the outside at least, were in a position to offer him all these stimuli. Stepping into a role vacated by the departure of its metronome midfielder Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid seemed, to many observers, to ideally suit both Aquilani's technical characteristics and the needs of the team.
Injury (and in particular his protracted recovery from a serious ankle injury) has clearly hampered his development, but Aquilani struggled to cope with the expectation and the stress of trying to fit into a new team and a new culture. His role and nature would never see him dominate games in the instantly recognizable manner of a Steven Gerrard, and spending such a large portion of the transfer budget on him was bound to bring criticism.
Yet he was far from a flop once he was fully fit for then Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez. He managed to put together a run of games toward the end of the season, during which he looked increasingly comfortable, despite all the knocks against him as being too lightweight. A closer look at the statistics shows that the widespread belief he struggled to suit the league's sheer physicality to be misjudged at best.
While it's true that Aquilani did often seem to want more time on the ball than the Premier League allows, in total he started 13 games (including 1 in the Europa League), of which Liverpool won nine, drew one and lost just three. Opta showed his assist rate in the Premier League (one every 136 minutes played) to be the best of any player among Europe's top five leagues (he finished second on the team with six assists). Add in his two goals from 11 shots on target (including a further 2 shots off the woodwork) and we begin to see the faults in the common consensus.
Liverpool endured its worst start to a season since 1987, was knocked out of the Champions League at the Group Stage and then failed to qualify for the elite competition for the first time in seven years, meaning changes were inevitable. Benitez was gone at the end of the season and his replacement -- Roy Hodgson -- immediately looked to implement his favored 4-4-2 system. The former Inter coach has always preferred functionality over creativity in central midfield and this marginalized Aquilani, meaning he would once more be on the move.
In one of his most astute transactions during the 2010 summer Juventus' sporting director Beppe Marotta managed to secure a season long loan for Aquilani with no initial outlay and a "right-to-buy" option set at €16 million ($22.8M) over the subsequent three years. It took time for Aquilani to adjust and make his debut, his first start only coming in Juventus' week five win over Cagliari and he looked rusty at first.
Once settled, Aquilani slotted in well alongside another player undergoing a renaissance -- Brazilian Felipe Melo -- with coach Gigi Delneri making the duo his first choice pairing in central midfield. Aquilani quickly become an essential ingredient in the impressive early season form of Juve, who seemed to overcome an inconsistent start to the season, and it was no small coincidence that the team went unbeaten until the winter break once Aquilani forced his way into the starting lineup.
That run included games against Inter, Manchester City, Roma, Milan and Lazio. During this run, Aquilani's individual performances were superb during that stretch and the way he influenced those around him made his inclusion so critical. He is not a pure regista, playing higher up the field, but certainly takes responsibility for organizing and dictating much of the team's play.
A simple look at his passing in this run of games tells the story of this impact; he completed 1238 of 1334 passes, a staggering 92.8 percent. The range of those passes was similarly excellent, often releasing wide players with deep cross-field balls and proving adept at finding teammates -- primarily winger Milos Krasic -- and prompting them into some wonderful attacking positions.
But, more than just his passing -- and his
"I am now more of a central midfielder," said Aquilani. "Before I was further forward in the offensive phase, but I have to have more balance and be careful also in defense. Delneri has changed me, I can now defend."
This was really a refocusing of one of his greatest attributes -- the ability to read a game -- and turning it to his advantage, intercepting numerous passes by Juve's opponents and then quickly launching swift counter attacks. That is not to say he does not tackle either, quickly applying himself to become -- as he said himself -- a complete midfielder more than ever and gaining a recall to the Italy squad under Cesare Prandelli.
A combination of the lack of depth in the squad, some terrible luck with injuries and the combined failure of Delneri and the players to perform when under serious pressure led to a complete post-Christmas collapse by Juventus. Blame, recriminations and the inevitable change of coach resulted in Juventus heading into the summer with calls for yet another overhaul.
But underneath the problems lies the basis of a very good squad, albeit one lacking in maturity, depth and experience. The club have moved quickly, first to seemingly appoint former midfielder Antonio Conte as coach and then to acquire the signings of midfielder Andrea Pirlo and fullback Reto Ziegler on free transfers. Despite a very good debut season in the famous black and white stripes, Aquilani's career is arguably once more at a crossroads, although the player himself is undaunted by the arrival of his national team colleague;
"It would be fantastic to have Pirlo here," said Aquilani to reporters. "He's a top player, and a true great at international level. My desire is to stay in Turin for a long time, to win a lot and playing alongside him would help me to grow even more."
Juventus was reluctant to pay Aquilani's €16 million fee even before Pirlo's arrival, and now the club's bargaining position is seemingly even stronger. For his part, Aquilani has made it clear he wants to remain at the club, telling journalists "I like the team, I like Turin. I have found a house. I am happy". Now a deal must be struck with Liverpool who themselves are heading into a summer of rebuilding.
Juventus' reluctance to pay the price of Aquilani's option is no reflection on a player who has obviously been a major part of the team this season. It is more an example of how modern transfers are conducted, a constant arm-wrestle where no side wants to be seen to yield and therefore lose face. Juventus now believes itself to be in the box seat regarding this move, with the player allowing his agent to ensure all parties know his preference is to make the move permanent.
The English club's new owners (Fenway Sports Group) has shown itself to be taking a long-term view in most decisions, meaning a renewal of the loan is not beyond the realms of possibility. The agreed fee reflects the value of the player on the Anfield clubs books this summer, while another year would see a further €4 million ($5.7M) written off in amortization. This would see his actual value reduced to a more palatable €12 million ($17.1M), a figure that could conceivably be written into a new loan agreement as a forced purchase, much like the deal taking Zlatan Ibrahimovic to Milan from Barcelona.
Perhaps that solution would allow the two heavyweight clubs to both feel they have "won" the deal, a point not to be underestimated in today's climate. Alberto Aquilani has proved his worth and found a home, now he just needs to find a way to stay there.