Alberto Aquilani, A Man Reborn

Posted on 07/11/2010

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Phoenixes, those magnificent mystical birds, are known for one ability in particular: being able to die in a puff of majestic flame once they reach old age, and out of their own ashes, becoming alive once more, reborn as a  more potent version of themselves. They have become the ultimate symbol for rebirth in society, and appear in everything from Harry Potter to Kanye West music videos. Calcio itself has one such phoenix, a young man whose career looked to be headed off track after a wayward move and a spell of disappointing injuries. Two months into this season of Serie A, though, and you would hardly guess that Alberto Aquilani looked like he would be little more than 
that one youngster who looked so promising at Roma.
Until 2009, Aquilani was as Roman as Daniele de Rossi. The two of them went through the Roman youth academies together around the turn of the century. Aquilani was actually at Roma for longer the de Rossi, enrolling in 1999 compared to Daniele’s entry in 2001. They broke into the first team around mid-century, and became Roma’s own Romulus and Remus. Alberto was the attack minded midfielder, the one who seemed to float around the pitch and unleash thunderous shots that would rattle crossbars around the world. De Rossi was the defensive pair, the yin to Aquilani’s yang, the one who would protect the midfield and allow the latter the freedom to express himself like the artist he was. They were absolutely beloved by the Roma tifosi: De Rossi was always seen as “il capitano future” while Alberto was “Il Principino”. The two were midfield royalty, two birds in flight, Roman born and bred and playing at the highest level of football.
Like all things that seem too good to be true, the dream duo split. Liverpool made Roma an offer they simply couldn’t refuse at the end of the 2008-2009 season. Roma finished a woeful sixth and missed out on the fruitful Champions League. Needing to get money from somewhere, Roma sold the prince who signed a contract extension mere months before, to go to the club so he could replace Xabi Alonso.
But he couldn’t replace Xabi Alonso. Liverpool were trying to fit a round peg into a square hole. Alonso, a deep lying playmaker, sits back and pings the ball around a la Pirlo. Aquilani at the time was a roving creative outlet, one who needed the freedom to move around as he pleased. At Roma, Spalletti’s pressing game and De Rossi’s defensive abilities allowed him this luxury. At Liverpool, he was given nothing he needed to succeed. Playing time was at a minimum, both due to his own injuries and a seeming lack of faith by Benitez. He could never get a solid run of games going, but remained a professional the whole time, never once questioning the coach. Alberto was stifled, derided by many as an overhyped, silly transfer, as a massive flop. Those who know calcio knew his promise, but without the proper team around him, the phoenix that was began to die. He needed to find a new home, and when Juventus came knocking this summer, and Alberto accepted, knowing that he belonged to a different way of soccer: calcio.
As noted by Adam Digby, this transformed Alberto:
He is not a pure regista or “director”, playing a little higher up the field than Andrea Pirlo for example, but he is certainly organising & dictating the play.
A simple look at his passing in this run of games tells the story of this impact. He has completed 252 of 279 passes, a staggering 90.32%. The range of those passes is similarly excellent, often releasing the wide players with deep cross-field balls, adept at finding team-mates – primarily Milos Krasic – & prompting them into some wonderful attacking positions.
But it is more than just his passing, & his sumptuous goal against Lecce that makes him indispensable. Aquilani has, under Gigi Delneri, already become a much more rounded player, & his defensive effort also deserves special mention. The two matches at San Siro in particular showed this new side to his game, & the player himself is quick to acknowledge this;
“I am now more of a central midfielder. Before I was further forward in the offensive phase, but I have to have more balance and be careful also in defence. Delneri has changed me, I can now defend”
Del Neri took one of Italy’s brightest talents, put him back into a situation that he was comfortable with, and improved the defensive side of his play. The phoenix is reborn. Alberto looks once more like the awe-inspiring midfielder from Roma. Juventus have benefited enormously from this, and now have a player more than capable of shouldering the creative responsibilities of the team. They have the right to buy the player, meaning that as long as he continues to impress at Juve, there’s no reason why he should have to return to Liverpool. Alberto is happy, Juventus is happy, and Prandelli should be happy as well: the lost prince has found his way.
Like a phoenix, Aquilani has undergone a rebirth. Roma fans may look on with some sadness, wondering what could have been if only money was no issue, but should remain proud nevertheless, for the days when De Rossi and Aquilani play together are not yet at an end. The power to reunite the two lies in the hands of Prandelli.
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