It was overshadowed by another big departure – but the transfer of Alvaro Arbeloa, who turns 41 today, hurt Liverpool and Rafa Benitez.
was summer 2009 and, having gone as close as ever to landing their first Premier League title, Liverpool were facing up to a key departure.
One of their key Spanish players was desperate to return to his homeland and join Real Madrid. Indeed, six days before Xabi Alonso followed, Alvaro Arbeloa completed his medical and rubber stamped his move to Real.
Liverpool received a fee of around £3.5m for the experienced defender. In truth, Arbeloa’s departure was overshadowed by that of Alonso’s less than a week later, but his exit was, like that of his team-mate, a huge factor in the Reds’ subsequent slide down the Premier League table.
Rafa Benitez’s side had pushed Manchester United all the way in 2008/09, losing just twice all season and collecting 86 points to finish four behind their bitter rivals. Liverpool had scored a league-high total of 77 goals, nine more than United or Chelsea had managed, but had displayed excellent defensive balance by conceding just 27 – just three more than the two aforementioned teams and their best defensive effort up until the season just gone.
Arbeloa had been a huge part of that. The Spanish international, who turns 41 today, had been a quiet presence in Liverpool’s backline – aside from one on-pitch argument with Jamie Carragher during a game at West Brom – coming in to little fanfare from Deportivo in 2007.
It wasn’t a move he expected, later admitting that the call from the Reds came completely out the blue. But he certainly didn’t anticipate he’d be marking Lionel Messi at the Nou Camp in just his second outing for the club.
That he did, and he helped Liverpool to a famous 2-1 victory and, ultimately, all the way to the final. It was an impressive start for the defender, who had played centrally in Spain but quickly became a right full-back for Benitez.
Arbeloa would make 41 appearances the following season and then 43 in his final campaign for Liverpool. So eyebrows were raised when Benitez moved quickly to spend £17.5m on Portsmouth right-back Glen Johnson, essentially paving the way for Arbeloa’s exit.
Johnson, a decent player in his own right, was seen as a more attacking option and somebody who could add a new dimension to Liverpool’s team. And Benitez admitted that Johnson, who had turned down Manchester City and a return to Chelsea, arriving could spell the end for Arbeloa, who had just a year left on his contract at that time.
“We were thinking about bringing in players with quality – that’s the first thing,” Benitez said. “He is also English and that is important for the Champions League list. We were thinking about improving the team and Johnson is a very good player who will do that.”
Benitez added: “Arbeloa was a good player for us last year. The thing is, he has one year left on his contract. We have offered him an extension and we’re talking.
“He is our player but if there is a good offer we have to consider it. We have two or three clubs asking about him. He would like to stay but he knows the competition will be hard.”
Speaking in 2014, Arbeloa admitted that Johnson’s arrival all but confirmed his desire to leave. “You think: ‘We’ve nearly won the league and the first thing you do is buy a £20m right-back?’,” Arbeloa recalled.
“I said: ‘Listen, thanks for everything’. He (Benitez) couldn’t say I had to stay. He had a right-back and I had a call from Madrid.”
In truth, Liverpool may have lost Arbeloa for nothing the following year had they not cashed in. But a fee of £3.5m – potentially rising to £5m – didn’t seem to reflect his importance to the team.
And to change his defence up so drastically – especially at a time when the Reds were struggling to find a regular and reliable right back – was so unlike Benitez. It was a gamble the Champions League-winning manager was prepared to take to break Liverpool’s Premier League duck, but perhaps Arbeloa’s influenced was overlooked by some.
He would go on to win everything there is at Madrid, lifting La Liga, the Copa Del Rey, two Champions League titles and the Club World Cup, as well as the World Cup and another European Championship with Spain.
Liverpool, meanwhile, slipped to seventh in the Premier League, conceding 36 goals and losing 11 games in a season which ultimately cost Benitez his job.
A poor transfer window – Benitez had replaced Alonso with Alberto Aquilani – as well as infighting at board level, had derailed the Reds. Johnson would go on to play 200 games for Liverpool – double that of Arbeloa, who is currently the manager of Real Madrid under-19s team – and served the club well, but it’s doubtful many fans would look back on the Englishman as fondly as the Spaniard.
This article was originally published in July 2019.
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