Álvaro Arbeloa’s Liverpool career and legacy is fascinating. It is fascinating because for someone who had such a remarkable career, his Liverpool legacy, so much that there is one, is so unremarkable.
But not because he did anything wrong. Árbeloa was just a bit blah, football’s equivalent of the midday yoghurt — a worthy addition that does the job, but not something that inspires your #foodie loins.
Árbeloa was a canny passer who played hard, had outstanding positional awareness, and could slot in anywhere across the back four, he was the prototypical Rafa player. He ran hard, was always in the right spot, and had enough technical grace on the ball to make stuff happen.
Árbeloa was good for Liverpool. Not excellent. Not poor. Just good. Yet once he left the club he ratcheted his game up a couple of notches, playing a part in a Real Madrid side which won two European Cups, and winning the World Cup and European Championship with Spain — though the two international triumphs coming as Sergio Ramos’ understudy.
And yet, no one seemed to care! This was a man who was sold for £3.5 million, a steal at any point in the Premier League era, all because Liverpool had sprung £15 million to sign Glen Johnson. When Arbeloa was on the books, the club and supporters were always scanning around for upgrades: Johnson offering a more obvious, direct, attacking option down the right.
But just look at Arbeloa’s career: He played 50-plus times for Spain during the golden era of all golden eras — outside of some of the Brazilian sides, there may never have been a more stacked squad than Spain’s in the 2000s. Arbeloa was stuck behind Sergio Ramos for much of his Spain career, but that he was pushing the Madrid legend at all, and still managed to accrue a half-ton of caps is fairly extraordinary.
Where was the consternation among Liverpool fans as he picked up ‘Ol Big Ears the second time or held the World Cup or European Champions or picked up a league title? When Alonso or Mascherano or any of the heavy hitters left the club, particularly to the Spanish giants, there was an acknowledgment that it was all-but-inevitable but also that it was painful. What could have been if we could have just kept them all together?
That never came for Árbeloa. In fact, when was the last time you had an Árbeloa conversation? You can count on one hand the number of players who have left the club post-2000 and picked up a Champions League medal. Only one — Árbeloa — picked up two.
Was he the key reason? Obviously not. But multi-time European Cup-winning teams do not have passengers. In his second stint in Madrid, Árbeloa racked up 233 appearances; he spent the final run as a rotational option, but he was not a bit-part player. Once Sergio Ramos shifted inside to centre back, he was the full-time right back, striking up a nice wink-wink rapport with Karim Benzema and Cristiano Ronaldo, who were all too happy to sing the fullbacks praises at every opportunity. In his first four seasons back in Spain, through his peaks years, he averaged 2,200 minutes.
He was a humming seven-out-of-ten constant in a time of superstars and Prima Donas. For José Mourinho, Árbeloa was viewed crucial in his infamous trivote side that would be politely be described as “harnessing all of the dark arts” to knock off Pep Guardiola’s all-conquering Barcelona team to win the league (the reality is they were, at all times, to everyone and each other, unrelenting bleep hopeless). Árbeloa’s influence in the dressing room being just as important as his savvy on the pitch.
There might be no greater endorsement for Árbeloa’s all-around game than the fact he was a mainstay for some of the defining coaches of a generation: Mourinho, Benítez, Vicente Del Bosque.
All the signs were there at Liverpool that he could be a plug-and-play, don’t-worry-about-him starter in a team that won things consistently.
From his first match, he showed all of his skills: Matching up against Lionel Messi in Camp Nou and putting on an absolute masterclass of an in-over-his-head-but-trying-really-hard-and-succeeding performance. Rafa Benítez had come up with a classic Rafa option to slow down Messi: Stick a fresh, naturally right-footed right-back on the left side of defence, thus meaning he would be playing on his stronger side when Messi, then lining up on the right of Barca’s formation, darted towards the middle to play in his preferred central role.
“I remember it like it was yesterday,” Arbeloa said in an interview with The Guardian years later. “I was training at Melwood and Rafa [Benítez] came over. ‘Left back’. Left? Marking Messi. I stood looking at him, waiting for him to start laughing. This has to be a joke but I saw he was deadly serious. I thought: ‘madre mía.’ The idea was that I’d be strong on my right when Messi came inside, so we went to Portugal [for a training camp] and I was left-back every day, preparing.
The moment was a launching point for Arbeloa. It came to define his style: willing to sacrifice himself to the team construct, all heart and guts as running, but with enough technical grace and schematic understanding to match up against the best of the best. He became somewhat of a Messi stopper, not that anything of the sort truly exits. He harassed, kicked, hit, bumped, and thumped the Argentinian during the heyday of the Guardiola-Mourinho rivalry, incensing everyone on the Barca side of the equation.
For his part, Arbeloa has always looked back on his time at Anfield fondly, both in terms of his development under Benítez and his time at the club as a whole, actively encouraging his teammates to treasure any opportunity they get to play at Anfield, either in Europe or for a potential transfer. “They’re used to a stadium that holds 80,000, sure, but Anfield is la bomba, unique.” Arbeloa said in 2011. “It’s only 45,000 and they say: ‘Well … ’ and I say: ‘Well?’ Those 45,000 make the atmosphere very, very special. I’ve told them to enjoy it. I imagine what Anfield os like, how they’ll sing You’ll Never Walk Alone and cheer every corner or throw-in close to our area as if it’ll end in a goal.”
In retrospect, swapping out Arbeloa for Glen Jonson, with about £15 million difference, was a complete dud. What Johnson offered going forward, Arbeloa more than made up for defensively. He had a tremendous career, winning absolutely everything any player could dream of. He is, in that regard, one of the most decorated players to come through Anfield in the Premier League era. And yet, until you read this piece, I bet you hadn’t thought of him in a Liverpool shirt in around a decade.
Fitting, really, that a player whose game was based largely on the things you didn’t notice would remain largely forgotten in the club’s history — despite all the success that would follow.