From Guillem Balague.com on 31st March 2009.
When I asked Xabi Alonso, more as an aside than a date for a future interview, who in football he would most like to sit and have long chat with, he answered immediately. “It has to be Jan Mølby. A No14 like me and someone I have been compared with from my first day at Anfield. We are different though…”
It`s true they have been compared – by fans and fellow players – and there might be some disparities in the way they play, but there is huge common ground, too: in the way they understand their role on the pitch and football culture in general.
Once Xabi had said it, it had to be done. So all three of us met for lunch down at Liverpool`s Albert Dock for an Interview with Champions Magazine, but the No14s were left to do the talking…
Xabi Alonso: I can`t remember much from watching English football on telly years ago, but since I`ve been here, I`ve heard a lot of things about you. I know you were an all‑round midfielder with a great capacity to pick the right pass and make the right decisions, because in midfield you have to play well for yourself and have solutions for the players around you, too. You had a much better ability to score goals than me, that`s for sure!
Jan Mølby: The most difficult thing in football is to score goals; the second-most difficult is to control games; and when you see somebody in football who can control games… well, it`s beautiful. That`s what you can do. It`s been a while since we`ve had the kind of midfield player you represent. Football is about making the right decisions, and the more you make, the better the team play. It`s not just about ability, you need to know the game, you need a certain amount of intelligence to be involved in a game that much…
Alonso: And sometimes you need to know not to try the most spectacular, but the easiest thing, because that`s what most benefits the team.
Mølby: People always assume that players like us, like Hoddle, make ten to fifteen 60-yard passes in a game. We don`t. Most passes are just to keep things moving. I talk to people now and they think all I did was make 60-yard passes! When I started playing, midfielders were all‑rounders.
Now we talk about specific roles for defensive midfielders and playmaking midfielders. In the 1990s, new training methods and tactical awareness were introduced to the English game, and you got your holding midfielder sitting in front of the back four. I started off playing a lot further forward – just behind Kenny and Ian Rush. People who saw me in the 1990s wouldn`t believe that.
Alonso: That`s like my father, too. He played in the 1980s in your position, as an all-round midfielder, in a 4-4-2. Every season he`d score around ten goals. Now, teams employ 4-1-4-1, 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1 – its more about keeping in position than getting into the box. I hardly ever get in the box. You have to know your role and accept it, because that`s what is best for the team. I really enjoy it where I am because I want to be involved in every part of the game and in this position you are right in the middle. You`re close to attack, close to the wings, defence; you get more touches than anyone else. Michael Carrick can do that for England. But the football culture is quite different here in England…
Mølby: People in England see young midfielders at an early age as people who are really mobile, physically strong, can get involved in everything. At 13 or 14 years old, players like me or you wouldn`t catch the eye in England. People here don`t appreciate what our kind of midfielder brings to the game, that`s why there aren`t more English players like us. I also think the way you and I play can only happen in good teams. You could end up at a team with not too many good players and it would be very difficult for you to play – you could pass to people and put them in a situation where they don`t want the ball. If they can play, you can play.
Alonso: In England, those qualities of playing it simple, being in the right position, reading the game, knowing the right moment to make things happen around you are not appreciated. Making a tackle, a run into the box, the spectacular things are more appreciated.
Mølby: Tackling is for a certain moment. But if you`re in the right position, you won`t need to make a massive tackle. The other day at Anfield, Gerrard made one on the touchline, and you think that maybe that`s not necessary; but it`s necessary for him, isn`t it?
Alonso: It`s not just for him. Sometimes that kind of last-ditch tackle can get the crowd excited and you get a push from that. It`s important to play with that psychological side of the game, but it depends on the quality of the player. Stevie is great when he makes those kind of tackles, Carra and Mascherano, too. With me it`s different.
To feel Anfield on your back, the noise, it`s such a huge feeling, especially on the big nights. You`re automatically filled with that passionate energy and you always feel much better. It`s something Anfield provides more than any other stadium in the world.
Mølby: I missed that. Liverpool had a lot of big nights in the 1970s and early 1980s, and all of a sudden we couldn`t play in Europe. Then, when it came back, we never found ourselves in the big European competition. So when it returned, the fans made it a special thing. They decided “this is what we missed.”
Alonso: It must have been difficult to leave all that behind, to leave this club…
Mølby: For sure. I eventually left in 1996, but I`d been linked with moves away before that. The most high-profile was Barcelona in 1990. It didn`t happen, but it wasn`t a big thing because I was staying at Liverpool.
Alonso: During the summer I read an article where you talked very positively about me, and I want to thank you for it. When I was going through those moments of uncertainty a lot of fans supported me, saying: “We want you to stay. But at the end of the day, if you don`t, we wish you all the best and we are happy that you have been here.” I am very grateful for that. I am here now, and very happy to be here. There is no other club like Liverpool.
Mølby: I think when you have special players, you should keep them for as long as you can. It`s not often special players come along.
You also wear No14. Why did you choose it? I was there when squad numbers came in and the club asked you what your favourite number was. It was either 10 or 14 for me; I went for 14 because I played for one year with Johan Cruyff and that was the number he made famous.
Alonso: When I was at Real Sociedad I wore No4, my father`s number when he played. When I arrived at Liverpool, I saw Sami Hyypiä had No4 and I had no chance of picking it. It was 10, 14 or 18. I went straight for No14 because it`s a number I`ve always liked. If I had the chance to pick No4 now, I wouldn`t. In fact with Spain I also wear 14, and I can`t change.
Mølby: No14 is significant in football isn`t it, because of Johan Cruyff. At Liverpool No7 is a big number…
Alonso: No10… because it`s what a big player wears – Zidane, Pelé, Maradona. But No14, it was just Cruyff who made that big. No one else. That`s why it`s special.
Mølby: You`re talking about great players, but Liverpool have always been a manager`s club since Shankly.
Alonso: I`m comfortable with the situation, it works very well for me. I have responsibility on the pitch, not off it. Decisions taken on the pitch – that have a direct impact on results – are ours. I`m not really bothered about what happens away from the pitch.
Mølby: It was strange when I first came over, because in mainland Europe you had coaches, you didn`t have this figurehead. In Europe the coach wasn`t necessarily the one to go out and do press conferences, then I came to England and you have one guy in charge of everything, which is great. It saved us having to do a lot of interviews and press. Joe Fagan, who signed me, was a great manager. Then it was Kenny, and once it was him, the only person anybody wanted to talk to was Kenny Dalglish, which was great from a player`s point of view. We just concentrated on playing and when there was any criticism it was of the manager, never the players. But players, like managers, have changed over the years. Well, that`s what most people seem to think. I`m not so sure…
Alonso: Yeah, in terms of quality, it`s quite similar. The players who had quality then, they would have quality now. Adapting to the tempo of the game nowadays is the main change. And 20 years from now it will be much quicker again. Also, the analysis and studies carried out by teams on their players are much more detailed than they were before. In the 1970s, you only had 12 or 13 players in the squad – it has all changed so much. But, I have always said that the players who were good before, they would be good now.
Mølby: You look at it now and think that maybe we weren`t that quick. That is the big change isn`t it? I think it`s to do with the more specific roles that players have on the pitch. In my day it wouldn`t have been unusual for a Liverpool player to run 60 yards back and then 90 yards forward – now there is a smaller part of the pitch to influence. We would finish the season very tired and looking forward to our holidays.
During the summer, do players get unfit these days? Because we were unfit, you know! They used to say to us, “Go and have a nice summer holiday for seven weeks, and when you get back we`ll get you fit.”
Alonso: We don`t get totally unfit. We have around four weeks off and you`re always doing things, playing tennis or whatever. You can`t completely forget about what you are.
Mølby: Why is that? Is it because you would be too far behind everybody else?
Alonso: It wouldn`t feel right not to have that good feeling, not to sweat, so you keep doing stuff – like tennis, a bit of running. That doesn`t mean I`m always thinking about training, but as I say I just think you can`t forget what you are. You can`t think, “I`ll train a lot in pre-season, so I`ll allow myself to get unfit.” But, is it true that you came back one summer weighing 16 stone?
Mølby: Yeah, yeah, 16 stone! And I got fit in the five weeks of pre-season.
Alonso: Did you say you had seven weeks off?
Mølby: The longest we had was nine weeks…
Alonso: I can`t even imagine having nine weeks off. We normally have three-and-a-half. Last summer we had Euro 2008 and this summer we have to play the Confederations Cup. So many games…
Mølby: The price of success…
Alonso: Yeah, yeah, I`m happy to pay the price.
Mølby: If your body is tired, you can recover; but it`s when your head is tired, that`s very difficult isn`t it? Sometimes you can have a hard game and it takes a couple of days to recover, but if your head is tired it can take weeks.
Alonso: Especially at Christmas with so many games. But if you have a fresh mind, you can play and feel great.
Mølby: It`s a key moment of a season.
Alonso: Yeah, and it makes you feel the responsibility you have. People are really anxious for us to have the chance to win the Premiership. And that motivates me even more than I already am.
Mølby: It would be great to win it, and I have a feeling that it would be the biggest day in the club`s history. I know that sounds funny, with all the things that the club have achieved and the trophies they`ve won, but if they could pull it off – it would be tremendous.
Alonso: It would be similar to Spain winning a major tournament. It would take the weight, the burden, off everyone`s shoulders.
Words: Guillem Balague / Photos: Paul Cousans
Interview also published in the April issue of Champions - the official publication of the UEFA Champions League
Copyright - Guillem Balague 2009