In a city that is as passionate about football as Liverpool, it is virtually impossible for anyone involved in either of the two big sides to retain a degree of anonymity. And yet few would have taken notice of Luis Alberto as he walked the streets in the summer of 2013 even though he had just been announced as a new Liverpool player.
Not that there wasn’t any debate about his transfer. At best, his was another name to be added to the list of those bought on the basis of the statistics he registered rather than his abilities. For those of a less charitable disposition, he was a sign of how much Liverpool had fallen; going for an unknown whilst others were throwing around millions to get proven quality.
The deal taking Alberto to Liverpool was a convoluted one. He had just spent the previous season playing for Barcelona’s B team in the Secunda Liga, impressing both with his ability to score goals and the talent to bridge the midfield with attack. Under normal circumstances it is unlikely that Barca would have allowed a player as promising as him leave.
Yet this wasn’t a normal situation, for Luis Alberto wasn’t a Barcelona player but had instead been loaned to them by Sevilla, the club he had joined as a child. Sevilla knew that the chances of him returning to them were limited so Liverpool’s sudden interest was an unexpected boost. It meant that they could play off their two richer rivals against each other, selling the player to the highest bidder.
It quickly transpired that the English club was much more determined; regardless of how well he had done and the high opinion they held for his talent, Barcelona simply weren’t willing to match the £6.8 million offer.
Once signed, Alberto was held up as a talent for the future who, despite his lack of experience beyond the Spanish second tier, was nevertheless good enough to make an immediate contribution. Initial impressions held this up. He made his debut in September, coming on in the place of Philippe Coutinho against Manchester United, and from then on kept getting occasional opportunities. The highlight came in an impressive win against Tottenham at White Hart Lane where he came on and set up a goal for Luis Suarez.
It all seemed so promising. And then he disappeared.
This was a season where Liverpool got terribly close to winning the Premier League, a success that they failed to nail down because of their lack of depth as much as anything else. Even so, Alberto didn’t manage to make a dent, with Rodgers clearly having decided that the player wasn’t for him. With some rumours pointing at the player’s lack of application in training and others claiming that he was someone that the manager had never really wanted, his Anfield career was over once Brendan Rodgers started having a say in Liverpool’s transfer business.
Twelve months after joining Liverpool, Alberto was sent on loan to Malaga but there too an early, positive start fizzled out once winter came. With opinions about him left unchanged back in England, the following year he was back out on loan once again, this time to Deportivo La Coruna.
There, reunited with manager Victor Sanchez who had been on the staff at Seville, Alberto’s career finally kick-started into life. Partnered with Lucas Perez, he became the club’s creative force with the duo helping the Depor avoid relegation through their goals and assists. The potential that someone at Liverpool had spotted three years earlier was bearing out.
Ever since Claudio Lotito took over Lazio in 2004, he has run the club in as efficient a manner as possible and there is no player at the club who would not be sold if the right offer came along. Successes have been limited, much to the frustration of the Laziali who have often vociferously protested his ownership, but that does little to sway him. Instead, he has built a structure that is always a couple of steps ahead of the market; they know who to go for if any of their players are sold so that no departure leaves the talent pool deficient. Any coach who is given the job of managing the side knows that he will have talented individuals at his disposal and that his job is to help develop that potential.
What Lazio’s scouts look out for in particular is talent that is under-appreciated. It is why they trawl European leagues that aren’t exactly in the spotlight and keep track of players on the fringes of bigger clubs.
It was this latter criterion that brought Alberto to their attention. Winger Antonio Candreva had been Lazio’s star performer for some time and it came as no surprise when he was sold to Inter in the summer of 2016 (purchased for €2 million, sold for €25 million). Within days, Lazio had concluded the deal to take Luis Alberto off Liverpool’s hands for €4 million.
For all of their cleverly detailed succession plans, there were still some issues with the transfer. Particularly frustrating, the player arrived in the final days of August and thus missed most of their pre-season preparation. This, along with the impact of high expectations and the challenge of playing in a new league, hit Alberto hard. Opportunities were limited and once again he found himself spending most of his time on the bench.
There are few things worse for a player than having too much time to think. Alberto was conscious that he had already failed in his first big move of his career and now here he was at another big club with matters going badly once again.
Such thoughts quickly went dark.
“Between January and February I was in the worst shape of my career. Everything looked bleak, in my mind I felt as if I wasn’t good for anything. But thanks to my family and Campillo I managed to recover from that situation;” he has since revealed, referring to the help of sports psychologist Juan Carlos Alvarez Campillo. “Within a few weeks I was completely transformed. I felt it immediately. The coaching helped me realised that I mattered, that I could give much more. It gave me the strength to find a way out of my depression. It was only a mental thing that was blocking me.”
Football is a game of absolutes. A player is good enough or he isn’t; a talent or wasted potential. There is no room for the in-between. Which, naturally, is rubbish. Players need to play in order to develop. They make mistakes, learn from them and then become better. It is not simply a question of talent but of a multitude of factors.
And yet when they move to bigger clubs many find themselves starved of those learning opportunities. They either don’t get to play or, when they do, the pressure is such that they find it impossible to perform. Mistakes in such environments become career-defining, breaking players and sapping them of confidence. Once that happens it is difficult to recover.
It could easily have been very different for Luis Alberto. His big opportunity at Liverpool turned out to be anything but and it took him two years to get back to a level of performance that reflected his ability. Even so, the impact of a coach who had known him at a younger age and who had confidence in his ability had been crucial.
Deprived of that reassurance when he moved to Lazio, he had the courage to look for the help that he needed in order to make the most of this opportunity. His story is more satisfying than most not because he has succeeded but due to how he has done it.
After his mental breakthrough, Alberto returned to training with increased vigour. The opportunities to play that had been lacking earlier in the season now started to come, including a substitute appearance in the Coppa Italia final. When coach Simone Inzaghi spoke to him about the need to improve his defensive awareness Alberto did not consider this as condemnation but rather as the guidance he needed in order to improve.
And improve he did.
During this season’s pre-season training he seemed almost a different player and not just because he now sported a tuft of blonde hair. By the time Lazio got to play Juventus in the season-opening Supercoppa Italiana (Italian Super Cup) he had forced himself into Inzaghi’s starting eleven and, even though he did not play a direct role in any of Lazio’s three goals on the day, he convinced everyone that he deserved to keep on playing.
He has continued doing so, impressing more as the season has progressed to the point of making his debut with the Spanish national team. Within the space of three months, he has emerged not only as one of Lazio’s finest players but also among the best in the Serie A.
No game, however, captures just how much Alberto has progressed than a win against Sassuolo at the start of October. Lazio had gone behind early on so when they got a freekick on the left-hand side of Sassuolo’s penalty area everyone converged into the box looking to knock in what they believe would be Alberto’s floated ball. Instead, he surprised everyone by bending his foot around the ball in a manner that it flew past the barrier and then into the top left-hand side corner of the goal. When compilations of the season’s best goals are being done, this will surely be among them.
Within ten minutes of the start of the second half, Lazio were ahead after Stefan De Vrij headed in a perfect corner kick delivered, a most are this season, by Luis Alberto. Two contributions by him had turned the game around and yet the key moment was still to come.
Having been pressed back for most of the game, that second goal eased a bit of pressure off Sassuolo who took the opportunity to break on a counter-attack. Before they could do much with it, however, their opportunity was snuffed out by Luis Alberto who stole the ball off the Sassuolo man, moved it on and then set off running forward. When the ball broke clear at the edge of the penalty area, he was there to pass it into the net. 3-1 and effectively game over.
If there is such a thing as a career-defining performance, that was it. Alberto had created opportunities, battled hard for the ball, and shown how much he had improved his reading of the game and scored goals. Lazio ended up winning 6-1 but it was Luis Alberto who had been the defining influence.
It has been the same on other occasions and with increasing regularity. He has become a player that Simone Inzaghi simply cannot do without; one who has shown that he has matured to the extent that he can play in a variety of roles. Spain too are waking up to his potential with Alberto being handed his first senior cap at the age of twenty-five.
Making judgements based on a good three months might seem rash but not on this occasion. Not only does Luis Alberto possess substantial technical ability but he has the vision to see, try and pull off plays that lesser individuals find impossible. He is delivering on the promise that people at Barcelona, Liverpool and Sevilla had spotted years back and he is doing so after finding his own answers. Such victories are much harder fought but tend to have a more lasting impact.
Up till a few months back, Luis Alberto also could easily go about in Rome without anyone recognising him just as had been the case in Liverpool. Not any longer. In all likelihood, soon there won’t be many places where his will be a face any football fan fails to recognise.