In praise of Álvaro Arbeloa, the underrated stalwart of Liverpool and Real Madrid

In praise of Álvaro Arbeloa, the underrated stalwart of Liverpool and Real Madrid

“Real Madrid is the club of my life, I will never call to ask for a job, but I am always available to offer myself.” These were the parting words of Álvaro Arbeloa as he announced that he was hanging up his boots, following an ultimately disappointing final season in the game with West Ham United. It was fitting that he should pledge fealty to Los Blancos even as he left his playing career behind him; the Spanish giants had shaped the whole direction of his career, and it was with them that he had won all that could be won.

Arbeloa’s first steps on his footballing journey were taken to the north-east of the capital in the city of Zaragoza, where his family moved when he was four. He joined the Real Zaragoza academy as a 13-year-old, staying there for the majority of his teenage years. The crowning moment of his time there came in his final season, as he helped the team to a 1-0 victory over Barcelona in the Copa del Rey Juvenil.

At the time, the likes of Andrés Iniesta and Víctor Valdés featured for the Catalan club’s youth outfit. Victory was a great achievement, and it was in no small part down to Arbeloa’s endeavour. A local match report from the time described the “enormous physical exertion” expended by the back line in order to preserve the clean sheet – this scrappiness and determination, by no means a given in those brought up in the Spanish culture where technique is everything, has been one of Arbeloa’s great strengths throughout his career. His performance helped to turn the heads of Barcelona’s great rivals.

In 2001, he made the move into Real Madrid’s youth ranks. By this point he was nearing 18, and was duly shifted up into the Real Madrid C team shortly after arriving. Again, his stay was not a long one. He impressed over the course of his 16 appearances in the 2002/03 season and moved up for the second time in quick succession to join Real Madrid Castilla. It would prove harder to earn promotion to the senior side, though.

From 2003 to 2006, Arbeloa racked up 84 appearances for the B team, but for most of this period, the first team remained a distant dream. This was no criticism of the full-back’s ability, but the senior squad was saturated with world class players, and Arbeloa’s talents would have had to be positively mercurial in order for him to displace club stalwart, Míchel Salgado.

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Arbeloa was eventually handed a small taste of first team action, coming on as a substitute in a draw against Real Betis in the 2004/05 season. By the start of the 2006/07 season, however, it was apparent to both player and club that his opportunities would be restricted if he stayed in the capital. The emergence of Sergio Ramos, who had succeeded where Arbeloa failed in taking the place of Salgado, meant competition was more fierce than ever, so a move to Deportivo was arranged.

The player was clearly uncomfortable leaving the club he had grown to love over the course of his five years there, describing it as “a strange situation” but acknowledging that “something had to give” as a result of the number of defenders in the squad. At his new club, Arbeloa was finally given his chance. He played 21 games in the first half of the season and instantly began to attract attention.

Indeed, his spell with Deportivo would prove to be a short one. On the January transfer deadline day, Liverpool moved for Arbeloa as fellow Spaniard Rafa Benítez looked to bolster his options. By this point Steve Finnan was 30, and Arbeloa was touted in some quarters as his replacement. However, it was at left-back where Arbeloa was handed his full debut, against none other than Real Madrid’s fiercest rivals.

This time around, he had even more to deal with than Iniesta and Valdés: a certain 19-year-old Argentine forward had burst on to the scene, and Arbeloa was tasked with dealing with him. The thinking was that the full-back’s discipline, combined with his strong right side, would help to nullify Lionel Messi’s magical left foot, and it worked very well. The team won 2-1 on the night and were able to limit Barcelona to one goal in the second leg at Anfield and progress on away goals.

This helped to endear him to the Liverpool fans and indeed the manager. He remained a utility option across the back four for the remainder of the season, and only featured as a late substitute in the Champions League final defeat to AC Milan, but by the following campaign he was established as a first-team full-back.

He made more league appearances than both Finnan and John Arne Riise and impressed in a fairly understated manner. He was never one to maraud forward, and his lovely curling strike against Reading in early 2007 ended up being one of just two goals he scored for the club, but he was defensively dependable and showed admirable grit and determination.

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He played his part in limiting Liverpool’s goals conceded to just 28 and 27 in 2007/08 and 2008/09 respectively, with the team going close to winning the league title in the latter. This did not prevent a very public falling-out with Jamie Carragher in a match against West Bromwich Albion, however. The centre-back took issue with Arbeloa’s handling of a defensive situation, but the Spaniard gave as good as he got, and the two had to be separated by teammates.

It was somewhat farcical, but ultimately it was fuelled by two players determined to make sure that the team succeeded. There aren’t many that would stand their ground in the face of a Carragher tirade, and Arbeloa’s passion is part of what makes him a popular figure amongst the Anfield faithful to this day.

At the end of the campaign, having made 98 appearances for Liverpool, Arbeloa left the club. Glen Johnson had been brought in, sparking speculation about the Spaniard’s future, and he was duly given permission to rejoin Real Madrid. This was a special moment for Arbeloa, who three years earlier had been considered surplus to requirements. He spoke of his pride, saying: “When you leave the club with the feeling of not being able to be in the first team, you know that it’s very difficult to return, so for me, when this opportunity presented itself, my first objective was to take it and fortunately I’m here.”

It was indeed fortunate, both for the player and the club as Arbeloa immediately became a regular, albeit once again on the left side of defence for a lot of the time. It was a disappointing season for the team – Real were pipped to the title by Barcelona, and exited both the Champions League and Copa del Rey at the round of 16 stage – but on a personal level, Arbeloa was impressive. His form cemented his place in Spain’s squad at the 2010 World Cup.

As he had done at club level so many years earlier, Sergio Ramos frustrated Arbeloa’s chances of regular minutes, and just like at the Euros two years before, Arbeloa was limited to one appearance in the group stages. Nevertheless, by the end of the tournament, the full-back had both a European Championship and World Cup to his name. To even make the 23-man squad in Spain’s golden era was a massive achievement, and he deserves recognition for it.

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The trophy rush carried over into Arbeloa’s club career. The 2010/11 season saw victory in the Copa del Rey, although the league title narrowly eluded them once again. It was also the campaign in which Arbeloa finally got what he had been striving for since turning professional: regular minutes at right-back for Real Madrid.

Sergio Ramos made the transition into the middle, allowing Arbeloa to slot into his natural position. This setup became firmly established and endured into the 2011/12 season when, finally, the team overcame Barcelona to win the league. Yet another personal triumph over the Catalans meant Arbeloa could add a La Liga title to his rapidly-growing list of honours, while he was rewarded with a new long-term contract at the end of the season.

However, his time as a regular was coming to an end. The return of Dani Carvajal meant that Arbeloa was once again locked out of the first team, but he resisted calls from the media for his departure. He was at the club he loved and wanted to stay and help in any way he could. The fans who, like the Liverpool faithful before them, had warmed to Arbeloa’s spirit and fight, as well as his ability, were more than happy to get behind him in a bit-part role.

It was in this capacity that he finally won the Champions League in 2014, watching from the bench as his team went one better than he had been able to do with Liverpool seven years previously. It was yet another addition to a remarkable personal trophy haul – no Real Madrid fan would begrudge their loyal servant the medals, even if the part he played in getting them was limited.

He remained at the club for a further two years, bringing him up to a total of 233 appearances in his second spell. Of those, just nine came in the 2015/16 season, with two in the Champions League – which Real won for the second time in three years – but Arbeloa still felt that it was time to move on at the end of the campaign.

In hindsight, he should have called it a day at that point; his move to West Ham was ultimately ill-fated, and he retired at the end of the season having made just four appearances. He spoke of his disappointment, saying “it has not been an easy year”. When he looks back on his career as a whole, however, there will surely be nothing but satisfaction. He may have taken a long road to the Real Madrid first team, but the trophies to his name are tangible proof that it was well worth the wait.

By James Martin @JamesMartin013

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