Sami Faizullah provides an in-depth analysis on how Lucas’ return to injury will impact on the Liverpool midfield, and specifically by allowing Joe Allen to operate slightly further ahead in Brendan Rodgers‘ midfield three.
LAST week Lucas Leiva returned to action with the under 21’s following a thigh injury suffered at Anfield against Manchester City in August. It was a set-back for the Brazilian who spent most of last season on the sidelines too. It may still be a week or so before we see the 25 year old in competitive action, but the implications of a return are irrefutable.
Brendan Rodgers’ side has a plethora of midfielders, so much so that he has the liberty to play midfielders at full-back, and full-backs on the wings. However, despite this privilege, Liverpool really have only one defensive midfielder, and that is the former Gremio man.
The man who has had to play as a makeshift defensive player, albeit an effective one, is summer signing Joe Allen. The Welshman had a good start to his Anfield career, but the past few weeks have seen his form deteriorate, the Chelsea game in particular was one which he was highly criticised for. Earlier on in the season, the ball seemed to stick to the 22 year old like magnet. His flaws, however, have been outlined in the past few weeks. Criticised for being too slow on the ball, and giving possession away cheaply.
Regardless of the recent decline in his form, one cannot deny that Joe Allen has been Liverpool’s best signing of the summer. It comes as no surprise as his exploits last season with Swansea alongside Leon Britton received high praise, which trickled down to his manager as well. Swansea fans feared, and expected, Rodgers to move for Allen sooner or later.
But the praise that the Allen and Britton partnership received (including the honour of being compared to the Xavi-Iniesta partnership), was vastly due to the set up employed by Rodgers at Swansea. Leon Britton sat deep (like Allen at Liverpool) while Joe himself moved further up the pitch in attack, while still maintaining his defensive duties. He was employed as a box-to-box midfielder. This ability to advance further forward and run at defences is something that Liverpool fans are yet to see. As Rodgers said himself last week:
“But you will see his flexibility in how he can play further up the field. He is really dynamic in that middle-to-final third and sometimes you see those little bursts when he breaks through and is exciting.”
Lucas Leiva was widely criticised early on in his career, and largely divided the Anfield faithful. It is only in Rafa’s last season and consequently Hodgson’s first that people began to take note. Lucas emerged as a first team regular and a crucial member of the side. He was a maturing player, and the former attacking midfielder was now being considered as an apt replacement for the void filled by the departure of Xabi Alonso (granted the two have different styles).
Before we go further in-depth into Lucas’ role in the team, it would be interesting if we could take a look at Joe Allen’s role currently in the side.
Even though Joe has been playing a deeper role than usual, which restricts him from adventuring forward, he has still maintained a commendable rate of passing. In the 13 Premier League games that Liverpool have played, Joe Allen has started and finished all of them, with an average passing rate of 91.7% (827 successful passes out of 902 attempted ones.
There have been claims that Allen has managed a successful passing rate primarily because most of his passes are backward, sideways and ‘pointless’. Statistics prove that 65% of his passes are played forward. Most of which are short passes, restraining himself from playing a long ball. This of course is characteristic of Rodgers’ style of play which discourages aiming long or “hoofed” balls upfield.
The above image illustrates Joe Allen’s passing game against Norwich where he completed 96% of his passes. His best so far this season. He completed 91 of his 95 attempted passes. As can be seen in the illustration, most of his passing was restricted to the middle of the pitch, rarely did he venture forward.
His defensive contributions too, have been impressive. The below image has been slightly tainted by his dip in form in the past few games, they still show a positive image.
Now if we compare this Joe Allen to the one that impressed viewers last season (based on the stats in this article posted on the official website (http://www.liverpoolfc.com/news/latest-news/joe-allen-the-opta-stats) the similarities are evident.
He had a passing success rate at Swansea of 91.2%, playing an impressive 2177 passes. Also an impressive stat is that he had a passing success rate of 85.5% in the opponents half. He won 74.5% of the tackles he attempted and 54.5% of his duels.
The statistics of the deep lying Joe Allen are in sync with the ‘flexible’ and adventurous Joe Allen of last season.
The potential return of Lucas can do the world of good for Allen, and Rodgers’ can take full advantage of the midfielder’s ability. The aspect that is important in a tiki-taka approach is the confidence and composure to play that same style of football in the attacking third of the pitch. There are improvements, and Suarez has settled into the system well, but the ‘advancement’ of Allen could improve the football further.
With Rodgers playing a 4-3-3, and its variations based on the phase of game and position of players, it is evident that Rodgers will be employing a 3 man midfield. We can identify a couple of options that Rodgers will be looking into for playing his trusted Welshman.
This midfield set-up is, in my opinion, the most likely to be implemented by Brendan Rodgers. It involves playing Lucas Leiva in a deep lying role with his main obligation being a defensive role, putting an end to oppositions attacks, while holding onto the ball to allow the advanced players to move into positions.
Joe Allen will be employed slightly ahead of him playing a more free role. This type of approach will utilise Joe Allen’s work rate and general skill to best effect. The blue box represents Allen’s ‘zone’, he will mainly be covering that area during the course of the game while strutting further forward in attack and dropping deep to assist Lucas and the defence when faced against an attack.
He will also be moving slightly wide but won’t be moving down the flanks. This wide movement is to cover the wide areas when the play is stretched.
The first defensive movement of Allen would be to defend ahead of Lucas rather than beside him, forming a sort of ‘double’ line of defence.
Allen will try to cover attacks in his ‘zone’ before slowly tracking back based on the advancement of the opposition, Lucas will cover Allen attempting to block any attack that penetrates through Allen’s zone.
The yellow lines are merely to provide explanation for the defensive movement, it is pretty clear that Lucas and Allen will track further back as the opposition advance.
In terms of attack, Allen will once again have a fair bit of freedom. For the sake of this article, I have assumed that Gerrard will be the third midfielder, this is the most likely scenario as well.
In an attacking phase as well, Lucas will sit back, allowing Allen to move further upfield to assist Gerrard. You can expect plenty of possession around the box with full-backs advancing forward and occupying the zone between the two blue boxes, pushing the wide men narrower and into the box. The full-backs will be providing the width with runs down the flanks.
Another aspect of Allen’s play seen at Swansea was his ability to take possession and run into the box with the ball. An approach that was characteristic of Steven Gerrard earlier. Gerrard though lacks the legs to move about as much now, while Lucas has to be deployed in a defensive position exclusively. Its Joe Allen, therefore, that has to keep the work rate of the team going, moving all around the pitch, playing as a box-to-box midfielder. He needs to advance forward while still dropping deep effectively.
With regards to his role in terms of dictating the play, Lucas will assume most of these duties, but Allen will still retain the duties of this role, in the attacking third. The movement of the wide men and strikers will be fairly narrow and there will be plenty of opposition defenders around to make it tight and restrict any openings. Allen will play an important role in breaking through this barrier.
The return of Lucas will lift the entire team. The man has played a significant part for the club in the past few seasons. The freedom he provides Joe Allen will show plenty of improvement in the performances and results. This box-to-box role made into one of the most highly rated midfielders in the Premier League. At 22, the former Swansea midfielder has his entire career ahead of him. The impact of Lucas’ return will take Allen to newer heights, and a new level of football, which will have its own impact on the fortunes of Liverpool Football Club.
Graphs and stats via squawka.com, tactical illustrations made at footballtactics.net.