Brendan Rodgers’ decision to start Joe Allen alongside Steven Gerrard against Southampton was surprising and ultimately ineffective. The Welshman is struggling with injury and form in his first season at Anfield.
I wrote a piece a couple of months back explaining why Joe Allen would complement Lucas Leiva in the middle of the park. A lot has happened since then. Liverpool have dropped out of a chance to win any sort of silverware, the Premier League has been embarrassed in Europe, Pep Guardiola is heading to Germany, Euro 2020 is being played across various cities, Hugo Chavez is no more, Jordan Henderson has risen to prominence, while Joe Allen, he remains another highly debated midfielder among the Liverpool ranks.
A couple of years back, Lucas Leiva was being widely criticised by the usually loyal and passionate Anfield faithful. The Brazilian defensive midfielder went on record to state that it was jeers by the home fans in a game against Fulham that were the turning point of his career. He has since established himself into a top player and established a regular berth in the first team. A move that seemed very unlikely earlier in the former Gremio man’s career.
Jordan Henderson encountered a similar faith. He was never jeered, but fans were unsure of his ability (and his enormous price tag), and reluctant to accept him at the club. A year on and that scenario has changed as well. Jordan has showcased bursts of energy and intense hard-work to win over the Liverpool fans. He still lacks the general technique and football knowledge, but purely his effort to get into the game has been widely appreciated. Last season, when he was still a fairly inexperienced player, he looked hesitant to get onto the ball and into tackles, receive the ball in dangerous positions and make runs into the box. These characteristics are prevalent in younger players. Henderson has since matured and under the right guidance, like what Benitez provided Lucas, Jordan too can turn the corner.
This brings us to the latest midfield debate in Liverpool circles- Joseph Michael Allen. The Welshman has had a stop-start time at Anfield. He started off playing like a cute little cross breed between Xavi and Alonso (this scenario is as far fetched as the one about Liverpool playing tiki-taka). Despite his lack of physical strength, his ability on the ball and pass completion rate excited the fans.
The thing about tiki-taka, or any of its variations, is the excess of ‘pointless’ passes played in midfield. It’s used to draw the opposition out in an attempt to create little holes for the strikers to exploit. But when a club like ours, which is yet to fully adapt, things haven’t quite gelled. While the rest of the team continues to evolve into tiki-taka, Joe Allen is already where Rodgers wants him to be. It proves to be problematic as the rest of the side aren’t quite there yet and continue to play a more general and direct passing game. This makes Allen’s sideways midfield passes all the more pointless. Its quite a peculiar situation.
So what has to be done with Joe Allen? He did seem a different sort of player earlier in the campaign, or was that just us looking in awe at a type of midfielder we weren’t used to seeing? He seems to have been ‘found out’ by the opposition as his small build and lack of physical ability is taking a toll on the field. His square passes do nothing. Neither are they helpful in creating goal scoring opportunities, or particularly effective in drawing the opposition out. Thats not to say it will not come good, sometime, but right now he is almost a liability. His lack of defensive gameplay is a big hindrance in handing him a first team spot on a regular basis. He just makes the numbers while preventing someone else from contributing some game time.
For the midfield we currently possess, a strong midfielder who we can depend on in the defensive phase of the game, is required. Rodgers attempted to partner Allen and Gerrard in midfield against Southampton. That was a failed experiment- both for the partnership itself- and also due to Southampton‘s pressing game that had a field day against a two man central midfield. Playing Lucas with Gerrard is a must. The Brazilian is a trustworthy midfielder in defence, which allows Gerrard to influence the game higher up the pitch.
The third midfielder has to be someone who provides the right balance to optimise the midfield. Henderson at the moment, does a better job of that than Joe Allen. While Henderson, like Allen, lacks the ability to penetrate balls from deep into attack, his energy makes up for it, allowing Lucas to sit in defence and Gerrard higher up. Must be mentioned here, that a certain Nuri Sahin would have done this balancing act to full effect.
When I wrote the piece linked above, I had a different idea of Joe Allen. As the weeks have gone by I’ve grown to realise that it could be some time before we get Allen to fit in. With Lucas and Gerrard in the side he might just about do a competent job, but with a better suited player in the squad, it seems a bit futile to experiment at this stage. For Joe Allen to come good for the side, we would need to change his game to adapt to the current Liverpool side rather than play the style of football Rodgers’ has envisioned us to play fluently a few years from now. It makes no sense in spending time & effort in changing the rest of the midfield’s play to suit that of Allen. Not to be over critical, but I haven’t seen much change or adaptation in Allen’s play, he continues to play the style he was deployed in at Swansea.
Going back to the Southampton game, the Liverpool defence (Skrtel in particular) were having a horror show. However, the reason for this was the space given to the Southampton midfield and the advantage they took of this. It was almost not a fair game as Southampton outplayed us in the middle of the field with Lallana to lead the way. It was another poor game for Joe Allen, and the captain Steven Gerrard too. A large share of blame for this has to go to Allen, and Rodgers decision to play him alongside Gerrard.
Allen was unable to cope defensively in the deeper portion of midfield, forcing Gerrard to drop back to provide some assistance, reducing his natural influence on the attacking phase. Lucas came on in the second half and while the game didn’t change much, there was improvements that could be seen and the liability of Allen in a two man midfield was evident.
Its obviously too early to say what Allen’s fate is. Any calls for a sale are definitely premature and uncalled for. I personally like Allen, and was impressed with his performances from earlier in the season. It took me to a point where these performances overshadowed Allen’s obvious inefficiency. Fans have rightly been critical of Allen, but as we’ve learnt in the past, a little bit of patience and loyalty can go a long way. Allen himself is still a fairly young footballer with not too much Premier League experience under his belt. Ofcourse he formed a decent partnership with Leon Britton, but ask any Swan fan and he’ll mention Britton as the better footballer.
Once he can improve his general game and get rid of his fragility, Joe Allen can definitely turn into a useful player. Right this moment though, the lesser game time given to the Welshman, the more beneficial it would be.