Adam Lallana is filling a role that, by his own admission, can “frustrate” him, but his form and exemplary attitude make a case for an extended stay.
Lallana has endured a tough period since losing his place as a Liverpool regular at the start of 2017/18, with injury and competition for places limiting his game time.
He featured 35 times for the club in 2016/17, scoring eight goals and assisting a further seven, and along with signing a new contract that term established himself as one of England’s most important players.
A lot has changed since Lallana scored the first goal of Sam Allardyce’s brief reign in charge of the Three Lions; a bemusing landmark to consider given the current state of affairs.
Since then, Liverpool have reached two Champions League finals, and after winning the second have cemented themselves as one of world football’s most dominant sides.
England, meanwhile, reached the semi-finals of the World Cup, and though they remain in their perpetual state of flux under Gareth Southgate, progress has certainly been made.
But this has all come, largely, without Lallana in the side: he has played 30 minutes for his country since mid-2017, while he has clocked just 1,024 at club level in the past two seasons combined.
This made persistent claims that Jurgen Klopp is eager to keep him on Merseyside beyond the expiry of his current deal this summer bemusing.
However, amid uncertainty over his future at Anfield, Lallana is now presenting an increasingly convincing case as to why he is valued so highly by his manager—and why their partnership could be extended.
One of the most common assessments of Lallana’s decline at Liverpool is they have moved forward too quickly for the 31-year-old to keep up.
The chaotic counter-attacking style employed by Klopp in recent seasons did not lend itself to his Cruyff turns, and the addition of Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain and Naby Keita provided more suitable options for a progressive approach.
But there has been a clear shift in outlook, with the Reds more composed, more assured and more experienced, and this certainly suits Lallana’s skillset more.
Klopp made an obvious attempt to adapt his No. 20 to fit his system during pre-season, when he lined up as a No. 6 in the absence of Fabinho and Jordan Henderson, which the player himself embraced as it gave him “a lot of the ball.”
“I’m the type of player that wants to be on the ball,” he explained in July.
“I feel I can get us moving, get us out of tight situations and bring a different aspect to Liverpool.”
His crucial caveat at that stage was that “as long as I can stay fit then I think I can bring quality to this Liverpool team,” and, so far, this has proved the case.
Though Lallana has rarely been deployed in this deep-lying role, he has already played more minutes (728) than in each of the past two seasons, with his versatility allowing Klopp to rotate.
He has made key contributions with his late equaliser in the 1-1 draw with Man United and the assist for Sadio Mane‘s winner in the 1-0 victory over Wolves, while he led a young side to a 1-0 win over Everton in the FA Cup.
Klopp himself attested to the midfielder’s fitness when discussing his contract situation at the start of the year, saying his “body is super-fit [and] mind in a perfect place,” with his injury problems “completely gone.”
A fully fit Lallana will be considered by many managers in the Premier League as a no-brainer signing if he opts to leave at the end of the season, with Klopp himself of the same opinion.
The issue for the Liverpool manager, however, is that he is no longer unable to offer Lallana a first-choice role.
But an increase in game time this season—owing partly to the player’s fitness, but also largely his reliable form—suggests it would be mutually beneficial for him to stay beyond the summer.
Liverpool have played in seven competitions this season, and the only two Lallana has not appeared in are the Champions League and the UEFA Super Cup.
He is part of a 16-strong group to make 10 or more appearances in the league so far, and though outside of Klopp’s core of starters, is entrusted with a key leadership position.
With the likes of Curtis Jones, Neco Williams and Harvey Elliott poised to remain an important part of the squad in the second half of 2019/20, Klopp has stressed his reliance on Lallana as one of Liverpool’s “role models.”
“I’m really, really happy that we have these kinds of characters here,” Klopp said of him, James Milner and Jordan Henderson, “because that makes my job massively easier.”
This shone through as Lallana discussed his approach to a squad role this month, as he said “at times it might frustrate me, but it’s all about the team,” with the objective to “train harder, train stronger and make yourself ready.”
It would be wrong if Lallana was not frustrated, having started just 11 times in the Premier League and Champions League over the past two-and-a-half seasons.
But turning 32 in May, and after a long battle with injuries, this may be the reality he is required to accept if he is to be part of a top-level side like Liverpool.
Milner, who marked his 34th birthday at the beginning of January, is the only outfield player older than Lallana in the Reds squad, and their situations are certainly comparable.
The vice-captain ended speculation over his own future by signing a new two-and-a-half year contract with the club in December, with Klopp describing him as “just as important to us off the pitch in the dressing room as he is on the field.”
Though the makeup of his squad is changing, and the faces are getting younger, it is clear that Klopp as recognised the importance of experience.
And while the latest indications are that the Reds would only offer Lallana a one-year deal, this could be the ideal situation for both player and club as he moves into the autumn of his career.