In his latest column for TBT, Sam Drury looks at the impending return of Welshman Joe Allen.
Sam asks whether Joe Allen could be the player we’ve been lacking in our recently criticised midfield.
“In the final third of the pitch, it was hard to argue with the fact that we were outstanding – the movement, the combination play to arrive in there…” Brendan Rodgers said after Liverpool’s 3-1 win over Crystal Palace.
“But,” he added. “We’ve still got a lot of work to do behind that because the lack of control in the game was disappointing.”
The Liverpool manager’s desire for control of the ball, and of the match, is something he made very clear from the day he arrived on Merseyside and with the team’s inability to facilitate that on the pitch so far this season, Rodgers could be set to turn to one of the players he first brought to the club to solve the problem.
Joe Allen made a fantastic start to last season, his first in a Red shirt, and talk that Liverpool had overpaid to bring him in from Swansea soon disappeared.
The issue was that when a shoulder injury, at the time unknown to the fans, started to get progressively worse, so did his form. By the time the chronic shoulder problem curtailed his season in March, large sections of Liverpool supporters seemed to have chosen to forget his excellent start and had written him off as a waste of £15m.
Now, with a midfield pairing of Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva clearly not working and the manager voicing his displeasure at the failure to adequately command the match against Palace, despite Jordan Henderson replacing the suspended Lucas in central midfield, a fit-again Joe Allen may be the man asked to help Liverpool take control in the middle of the pitch.
The Wales international showed more than enough in the opening weeks of last season to suggest he is capable of doing the job likely to be asked of him, albeit it in a different system.
On the ball Allen’s qualities are clear. His passing is crisp and precise and during pre-season he began to show his full range as well as his ability to pick a pass in the final third. His link up play and knowing when to keep things simple is something Liverpool have been missing this season too.
Another key quality of the former Swansea midfielder is that he always makes himself available to receive the ball. He is able to find little pockets of space, providing an option for his team-mates and is also comfortable taking the ball under pressure – backing himself to be able to either hold off his man or pop off a pass to a nearby team-mate.
The Reds no. 24 is also adept when it comes to dribbling; he has relatively quick feet and can drive forward well when the opportunity arises – an aspect of his game that is often overlooked.
So too is his capacity to shield the ball when opponents are snapping at his feet. It is easy to assume, looking at his slight frame, that Allen can be pushed off the ball and bullied. When you look back to his early games for Liverpool and his time at Swansea though, it becomes apparent very quickly that that is not the case.
Indeed, his Anfield debut against Manchester City saw him go head to head with the likes of Yaya Toure and Nigel de Jong. Allen was superb. His tenacity was evident from the off and on more than one occasion he managed to ease Toure, a man almost twice his size, off the ball to win possession.
It is true that as last season wore on, there was less and less evidence of this side of the 23-year-old’s game. It may not have been at the time, but surely now the reason is obvious?
It is believed he started the feel the effects of his shoulder injury in early November and by the time he went for surgery the slightest of contact would have broken it, Rodgers revealed. It is little wonder then that Allen was less able to protect the ball or be as aggressive in his attempts to win back possession as he was earlier in the season.
Indeed, with a successful surgery out of the way, pre-season saw Allen turn in a number of encouraging displays both in central midfield and in a slightly more advanced role. Since then a slight knock has limited Allen to only seven minutes away at Aston Villa as substitute and then a decent display in the League Cup tie with Notts County.
A hamstring injury picked up in that game has ruled him out ever since. However, after another frustrating spell in the treatment room, this weekend’s trip to Newcastle could see Allen return to the squad.
It may be too soon for him to start but with big games coming thick and fast from the beginning of November through until the New Year, Liverpool will be keen to get Allen back to peak condition as quickly as possible. As such, it would be no surprise to see him get some minutes at St James’ Park before a possible start against West Brom.
The reason being, on top of the aforementioned technical skills and game intelligence, the £15m man also offers the energy and mobility that Liverpool’s midfield has desperately lacked with Gerrard and Lucas at its heart.
He may not be at the same level as Henderson in this regard but from the reaction of Brendan Rodgers after the Palace game, it doesn’t seem much of a stretch to say that he believes Allen to be the more tactical disciplined of the two and therefore, crucially, able to help provide more control.
Some have argued that Liverpool’s best midfield duo with everyone fit would now be Allen and Henderson, with Coutinho playing just ahead of them. Perhaps it would be, but for now it is something of a moot point.
The captain will not be dropped and with Coutinho back, the current system doesn’t allow for him, Allen and Henderson all to start.
That leaves Lucas, Henderson and Allen to compete for the one remaining spot alongside the England skipper. It would be extremely harsh to drop Henderson after such a good start to the season but all round Allen looks to have the edge in terms of what his manager is looking for.
Simply put, Joe Allen could be the player to help Liverpool take control once more.