By Craig Rimmer
18 successive Premier League starts upon a £15 million arrival in the summer of 2012. The man cherry-picked by Brendan Rodgers to accompany him on the journey from South Wales to Merseyside. Joe Allen was once reputed to be the vision of what Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool team would become.
Some promising early performances, albeit in a fairly limited Liverpool team – a team very much in transition – earned Allen some muted plaudits. This was viewed by many as an insight into the future Liverpool – a form of sterile domination through possession football with Allen the focal point.
Fast-forward 12 months and the reality has changed markedly for both Liverpool and Allen; to the extent that the Welshman has become something of Liverpool’s forgotten man.
Once seen as the player who most epitomised the vision of a Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool, Allen has been a victim of circumstance. A change in approach from the manager – the inclination toward a more pragmatic Liverpool, if you like – this, combined with some fairly unfortunate injuries, have contrived to leave the Welshman resembling the odd man out amongst Liverpool’s midfield.
After a promising start to life at Anfield, Rodgers was at pains to stress that the holding midfield role, in which Allen was asked to deputise for the injured Lucas Leiva, was not his most effective position. We were certain to see the best of his protégé once circumstances allowed him to play in a more advanced position, closer to the opposition penalty area.
We did see that version of Joe Allen fleetingly. Notably against Oldham in the FA Cup and Zenit in the Europa League. Games which Allen marked with his first goals in a Liverpool shirt. Coincidentally, on both occasions Liverpool were knocked out of the respective competitions.
But Allen, more than most, is a yardstick for the change in direction that Rodgers and the current Liverpool team have taken during the past 12 months.
In fact, he has not started a Premier League game since the defeat away to Southampton in March. His only start during the opening 3 months of the current season came during the Capital One Cup 2nd round tie against Notts County.
A reluctance to rotate the starting XI and an absence of cup competitions – both domestically and in Europe – have hampered Allen’s progress since a return from a hamstring injury. Meanwhile, the arrival of Phillipe Coutinho and a resurgent Jordan Henderson have also contrived against him.
So, can Joe Allen still have a significant role to play in Liverpool’s immediate future? Can the player himself reignite a stuttering career?
With Allen no longer a regular presence in midfield, Liverpool under Rodgers have gradually moved away from a philosophy of domination through possession – or perhaps that was never the ideal after all. In the process they have ceded an element of control in midfield. The kind of control in the centre of the pitch which characterised many a former Liverpool team and allowed them to dictate the momentum of a football match.
It is a vulnerability which is unlikely to be tapped at home against the likes of Fulham and Norwich – where gambling on the attacking potency of Suarez, Sturridge, Coutinho et al., should more than suffice. However, it is a weakness which is more likely to be exploited against the top teams in the division. This was certainly in evidence against Arsenal at the Emirates, and even against Southampton – a technically competent team with a plan to press high up the pitch and pressurise the Liverpool midfield.
Despite the manager’s past claims that Allen would only flourish with increased attacking responsibility, it is in a deeper role where his inclusion may still prove to be a solution of sorts.
Allen’s game is one of measured passing and possession – it is something which he does well; and also something which a midfield of Lucas-Gerrard-Henderson, for all of its attributes, often lacks. The inclusion of Allen could be the obvious solution which can add more balance to the midfield and allow some of that absent control to be regained.
Gambling on the goals of Sturridge and Suarez is one way to win a football match. But an ability to adapt that approach will be important against the top teams, and also when the need arises to see out a game from a winning position. This is where Allen can play his part.
Time will tell which direction Allen’s Liverpool career takes; nonetheless, the coming months may well prove to be fairly pivotal for a player currently in his second year at the club.
He would not need to search hard for examples of how a player can transform their career at Anfield for the better, and within a relatively short space of time. Fellow midfielders, Lucas and Henderson have both responded admirably to periods of frustration and even derision.
In fact, the manager has a good track record in terms of gaining positive reactions from his players following spells out of the first XI. Henderson in a prime example, and both Martin Skrtel and Daniel Agger are more recent precedents.
If Allen can follow in the footsteps of the aforementioned and prove his worth when his chances come – and his chances are sure to come as the fixture list becomes more congested – then it can only be to the benefit of the player, Liverpool’s midfield, and the team’s aspirations. If not, Joe Allen may well remain the forgotten man for some time to come.