Football - Liverpool FC Preseason Tour 2015 - Day 8 - AdelaideSINCE the dark stormy days of May — and in particular May 24th and the 6-1 reverse to Stoke — the tone of debate on Liverpool’s fortunes for the coming season has gradually grown brighter. Many will now happily tell you the winds have changed, and the outlook is sunnier. But it’s all just noise and speculation, really. If you want to know how the winds have changed, you could do far worse in the coming weeks and months than to keep an eye on Joe Allen. Keeping an eye on him will, if your eyes are open, tell you everything you need to know.

When you’ve finished this paragraph, close your eyes. Imagine Joe Allen coming onto the field against, oh, Spurs will do. What does he do? How does he play? When he receives, what does he do with the ball?

Give it five seconds. Go ahead and close your eyes.

Done?

You could picture him, couldn’t you? Maybe not with his current pelt, resplendent of beard — to most he’s still the picture of baby-faced innocence. Then there are those of you who can’t picture him without subvocalising, ‘What is the point of you?’ or similar — not everyone’s a fan. But in your mind’s eye, it’s a safe bet that Joe Allen is a constant. You know how he’ll play. He harries, he closes, he uses his body well. He makes good decisions. Controlling decisions. He’s there, always there, free to receive the pass, comfortable receiving when marked, comfortable turning into traffic, happy to play it short or long, happy to play through every number on the dial of the clock to whichever man is open. He gets it, and quickly he gives it, and so, side to side, diagonal to diagonal, we build our play, and he orchestrates.

That’s Joe Allen — or it has been to date. He hasn’t always played, but during Brendan Rodgers’ time at Liverpool, Allen has, probably more than any other player, been his manager’s representative on the pitch. But it looks like all that is changing. And if that’s changing, then if he’s to stand a chance of staying, he’s going to have to change too.

On July 20, the most excellent @lankyguyblog (give him a follow, he’s a lovely fella and very thought provoking on the subject of football) sat down after the Adelaide game and stroked his chin a little, tweeting the following thoughts. I was compelled, given I’d been hand wringing over how Christian Benteke might fit into the new found stellar firmament, to look at our setup with fresh eyes. It helped me settle a little.

Over to Lankyguy:

Thought provoking stuff.

Football - Liverpool FC Preseason Tour 2015 - Day 8 - AdelaideOn reading these points, I returned home to watch the Adelaide game (a meaningless pre-season friendly of course) and kept an eye on Allen, wondering throughout if confirmation bias was at work. Was he really moving the ball forward more quickly? Was he really seeking to be more direct? I thought he was. I tweeted to @lankyguy that maybe Joe Allen would be the barometer if the mooted change of approach was to hold true.

Arguably we’ve seen elements of the things @lankyguy describes before during Rodgers’ tenure. The focus on quickness in transition, for example, is nothing new. What’s different is the departure from the need to assert control, and to orchestrate. Where once we looked to rest the ball and play diagonals, the assertion is that we’ll switch the play — we have the full backs to match our wide forwards now, after all.

In 2013-14, Gerrard played the quarterback role, but in 2015-16, the assertion is that the manager wants three quarterbacks. Win the ball? Look immediately to play it forward and into the focal point for the counter. The emphasis in the style becomes vertical rather than diagonal. We become less Dutch and more German. And pulses race, and we maybe just play to our strengths… but perhaps not the strengths of Joe Allen.

Without the ball, our new signings look collectively likely to provoke turnovers and transitions in abundance, and if the plan is to exploit the brief windows of defensive disruption those moments expose, the delivery from midfield will need to be quick and precise.

In Henderson and Milner, Liverpool have two midfield players who fit this model well. They’re dynamic and have quality when facing the play. In some ways they’re capable of playing the typical German dual number six roles, with the focus on high intensity in the press, the discipline to work back and into a disciplined shape, and the quickness and quality in transition to hit the players who do most of our offensive damage. Not unlike Rafa’s most effective football, you might argue, or the model Borrell and Segura implemented before the departure to the more purist approach that followed it.

Maybe Rodgers came to the same conclusion Rafa did – that to harness the best of the English game and marry it with continental qualities, the structure has to emphasise both the intensity and structural grit of the English tradition, and the flair and technical quality of the more continental traditions. But I digress — to our barometer.

When Liverpool look less likely than ever under Rodgers to look to control games in midfield, the role of the orchestrator and controller diminishes, with the man with ‘go forward’ likely to emerge in his place. Emre Can is another more suited to this kind of role, while Lucas has been here before under Benitez. Joe Allen, you suspect, is going to have to adapt if he’s going to stand a chance of getting more than bench minutes and Europa League games for this team.

Keep an eye on Joe Allen’s approach, whenever he gets a game. If it looks different, it’ll tell you everything you need to know.

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