AH, 2016. What a year it’s been. Some pretty remarkable things have happened across the world over the past 12 months — both good and bad — with hugely significant consequences. You’ll probably know exactly what I’m talking about, here.
The transformation of Adam Lallana into the finest, current English footballer and one of the top performers in the Premier League has been nothing short of sensational. Now, there’s a common tendency among football fans to want to be proven correct. Let’s be honest, though, none of us saw this coming.
I would call myself a fairly ardent Lallana enthusiast. I’ve always enjoyed watching him play for Liverpool, even though his seemingly perpetual quest to fit as many Cruyff-turns into 90 minutes as humanly possible was frustrating at times. Just as I backed his mate, Jordan Henderson, to overcome his latest round of critics and prove his worth yet again this season, I expected Lallana to play a key role.
Yet, what we have seen from Lallana has exceeded all expectations. I wrote a piece on here several months back, noting how Lallana had become a really important player for Jürgen Klopp when many, with good reason, initially predicted he might struggle to adapt to the German’s high intensity style of football. There were also questions asked about whether Lallana would keep his place in the side following the summer arrivals of Sadio Mane and Georginio Wijnaldum.
The image of Lallana collapsing into Klopp’s open arms, a figure of pure exhaustion after drawing 0-0 at White Hart Lane in Klopp’s first game at the club, has since proven to be the beginning of a bond between two Formby neighbours, which has blossomed to the extent that Lallana has become not only an integral figure, but the very driving force of this current Liverpool side.
That might be a bold claim to make, but after watching his performances this season so far and, perhaps even more importantly, Liverpool’s performances without Lallana in the side, it’s not without a great deal of substantial evidence.
Liverpool currently sit second in the Premier League table with 34 points on the board having scored 40 goals. If you compare that to the same stage last season, Liverpool sat ninth in the table, with 24 points and just 20 goals scored. The transformation is stark, and no player has defined that improvement more than Lallana himself.
Last season, Lallana managed four goals and six assists in 2,109 minutes of Premier League action. So far this season, he’s already racked up six goals and six assists having played just 966 minutes in the league. That’s roughly one goal contribution every 80 minutes.
To put that in context, Lallana has directly contributed to 12 goals in 14 league appearances under Klopp, this season alone. He contributed to 13 goals in 48 appearances under Brendan Rodgers.
Quite simply, Lallana is in the form of his life at the moment. Patience is an increasingly rare commodity in the modern game and many supporters and pundits alike doubted Lallana’s long-term prospects after his disappointing start to life at Liverpool. He decorated games with glimpses of his exceptional technical ability, but often remained on the periphery and failed to make a decisive impact. Given the £25million price tag on his head, supporters were justified in expecting more output from the former Southampton man.
While Lallana’s performances drastically improved last season, his end product was still lacking with just four goals and six assists in the league all season. That 95th minute winner against Norwich will live long in the memory, but for all Lallana’s industry and graft, there remained a sense that a player of his ability ought to be producing more regular numbers.
Although, conventionally, it is expected that players of Lallana’s ilk — natural attacking midfielders — usually tend to hit their prime at some stage between the ages of 24 to 26, Lallana has bucked the trend and showed that, at 28, he has been able to elevate his game to a whole new level.
His tally of six goals and six assists in 14 appearances is all the more impressive when we consider that Lallana is now operating in a much deeper position than at any previous point in his career. It might seem counter-intuitive, but many of Lallana’s goals this season have come as a direct result of this positional transition — now arriving late into the box with runs from midfield. Klopp’s decision to convert Lallana into a central midfielder has proved an absolute masterstroke.
After Liverpool’s emphatic 3-0 victory against Middlesbrough, in which Lallana scored twice by arriving late in the box — Klopp explained his advice:
“Last year I sat Adam down. I was happy with him but he was like ‘I’m not scoring’.”
“I said he wasn’t in the right positions.”
In the same game, Lallana was also seen chasing back and making a crucial first half block inside his own penalty area.
While other managers look to the transfer market in the aim of “upgrading” their squad, Klopp has always prioritised work on the training field in order to develop and improve the players at his disposal. With Lallana, his coaching has definitely paid dividends.
Where Lallana’s lack of pace in the final third proved a constant hindrance when fielded in an attacking triumvirate, Lallana now has more time and space to affect the game, with the play unfolding in front of him, rather than with his back to goal. His ability to play on the half-turn and stride forward with the ball means he is no longer the player who slows attacks down — rather he is the crucial link between midfield and attack.
Lallana’s attacking returns are impressive in their own right for any central midfielder, but when combined with his pressing ability and work rate, this total package is what makes him such a valuable and special kind of footballer.
His 13.7km run against West Ham is the current record for distance run by a Premier League player this season (he held the previous record himself, with 13.07km vs Leicester).
Often seen as the “leader” of Liverpool’s pressing game, Lallana has averaged 1.5 tackles per 90 minutes this season, which is far superior to his Premier League counterparts of a similar style (Kevin De Bruyne averages 0.96 tackles, Mesut Ozil 0.87 and Christian Eriksen 0.97 per 90). This should, perhaps, be expected given Lallana’s increased defensive responsibilities in his midfield role, but the blend of qualities he offers is what sets him apart. As well as being perfectly two-footed and blessed with an excellent touch and unrelenting work ethic, Lallana has added regular goals and assists to his armoury.
Now renowned for his engine and ability to cover more grass than any other player on the pitch, it’s a far cry from the Lallana who was continuously substituted around the 60-70 minute mark during his days at Southampton and in the early part of his Liverpool career. The transformation, therefore, is also a result of hard work on the training field, bulking up his physique and improving fitness levels.
Liverpool’s win rate with Lallana in the starting lineup this season is 75%, with nine wins, two draws and just a solitary loss (Burnley). Without Lallana in the starting lineup, that win percentage drops to just 25%, with one win, two draws and one loss (Bournemouth). That works out at 2.42 points per game with Lallana, and 1.25 points per game without Lallana.
Furthermore, Liverpool have managed 35 goals in the 12 games where Lallana has started, averaging 2.92 goals per game. In his absence, they have managed just five goals in four games, at an average of 1.25 goals per game.
Two of those games where Lallana did not start ended in 0-0 draws, against Southampton and Manchester United. The 2-0 victory against Sunderland was far from comfortable and really had to be ground out, with Divock Origi’s excellent individual effort finally providing the breakthrough.
It is surely no coincidence, then, that Liverpool’s most disjointed and blunt performances have come in the absence of Lallana, with the midfield of Henderson, Wijnaldum and Emre Can lacking balance and fluidity. The missing link was clear to see, and while Lallana’s performances have been eye-catching in their own right, it’s also very obvious when he isn’t on the pitch.
While the absence of Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge has undoubtedly been a blow recently, Liverpool have still managed to score goals (eight in the last three games), whereas Lallana’s absence has proved more difficult to replace.
The predominant view from outside the club seems to suggest that either Coutinho or Mane has been Liverpool’s standout performer this season. While both players have been outstanding, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that the most crucial and influential member of this Liverpool side is, in fact, Adam Lallana.
Pundits and journalists alike are beginning to pick up on the extent of Lallana’s brilliance — but, above all, Liverpool supporters are realising what a remarkable footballer we have on our hands. If there was ever a perfect embodiment of the phrase “turning doubters into believers”, Lallana is exactly that.
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