I WAS sat in a pub on the Wirral on Saturday evening. The match earlier in the day had ensured that I was several beers in by the point I found myself at a family gathering and sat next to my cousin’s seven-year old lad.
Very aware of the fact that mere hours earlier I had been shouting various expletives at Jose Mourinho and Martin Atkinson, I had to make sure I kept conversation clean and uncontroversial, so I just asked him who his favourite player was. He shyly and softly uttered “Lallana”, which made me smile. Then again the state I was in most things probably would have evoked the same reaction. I saw someone drop some cake moments later and cried laughing.
However, I remembered the little fella’s answer the following morning while drinking 43 gallons of water and cooking all of the bacon, and I smiled again.
When Adam Lallana signed for Liverpool in July 2014, there were a few raised eyebrows. He impressed at Southampton the previous season but that had been his first ever year in the Premier League at the age of 26. His arrival also coincided with the dramatic fall from grace of Brendan Rodgers’s team in a troubled post-Luis Suarez era.
Lallana was the first to admit that he initially struggled to adapt to playing for a big club with all the expectations that brings. However, just over three years after he arrived at Anfield, I along with many other Liverpool fans found myself flicking through Twitter one harmless pre-season afternoon and shouted a great big swear word as news broke that Lallana would miss up to four months after what seemed to be an innocuous injury picked up in the Audi Cup Final with Atletico Madrid. It was the last thing The Reds needed heading into a new season.
The former Saint is not what you would call an obvious superstar. He doesn’t have the goal or assist numbers to rival some of his teammates, he doesn’t have explosive pace, he isn’t particularly powerful and his hair game is questionable to say the least. What he does have though is probably what makes him such a valuable asset. He is a remarkably intelligent and unique player and couples that with a workrate that is second to none.
Say what you want about Gareth Southgate, and many do, but it was notable that he very publicly labelled Lallana as the best player he has worked with as England boss so far. What Lallana does well on the pitch may not be immediately apparent, but he is absolutely key in the technical aspect of the game otherwise known as “knitting it all together”.
Liverpool have been missing that this season. The midfield has been troubling me almost all the way through the early weeks of the campaign — despite being much improved on Saturday — but I couldn’t figure out what specifically it was that wasn’t clicking. I thought I was just selfishly pining for the arrival of Naby Keita at first, but it seems it may have just been a simple case of missing Lallana and what he brings.
Jordan Henderson is forcing too many deep crosses into the box, Gini Wijnaldum is vanishing in games more often than not and Emre Can is obsessed with carrying the ball as far as he can until tackled time and again like a running back in an NFL team. The bit that gets the ball from A to B is a tad off, and I think that may be due in part to the lack of Lallana running in between the lines, creating space and making quick passes into improbable areas with his ambidextrous feet.
His absence is something that could also be affecting others, in particular, Roberto Firmino. If Lallana is the best presser at the club, then Firmino is a close second, but it feels like he’s missing the England international more than most. On Saturday I thought Firmino did a lot of good work, but it was mostly in very deep positions. He started moves that another version of him should have been getting on the end of in the box, but he couldn’t be in two places at once, and would I’m sure have loved Lallana to have been there instead to do the initial work.
Again, statistically speaking Lallana’s passing and creative numbers aren’t amazing, or no better than his teammates anyway, but it’s the imagination of his positioning that makes a difference. His unexpected cameo 12 minutes into the game at Watford last season was a perfect example. The way he popped up in key areas of the pitch to receive and move the ball on is what dragged the hosts apart, allowing Lucas Leiva and Can the space to end the goal of the season competition. It doesn’t feel like anyone has really done that job for Liverpool this campaign.
However, perhaps far more important than his role with the ball has been his role without it. As pointed out by Jonathan Northcroft of the Sunday Times in a recent article, Liverpool aren’t pressing as much this season, and while that might be down to a deliberate tactical shift from Jürgen Klopp, it could also be because arguably their best presser of the ball hasn’t been available to them.
Northcroft referred to stats around how long a team allows the opposition to have the ball, and last season Liverpool were right up at the top with Tottenham and Manchester City as teams who let their opponents have the ball for the least amount of time. At of the start of this month, The Reds were ninth in the same table, alongside West Ham United.
There are other stats that back up the idea that Liverpool aren’t pressing and running as much, and while this hasn’t necessarily been the reason for the team’s general struggles this season, it is a fairly alarming dip in a fundamental principle of the manager’s football philosophy in a short time. Assuming it isn’t deliberate, then it will be a concern to Klopp and probably why he sounds so excited about eventually having Lallana back. The German famously had to hold an exhausted Lallana upright when he came off in his first ever game in charge over two years ago, such was the effort the midfielder had put in at Tottenham Hotspur that afternoon.
On the flight to Maribor ahead of this week’s Champions League group game, Klopp was interviewed by the club’s official website and said regarding news that Lallana is stepping up his rehabilitation at Melwood: “It’s absolutely good news. I cannot say now, but maybe after the next international break he could be back.
“It would be fantastic for us, of course. Everybody knows what kind of a quality player he is, so it would be fantastic.”
Lallana hasn’t been alone on the sidelines. Nathaniel Clyne is also yet to play a single minute of this season, while Sadio Mane has since joined them in the treatment room. It seems that some of the items Liverpool bought from Southampton are faulty, so it’s probably only fair that they give the club a discount on Virgil van Dijk. Customer loyalty has to count for something, right?
Klopp’s comments suggest that there’s a chance for Lallana to return next month against, ironically, Southampton. In the meantime, Liverpool need to figure out how to overcome their problems in other ways, rather than just waiting on his return. Perhaps that could be where Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain comes in. He was one of the hardest working runners at Arsenal and is eager to prove himself and silence some doubters. He also showed enough in his cameo against Manchester United on Saturday to be worth looking at again.
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think the return of Lallana will necessarily flick a switch and Liverpool will return to the form they showed 12 months ago straight away, but it will put a vital cog back into the machine and allow more chance to reach those heights. His relative freshness could also prove very useful over the Christmas period and troublesome New Year.
It doesn’t feel that long ago that Lallana was just another failed transfer from the Rodgers era. Now he’s beloved by kids like my first cousin once removed (I think that’s the right one) who could have had his pick of brilliant Brazilians, sumptuous Senegalese or electric Egyptians.
Hang on, he might have said Coutinho come to think of it.