Patience is not something you would necessarily associate with Liverpool in recent years, so when a twenty-two year old Joe Allen walked through the Melwood doors with a 15 million pound price tag around his neck expectations were always going to be high. After all, he was Rodgers’ lieutenant, the glowing gem of a deliciously sumptuous Swansea City passing side and the beacon that heralded a new dawn for Liverpool football club.
Expectations however, are often a mirror reflection of the people who make them and given the way football is today they can be both exceeded and failed with no chance of ever finding a middle ground. Start excellently and you will find yourself hyped to the heavens, but God help you should that rise meet an abrupt halt. That is essentially the way Joe Allen’s life at Anfield has started: initial promise has since been met with an alarming dip in form, but is it all down to him?
What must first be looked at is the system.
Joe Allen had arrived from a Swansea City side that was reaping the rewards for five years of hard work, from the plans first hatched by Roberto Martínez, culminating in Brendan Rodgers putting the finishing touches to the club that in turn made them the must-watch team in the country. At Liverpool he’s arriving at the beginning of the project, as opposed to receiving his breakthrough just as things were coming together, as he did at Swansea. He’s used to a refined product rather than a conglomerate of individuals who have no idea how to operate in the system his manager wants.
Juxtapose the tactical setup and the distances found within that of Swansea and Liverpool.
What you see in this particular phase is how compact Swansea was along the centre of the side, making the space wide as opposed to long. That is the difference in the screen shot of Liverpool v Zenit.
You’ll notice that Swansea were a far more compact & structured team in the middle than Liverpool. Defence and the midfield were rarely ever more than ten yards apart: from Ashley Williams and Steven Caulker up to the tip of the midfield 2-1 (usually Gylfi Sigurdsson). The distance was always made from infield to the flanks, rather than from back to front. For a player such as Allen the compactness of the central areas will play to his strengths: excellent in the interception and influential via the use of short, intricate passes in a compact central area.
Alternatively, what we find at Liverpool is a defence and midfield that does not work in such a cohesive manner. The distances found can sometimes exceed fifteen to twenty yards, which will often remove the ability to intercept quickly and aggressively because there is too much distance between man and ball. This is why Liverpool often find themselves stretched against sides who are quick in the transition.
Allen’s best assets are made redundant as the system leans to either a more expansive “controller” – a Xabi Alonso type – in the holding midfield position or a midfielder with excellent core athletic attributes like that of Yaya Touré or Moussa Dembélé. That may also be part of the reason why Jordan Henderson is currently showing good form.
It comes as no surprise then that Allen has been for the most part at a loss with the system. The same distance issues present at the start of the season still show themselves now, less consistently yet enough to cause the team unnecessary problems.
We can look at the number of games Allen has featured in this compared to last and ask ourselves whether or not he’s suffered a similar fate to that of Jordan Henderson under Kenny Dalglish’s tenure. Last season, Allen made a total of 33 appearances for Swansea City. By contrast he has already made 26 starts for Liverpool and we’re only half way through February.
Perhaps being under the intense microscope at Anfield has exposed his inexperience; something that happened to Henderson last season, to the point his confidence and form have dipped. Some footballers, though not all, can be extremely self-aware to the point it can affect performance. Perhaps that is Joe Allen right now. Perhaps it has dawned on him whom he plays for and it is just taking him a season to come to terms with a change in scenery, teammates and most importantly expectation.
Liverpool, regardless of its current standing, still demands the very best from every player in every game that they feature in. At Swansea City there is a far more accommodating approach to the peaks and troughs in form that accompany any young player. Allen was by no means a beacon of consistency last season, but the surroundings were comfortable and the support unwavering to the point that the lulls were never too long.
We need to offer Joe Allen the time and support that was rarely forthcoming to that of Lucas or Henderson so that he can come to terms with his surroundings. As the system starts to flourish, so will Joe Allen. Whilst he may not be the “Welsh Xavi” he’s also no ordinary Joe – time will prove that to us all.