The Scouse Cafu: Why I Love Liverpool's Jon Flanagan
As Liverpool prepare for their biggest game in recent history, the visit of Manchester City - a match many believe will decide the fate of the Premier League title – there have been no shortage of individual and collective success stories over the course of the season: the resurgence of Steven Gerrard and Martin Skrtel; the development of Jordan Henderson and Raheem Sterling; the prolificacy of Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge. But the most surprising storyline has to be the return to prominence of Jon Flanagan, who emerged from the periphery of the first-team squad to become one of the first names on the teamsheet.
In many respects, Flanagan’s career trajectory has mirrored that of the club. He was handed his debut by Kenny Dalglish almost three years ago to the day, coincidentally in a league game at home to Man City (The Reds won comfortably 3-0 on the day). It’s still the most impressive professional debut I’ve seen from any Liverpool player. City understandably identified him as a potential weak link, and over the course of the game Carlos Tevez, Mario Balotelli, James Milner, Adam Johnson and even David Silva all lined up and tried – but ultimately failed – to get the better of him; he looked every bit as assured and determined then as he does now.
Dalglish was only caretaker manager at the time, and there was no expectation on the club to achieve anything that season after Roy Hodgson had left them in mid-table obscurity. But the following two seasons when the pressure was on to return to the top four, the club struggled, and Flanagan barely featured. It’s fair to say that he had become something of an afterthought at Anfield, yet his unexpected return to the side this season has seen the club embark on an incredible run of form – and he has been an integral part of that; he’s arguably been Liverpool’s most consistent player over the past six months.
In the ever-evolving world of modern football, the role of the full-back has drastically changed; they are judged on what he do going forward as much as what they do defensively – sometimes even more. In the 4-3-3 that Rodgers used at Swansea and for most of his first season at Liverpool, the full-backs are heavily relied on to provide width, support the attack and to always be able to receive the ball; it is arguably the most demanding position to play, both tactically and physically. The system was tailor made for Glen Johnson, and was why the likes of Jose Enrique and even Stewart Downing were effective at times.
Flanagan has always been a traditional full-back in the sense that his most obvious asset is his tackling; he’s a reliable defender, first and foremost. It appeared to most that he just wasn’t a natural fit in Rodgers’ side – even young right-back Ryan McLaughlin, now impressing at Barnsley, was a more logical option as he plays as more of a wing-back. But it is testament to the work of both player and manager that he has been so effective this season. With his first choice full-backs out for large parts of the season, Rodgers had to adapt his system to suit what he had at his disposal, and Flanagan quickly learned what was required of him in the side.
This is not news to Flanagan, though, who has made a career of proving his doubters wrong. When coming up the ranks through the youth and reserve teams, left-back Jack Robinson always looked to be the more talented of the two local full-backs. A regular for his country at all youth levels, Robinson was not only that bit quicker, but his all round game was more accomplished Both were played regularly by Dalglish in the latter half of 2011/12, but now Robinson is on loan at struggling Blackpool and hasn’t really progressed as fans had hoped. Still only 20, time is on his side and perhaps he may take a page out of Flanagan’s book and still forge out a career at Anfield.
In the forgettable documentary Being: Liverpool, there are two almost prophetic scenes involving Rodgers and Flanagan. In the first, when addressing the youngsters on the club’s pre-season tour of America, Rodgers singles an almost embarrassed Flanagan out of the group and tells the rest of the players they need to have his attitude and desire if they want to make it the first-team. Fast-forward nearly 18 months later and, lo and behold, Flanagan gets another chance because his application in training had been fantastic, and he took full advantage and has never looked back. In the second clip, Rodgers pulls Flanagan aside and tells him to “stay behind the ball. You're not the one bombing on for fun, Cafu.”
Brendan was spot on with the former, but it appears he got the latter one horribly wrong, especially as Cafu himself tweeted Flanagan praise after his man-of-the-match performance against Spurs a few weeks ago, saying that he had to see what all the fuss was about “the Scouse Cafu”. To be fair, he couldn’t have picked a better game to watch. Not only where there some perfectly executed last-ditch tackles, but Flanny Alves set up the third goal, fooling Aaron Lennon with a Cruyff turn in his own half before carrying the ball in to Spurs’ half and playing it to Coutinho, who scored. The man himself would have been proud.
In fairness, the nicknames are very much tongue-in-cheek. Flanagan would be the first to admit that he’s not the most technically or physically gifted of players. Although it’s a very British thing to constantly refer to a player’s attitude, determination and work-rate, they are just as important as other aspects of a footballer’s game. Gary Neville wasn’t the most naturally gifted full-back, for example, but few defenders enjoyed a more successful career than him. Flanagan has vastly outperformed the more experienced and talented Glen Johnson all season long whilst mostly playing out of position.
It is easy to forget that even if he starts every game between now and the end of the season, Flanagan will have only made around 40 career starts; by comparison, when Jordan Henderson was 21 he’d made around 100 first-team appearances. He’s still inexperienced but his understanding and reading of the game make him wise beyond his years. His first touch and crisp, one-touch passing mean he can contribute offensively – highlighted by his run and deft touch which won the penalty against West Ham - and the more he plays, the more his all-round game should develop. If he can improve his crossing, he could go on to be a real asset at either full-back spot for the next decade.
But for now, helping The Reds overcome Man City and then go on to capture the most unexpected of Premier League titles would be a fine start.
Follow Alex on Twitter, @woolfc