Liverpool midfielder Joe Allen has been ruled out for the remainder of the campaign after finally undergoing surgery on a troublesome shoulder injury, but will his first season at Anfield go down as a failure? And has public perception tipped so far against him that fans are less willing to be patient over his potential now more than ever before?
Brendan Rodgers said of Allen when he signed him in the summer: “He is 5ft 6ins but in terms of being a footballer he is 7ft 6ins. He’s absolutely immense. His courage in getting on the ball, how he reads the game and his football intelligence is outstanding. We paid £15m for him and I said that very quickly that price would double and people probably laughed at me. People have talked about him and his fee but in time he will be an absolute bargain.” Suffice to say evidence of the sort has been in short supply, while comparisons made in the media to Barcelona playmaker Xavi were both wide of the mark and incredibly premature.
It seems to be something of a trend with the club’s midfielders these days, that they inevitably fall flat in their first season at Anfield, with Lucas Leiva, Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson all subsequently enjoying revivals of form and going on to become mainstays in the side under Rodgers these past few months after struggling at the start of their careers on Merseyside. At just 23 years of age, time is clearly on Allen’s side to do the same, but he’s quickly become one of the more divisive figures in the squad and is often used as a not too subtle lightning rod for those that simply don’t like Rodgers to take aim with easy criticism.
The idea behind getting Allen in over the summer was a logical one born out of a need for the side to bring some sort of controlling presence in midfield, having never really replaced Xabi Alonso, albeit in terms of style more than substance. Rodgers went back on a ‘gentleman’s agreement’ with Swansea not to poach any of their players, which inevitably drove the price further up than it might have been otherwise, but he was seen as an essential cog in the new machine, complete with the requisite style and temperament to make the step up, and his familiarity with the methods at hand saw him initially settle in well.
However, Lucas’ injury back in October saw Allen come to occupy an altogether deeper role in the side, screening just in front of the back four, a role he never really played while at Swansea. Of course, as Nuri Sahin will attest to, Rodgers wants his midfielders to be versatile, not within the positions themselves, but the requirements of the roles they carry out, but Allen’s lack of physical presence saw him pushed and shoved around all too easily and his confidence faded, resulting in him playing unnecessary square ball after another much to Alan Shearer’s distaste. Even those dazzled by pass completion statistics acknowledged that these weren’t even passes played to lure the opposition out and pick holes on the break, but rather a sign of a young man wrestling with his form and in search of a place to hide in his go-to comfort routine of keeping everything ticking over without the underlying threat behind the probing.
Aside from a promising second half cameo during the win over Tottenham, where he helped to wrestle back control of the midfield area which more than contributed to turning the tide and securing a 3-2 win, Allen has been deeply ordinary for well over half the season and an absolute liability at times, bereft of the sort of touch the club forked out £15m for. Even when you factor in his shoulder injury – and why was Rodgers continuing to play him injured anyway? – he has disappointed hugely after such a promising start.
He is playing in a side that for all of the talk of a possession-based philosophy, still often resorts to a direct game on the counter, leaving Allen quite literally stranded, playing a style that not every member of the side is following. It’s a peculiar situation but an inevitable consequence of such a dramatic shift in approach from what Kenny Dalglish had adopted. There is more to it than simply pass and move, which has been described by some as the historical Liverpool way, but the fact that the very methods Rodgers preaches about are somewhat more complex means they are not suited to every individual, and this is why there has been an almost Jekyll and Hyde inconsistency about the team this term, given they are still adjusting to their latest manager and what he wants from them.
His substitution at half-time during the embarrassing 3-1 defeat away at Southampton on Saturday spoke volumes, even after the revelation that Allen has been attempting to shoulder responsibility (pun intended) for that role between the holding man and Steven Gerrard since October. It was the nadir of a troubling campaign. So what are the alternatives?
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Bulking up is an absolute must, even if it means compromising some of the technical fleet-footedness that has become his hallmark, because what use is a talented waif unable to impose himself on the game? Fitness is another key issue and we may well see a different player altogether next season after he has fully recovered from his surgery, while talk of a sale is premature at best.
The worrying aspect of his debut campaign, though, is that in Rodgers preferred three-man midfield, it’s difficult to see which role Allen could occupy in the future, because he doesn’t bring the positional defensive discipline Lucas Leiva does, the energy that Jordan Henderson does or the goal threat and ability to drive forward that Gerrard does. He’s a mish-mash of all three and a jack of all trades, master of none scenario has quickly developed. He hasn’t been helped by the fact that Rodgers has often struggled to come to any sort of definitive decision on what his best triumvirate is either.
There’s a nagging suspicion that Allen was never really required all that much in the first place when you look at the shape and personnel of the squad, but as a firm Rodgers acolyte, he has earned a degree of faith from the man in charge and will feature regardless of many people’s doubts. Spending £15m on him at the time looked a gamble and nearly a season on it doesn’t look like approaching anything close to value for money, even factoring in the inflation and premium you pay for British talent. In hindsight, adding another midfielder to the side when it was crying out for a striker and spending most of the summer budget on one player in a well-stocked position was a gross error of judgement.
Gerrard has been shunted around in various roles in an attempt to accommodate Allen, but the Welshman just ends up looking lost, while Lucas is then bypassed down the flanks. It’s resembled something of a mess at times and is a sad indictment of Rodgers simply failing to get his message across to his players; for a manager that has aligned himself so clearly with a particular style, it should come as quite the embarrassment that he simply cannot ‘fix’ the team’s ropey midfield, seemingly an area of expertise for him.
There is still time for Allen to come good at Anfield, but there’s always pressure on big money signings to perform at Liverpool, strangely, perhaps more than at any other club in the top flight. Henderson and Lucas serve as prime example that the patient path is often the best approach to take with potential, but at the moment, he looks devoid of a role and in search of a place in the team to call his own. The side has developed around him and then left him behind, becoming more fluid and balanced without him and that is the real concern in what has been a season to forget for the diminutive schemer.
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