Cast your mind back to August, Joe Allen is standing tall as the golden boy, set to orchestrate a potentially golden era on Merseyside. His refusal to concede possession, a trait once reserved for the sunny shores of Spain, has already begun to wash away a relentless feeling of frustration among the Anfield faithful. Oh, how times change.
Last Sunday, the 22-year-old’s dismal performance in the defeat at Old Trafford provoked a barrage of criticism from a number of Liverpool legends. Jan Molby claimed Allen had not showed any sign of progression; John Aldridge lamented his inability to makes things happen while Steve McMahon insisted the young Welshman was “nothing but a 5-yard passer”.
Has the midfielder bore the brunt of negativity from the emotions that encapsulate a fierce rivalry or have his performances slipped to an unacceptable level?
Allen was the standout summer purchase under the new Brendan Rodgers’ regime, a sign of intent that Liverpool would seek to emulate the silky football that served Swansea so well last season. The £15m price tag was somewhat inflated but Rodgers had acquired a player he could use as a template and a familiar face that would make replacing ‘the King’ slightly less daunting.
Rodgers is a stout advocate of the phrase, ‘if you have the ball, the other team can’t score’ and while there are no better players in possession, Allen’s antics without the ball are increasingly detrimental. Many pundits were quick to compare him with Paul Scholes and I would completely agree, considering neither player seems capable of executing a clean or successful tackle.
In the game against Manchester United, Allen was guilty of an unrecognisable anxiety and conducted several ‘hospital’ passes. His struggles were not exactly helped by Liverpool’s persistence on playing out from the back, a lesson not learned from their defeat to Stoke, but in a desperate attempt to redeem himself, he ended up running around like a headless chicken on a freshly varnished floor.
Perhaps his performance was merely a result of playing on one of the most intimidating stages in the world, against a team he supported as a boy but I would argue his displays have been suffering a gradual decline for a while. The art of ball retention is an incredibly taxing skill, one that is increasingly difficult to perfect in the intensified environment of English football. The physical and mental demands that come from such a revered playing style are clearly beginning to take their toll on such young shoulders.
Furthermore, the pressure of playing alongside club talisman Steven Gerrard must be overwhelming. Plenty of experienced professionals including Christian Poulsen and Alberto Aquilani have failed to establish themselves in recent years, so perhaps our expectation of Allen goes beyond the realms of reason. However, at 32, Gerrard’s ageing legs cannot be expected to drive the team forward in the same manner as before, meaning there will soon be a vacancy, desperately needed to be filled.
“Joe, offensively, has more than what a lot of people have seen, just because he’s had to play more of a sitting role. That comes when Lucas is back.” (Guardian)
Rodgers’ insists there is plenty more to come from Allen further up the pitch but there doesn’t seem to be a recognised format for all three central midfielders to slot into. Under Rafael Benitez, Mascherano would sit, Alonso would probe and Gerrard would lurk behind Torres but nowadays Gerrard, Allen and Lucas are all squashed together in deep-lying defensive roles.
Over the past two seasons, the rest of the Premier League elite have purchased formidable playmakers that thrive in the hole. Manchester City have Silva, Arsenal have Cazorla and Chelsea are blessed with the choice of Mata, Oscar or Hazard. Liverpool do not possess such a distinguished individual and although Luis Suarez has been tipped to drop deeper to accommodate the arrival of Daniel Sturridge, Rodgers may be reluctant to castrate his main threat in front of goal.
Perhaps Liverpool need a ruthless box-to-box midfielder, a player that will operate along the spine of the team. Of course this is easier said than done, the likes of Ramires, Yaya Toure and Marouane Fellaini are all unrealistic and unaffordable targets. However, may I suggest West Ham’s Mohamed Diame, a player Liverpool were courting under Kenny Dalglish and one that could be available for just £3.5m.
I emphasise with those Liverpool fans tired of waiting for a return to the top of the table. It must be difficult to remain positive when your Mancunian rivals are gearing up for yet another title race and your neighbours look more likely to obtain a Champions League place. The key is patience, especially with Joe Allen, who may not be a match-winner in his own right but will be integral to the art of winning matches under Brendan Rodgers.