The notion of who might replace Barcelona’s £142million signing Philippe Coutinho at Liverpool has been a common source of inspiration for the Premier League’s transfer rumour mongers since the big-money move was confirmed earlier this week. But in truth, Liverpool don’t need a successor to their chief playmaker, and his departure actually leaves the Reds a more functional, balanced and formulaic side – primarily due to the presence one man, Adam Lallana.
The England international’s return from injury is timely, because Liverpool need his services now more than ever. Assuming the Reds won’t spend big this month on another talent who also uniquely encompasses the roles of a wide forward and an attacking midfielder, Lallana now stands alone as the only out-and-out offensive playmaker in Jurgen Klopp’s senior squad.
While Mohamed Salah remains Liverpool’s pinnacle talent and Sadio Mane is capable of causing similar damage from the opposite flank, Lallana is now the real brains of Klopp’s attacking operation – the man possessing the intelligence, passing range and fluidity to change the angle of attacks and link the midfield to the forwards.
Rather than simply exploiting space on the counter or dribbling through the opposition in close quarters, like Mane and Salah, Lallana has that unique ability to unlock defences with the ball.
And it’s a role we know Lallana is capable of; prior to his current bout on the sidelines, back when Coutinho and Mane were part of the same attacking trio, it was the 29-year-old Liverpool counted on to provide the hub of creativity at the tip of the engine room, notching up eight goals and seven assists last season while averaging 1.4 key chances per match – the most of any Liverpool midfielder.
Salah’s arrival created a problem, however, that Coutinho’s departure has now inadvertently solved. Coutinho is a big loss to the Reds midseason but, placing Lallana alongside him in a three-man midfield would always be a gamble because of their lightweight nature. The sale to Barcelona, though, has ended the debate over whether Coutinho should be part of the forward line or in midfield, and Lallana can now take up the latter role without disturbing the balance of Klopp’s side.
In fact, it arguably improves Liverpool’s balance, firstly because wingers are now in winger positions and midfielders are in midfield positions, but more crucially because Lallana has always been a key player for Klopp off the ball as well.
Pressing from the front has been a defining feature of the Reds’ play under the German and Lallana was very much the leader of the press last season; not only in terms of all-round energy and the ability to cover big distances, but also the fact he was often the trigger – the man who suddenly stepped out of shape to put pressure on the opposition, signalling for his team-mates to push up the pitch as well. Coutinho is a phenomenal technical talent and Klopp never raised issue with his work-rate, but he just wasn’t as significant to Liverpool’s defensive game-plan in quite the same way.
If last season gave a lengthy glimpse of how important Lallana can be for Liverpool, the remainder of the current one allows the chance for him to prove it in more permanent terms. And with the 2018 World Cup just around the corner, that can only be good news for Gareth Southgate’s England team.
A fully-fit Lallana should have a strong chance of making the squad anyway, but the next six months is essentially an audition for whether he can solve the Three Lions’ biggest selection conundrum – who can offer something more than simply physical robustness and defensive awareness in central midfield?
Lallana, albeit playing in a slightly deeper role than what we’ve seen from him at Liverpool, could well be the answer alongside a sturdier presence like Jordan Henderson or Eric Dier, and Coutinho’s departure paves the way for the 33-cap international to prove it.
In any case, even if Southgate seeks a solution elsewhere, the Brazilian’s exit has reinstated Lallana as one of Liverpool’s most important personnel, both with and without the ball. With a huge clash against Manchester City on the horizon, there’s no better time for the former Southampton man to show he’s still capable of undertaking that responsibility.