Despite inheriting a squad full of midfielders, and a team that had struggled to score goals, Rodgers’ main transfer target was the diminutive Welsh man.
Out went Aquilani (who despite recovering his fitness was never given a chance by a string of managers), then Charlie Adam (whose great range of passing did not compensate for his snail-like pace, poor tackling and penchant for the Hollywood pass) and nearly Henderson (who despite an up and down first season had just turned 22 and is England’s under-21 captain).
In came Joe.
A couple of games into a difficult start to the season the much anticipated return of Lucas was dealt a big blow with his thigh injury vs. Man City. Allen, still only 22, found himself as the holding midfield player (or deep-lying playmaker if you prefer) and through a series of combative displays coupled with tidy possession and good movement, he began to impress.
Rodgers loves to use extremities in his praise, and no other player has been called ‘outstanding’, ‘fantastic’ or ‘brilliant’ quite as much as Allen. But issues started to be raised.
Alan Shearer on Match of the Day stated Joe Allen passed sideways and backwards too much when there were better options forward. With Liverpool continually struggling to win games Allen was scrutinised more and more – he was getting out-muscled too often, he only played simple passes, he only played the ball along the ground and he doesn’t look to be penetrative.
Brendan Rodgers has often come to Allen’s aid in the press, claiming Shearer doesn’t understand the requirements of the position (although Pirlo and Alonso, probably the two best in that role, don’t have problems being creative from deeper positions) and that Allen is much better in a more advanced position (despite only scoring 7 goals in 130 games for Swansea).
Well, Lucas is back now. Our sorely missed Brazilian is not yet at his peak but we’ve won both Premier League games he’s started. An interesting stat from Opta showed that while Allen and the mysteriously under-used Sahin mainly pass to Skrtel and Agger, the player Lucas has passed to most since his return is Gerrard.
The West Ham game was another interesting barometer.
This was far from our best game, even if we did have 61% possession, and for large periods we were continually pummelled airily by the Hammers. Our centre-halves and Lucas were certainly earning their wages but Joe Allen, like for much of the last month, was struggling to make an impact. Diame is a tough player to handle, but while Lucas & Gerrard lost out at times (e.g. Gerrard’s booking scything down Diame when on the counter attack) , they were both able to come back and still win duels against him and effect our play positively when we did have the ball. Allen, playing in his favoured midfield role, made little impact on the game defensively or offensively.
Few would blame him for the penalty, and there’s no doubt he worked as hard as he could, but the positional sense and game intelligence I was hoping to see was lacking. In the difficult middle period of the game, when Pepe had possession and Lucas and the two centre-backs were being marked, Joe wasn’t giving Pepe an option, leading too often to a long kick forward and a loss of possession. Furthermore, he kept giving the ball away when attempting fairly standard passes, something he wasn’t doing at the beginning of the season.
Brendan Rodgers has acknowledged his dip in form, partly putting it down to becoming a new father and more sleepless nights. In certain situations it’s okay to just keep the ball ticking over but at a club like Liverpool you need to do more to earn your place. Certainly there have been times when Sahin or Shelvey should have started but Rodgers’ eagerness to prove the value of his new signing (much like Kenny repeatedly played Henderson at right midfield when Kuyt was a better choice) is clouding his judgment.
Henderson still has a lot to prove, but there was an improvement when he came on – Jordan using his energy well to both harry the opposition and get forward on the break, making the key cross for our winner. Clearly Diame going off injured made as big a difference as Jordan’s introduction, but when in the entire game did Allen make a run like Henderson did for the goal?
Allen is a talented young player, but at the moment Sahin is better technically, Suso is a better passer, Henderson is more athletic and Shelvey is far more dangerous offensively. Joe looks like he’s struggling for confidence while every performance is bringing added criticism. Xabi Alonso cost £10.7m in 2004 as a young 23 year old and the £15 million paid for Allen is a similar amount taking into account football inflation. Clearly Joe is a very different type of midfielder to Xabi, but if Joe is really worth £15m, how much is Jonjo worth at just 20 years of age?
The jury’s out on Joe at the moment, a good start followed by a disappointing dip. The first thing Brendan should do, so his remaining confidence isn’t completely shot, is take him out of the firing line and reintroduce him after he’s had some good rest and time to work out his problems on the training field. With Luis back against Villa, I certainly hope to see the deserving Shelvey joining Lucas and Gerrard in our midfield on Saturday.