Daniel Sturridge is a brave man. Three goals in three games for his new club might suggest otherwise, but his decision to come to Liverpool was certainly a risky one; as any failed signing of the past three years could tell him, the benefit of the doubt is something rarely afforded to a new face beyond their first press conference. Those bountiful reserves of patience which the fanbase could once pride themselves on, have run dry. It is, we might say, just as well that Sturridge has started so prolifically – with a ratio of anything less than one goal per-game, who knows how quickly his stock might have fallen.
Every player, though, goes through rough patches. Take Joe Allen, whose superlative early form (and there should be no doubt that it was just that) has crumbled along with his confidence, leaving the Welshman out of favour with the manager who brought him to the club and subject to a variety of criticisms from supporters – some fair, some less so. In this kind of situation, it’s important to recognise the value of standing by your man; Allen’s current performances are patently not good enough for first team football, but most of us should be able to see that his potential value remains unaltered.
There is a degree of irony in what Brendan Rodgers is being advised to do by most Liverpool fans. Drop Allen, they say, and play Henderson instead. Of course, a short walk down memory lane tells us that, in the pre-Brendan era, it was Henderson himself who was the foremost subject of the Kop’s ire. Too many of us focused on his price tag, his timidity, his inexperience, his mid-table club history – each of these forming a consensus of mediocrity that, frankly, ruined his debut year in red. Blame too must be laid at the door of the media, who are as guilty as anyone, and perhaps Dalglish as well, given his decision to play him on the right of midfield, but we shouldn’t shy away from our own culpabilities. If we weren’t hounding his performances, then most of us were, at best, too slow to defend the positive aspects of his game. We knew there was a great player in there somewhere, but weren’t willing to provide the backing he needed to emerge. Sound familiar?
I don’t get to see many games live. Like most reading this, I don’t live in, or near Liverpool, nor do I have the money to go travelling around the country to follow them. In September 2012, however, I was fortunate enough to see Liverpool trounce Norwich at Carrow Road. Suarez was the star of the show, with Suso and Sahin also impressing, but only Joe Allen held my attention for the entirety of the 90 minutes. It was a game in which his side accounted for 63% of possession, and having camped out in the opposition half for most of the game, scored five goals in a league fixture for the first time since May 2011. It was, two sloppy conceded goals aside, the kind of performance for fans to savour; the one time I felt comfortable using the two most expectation-laden words in a Liverpool fan’s vernacular: tiki-taka. They were, quite simply, superb.
As far as Allen’s performance goes, however, there’s a catch. In this instance, as was the case throughout the opening quarter of the season, he played in a deeper role, seeking out possession when it was lost, breaking up opposition attacks, and recycling the ball to the attack-minded Gerrard and Sahin. To this extent his persistence, composure and vision were all perfectly utilised. These are skills which are frequently undervalued by sections of the fanbase, but it isn’t, as they would claim, as simple as ‘passing five yards sideways’ and refusing to get ‘stuck in’ – there’s a real value to the team in what he can do. Allen, when somewhere near peak confidence, has a gift for frustrating the opposition and taking the pressure off his teammates. As anyone who read Liam Tomkins’s piece on what we can expect from a Brendan Rodgers team last year will testify, winning the ball in the right places is crucial to building and sustaining attacks further up the pitch. In the deeper role, with regard to ‘The Four P’s’, we can tick the boxes ‘pressure’, ‘possession’ and ‘patience’ without question.
As I said, though, there’s a catch. In recent months, he has been moved further upfield, a freedom granted by Lucas Leiva’s return from injury. To judge him fairly, we need to consider his varying success in both of these role. In the earliest stages of Rodgers’s tenure he promised, perhaps unwisely, that we would see the best of Allen in this position; that the (frankly ludicrous) ‘Welsh Xavi’ label would be justified with 90 minutes of incisive passing from his £15m signing. Even this writer, an evident fan of Allen, can’t defend his performances to date in the advanced midfield role. As far as ‘penetration’ goes, he lacks the confidence, vision and strength to dominate games in the areas of the pitch that he is being asked to command. He excelled there at Swansea, but, clearly, is struggling to express himself similarly at his new club, and to this extent, as much as Dalglish was guilty of playing Henderson in a role outside of his comfort zone, so too Rodgers must recognise that Allen is not yet ready to be moved from his deeper role. No tick this time, then.
But remember this: Allen is 22 years old. As was the case with Henderson last year compared to the present day, he will learn through trial-and-error where his strengths lie and in what ways he can improve. Allen may well flourish as an attack-minded midfielder, he might instead develop into a more sophisticated version of the player I witnessed at Norwich; for now, the most important thing is that his his progress is not inhibited by the excessive, persistent, pernickety scepticism that has crept into the collective supporter’s mindset over recent years. The extreme short-sightedness shown towards Jordan Henderson last year almost saw him sold in August. Imagine if he had gone. Imagine if Liverpool had lost that dynamism, alertness and hunger – all because of our lack of willingness to give a young player the time to shine.
Let’s not risk making the same mistakes all over again. Give Joe Allen the time to prove himself; in a year’s time, when he’s put in a match-winning (or match-saving) performance, when he’s repaid Rodgers’s faith, when he’s celebrating in front of the Kop, you’ll feel good for backing him. After all, what else are we here for?
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