“He makes other people play better. He’s got to go in the team, you have to take one of the central midfield three out. You have to, he’s just that good and that important.”
That was Jamie Carragher extolling the virtues of Adam Lallana in May while describing the England midfielder as Liverpool’s best player last season. Eight months, half a season on the sidelines and a Philippe Coutinho exit later, Carragher’s words still ring true.
The defeat at Swansea on Monday night was evidence that while many things have changed at Anfield, so much remains the same. Following the stirring, thrilling win over Manchester City, Jurgen Klopp’s side were largely listless and uninspiring against the Premier League’s bottom side, who they had smashed 5-0 not four weeks ago. This was the perfect opportunity to put together five consecutive league wins for the first time under Klopp. Instead, they reverted to the maddeningly inconsistent team that seemingly refuses to rid itself of its flaws.
With domination of possession, missed sitters for each of the front three, and yet another goal conceded from a set-piece, all that was missing was for their keeper to chuck one in. Loris Karius was blameless on this occasion, though the fact the Swans netted with one of their two shots on target was very much typical. Between them, Karius and Simon Mignolet have the worst shots saved percentage in the Premier League, despite facing the third fewest shots on target.
Klopp is apparently hoping that the signing of Virgil van Dijk will reassure whoever is wearing the gloves, while at the other end – though they have lost Coutinho – ready to step straight in is Lallana.
So it was a surprise to some that Klopp opted to begin with the playmaker on the bench, just as it was that it took so long for the manager to look to his replacements. With the front three of Roberto Firmino, Mo Salah and Sadio Mane all getting caught up in the Swansea traffic, just as Carlos Carvalhal planned, the Reds were crying out for creativity from deep. Emre Can – skipper for the night, despite the fact he is currently free to flirt with other clubs – Georginio Wijnaldum and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain have their qualities but none of that trio is renowned for driving through defences or finding alternative routes around roadblocks.
Lallana has praised Klopp for holding him back but tonight was the night to let him off the leash. “Maybe it is credit to the manager over the last few games, holding me back. I had good training sessions but I am back now,” said Lallana after his first start following three substitute appearances. The 29-year-old played 86 minutes of the 2-1 win over Burnley on New Year’s Day before getting another 70 minutes under his belt during the FA Cup win over Everton four days later.
Quite rightly, Klopp opted for a solid midfield three against Manchester City last week. But, facing an entirely different challenge at the Liberty Stadium, Klopp offered the same answer.
We know now it was wrong. Was his decision borne out of loyalty to the players who so valiantly stripped City of their unbeaten run? Whatever his reasoning, it cannot be that Lallana still needs nursing back into action.
His first involvement immediately after coming on with 22 minutes remaining was to receive the ball on the half-turn from Karius, drive through a Swansea defender and his cover before breaking another line with a pass into Sadio Mane’s feet. It was the type of urgency that Liverpool had lacked in the first three-quarters of the game.
His appearance at Burnley, where he covered more distance than any other player before his late withdrawal, suggested Lallana’s engine was ticking over just fine so his inclusion in midfield would not have left Liverpool short of industry. As it was, they were desperately lacking imagination and drive, which is exactly what Coutinho used to offer and what Lallana can provide now.
Two fixtures in the coming week must provide a platform for Lallana. Swansea have given West Brom and Huddersfield a blueprint for when Liverpool go to the Hawthorns in the FA Cup this weekend before heading to West Yorkshire next Tuesday.
Maybe Klopp has already decided that the try-hard trio he fielded against City and on Monday night will form the midfield unit against Spurs in a fortnight when they look to avenge their last defeat prior to this Swansea surrender. But, post-Coutinho, the Reds boss should be looking to Lallana to recover their creative deficit.