England to shoehorn Liverpool’s action man?

Daniel Storey

When Jurgen Klopp was announced as Liverpool manager in October 2015, you imagine that Adam Lallana might have been in pensive mood. Having arrived from Southampton at ‘finished product’ age, Lallana’s form was one of the many influences in Brendan Rodgers’ departure.

Lallana’s injury record was poor, and his playmaking abilities were significantly below that of Philippe Coutinho. At 27, he had become a £25m jack of all trades, the transfer fee hanging like an albatross around his neck. That hardly looked like changing under his new manager. There’s no point playing heavy metal football if you get a stitch before you’ve even started on the album tracks.

During Klopp’s first eight months in charge, we saw little evidence to doubt the suspicion. Lallana worked hard in his right midfield role, but that’s the bare minimum you expect of an expensive international midfielder. His two party tricks were the Cruyff turn bizarrely executed on the byline and his inevitable substitution to muted applause, often looking like he’d run a marathon on a hangover.

But the first potential victim of Klopp’s demand for high pressing has become its biggest success story. After struggling on the right or left wing, Lallana has been transformed into a member of a central midfield three by his manager. That gives new signing Sadio Mane the licence to attack without the responsibility of tracking back, and means Lallana sees more of the ball but in deeper areas.

Rather than worry about Lallana’s late-game fatigue, Klopp has embraced it. Rather than worrying about his midfielder lasting the full 90 minutes, Klopp has turned Lallana into a 70-minute sprinter. In five of Liverpool’s 11 league games he has been Liverpool’s first substituted player, and twice more the second. Yet against Watford and West Brom, no player covered more ground per minute. Now Lallana is not substituted to mild Anfield applause, but standing ovation. He has five assists and three goals in his new position.

With James Milner now at full-back, Lallana is also the most senior player of Liverpool’s new-look front six, and only Milner is older in Klopp’s first-choice XI. The work ethic and desire were always there, but Klopp has channelled them for the good of the collective. No longer will Lallana run down a blind alley, no longer will he twist and turn for the sake of twisting and turning.

Lallana has the same energy, but far greater efficiency. Rather than a chance creator (2.13 per 90 down to 1.51 per 90), Klopp realises that there are better men for that job, and the same goes for wide players and No.10s. Instead, Lallana the central midfielder is attempting 11 more passes per 90 minutes and having eight more touches of the ball as the link between Henderson and the front three. Jack of all trades in the final third has been re-branded as the perfect selfless midfielder.

“I see a lot more of the ball. When I was out wide, there would be periods in the game where I wouldn’t be as involved in the game as I would like,” Lallana told Premier League Productions last month.

“I’m sure anyone would say they want to be on the ball as much as possible. In the central area I’m getting a lot more touches on the ball and I’m being able to use one of my qualities.” That describes a player previously guilty of trying too hard to impress on his more fleeting opportunities, and one now revitalised.

When you read those quotes, you do wonder what Lallana must make of Gareth Southgate’s likely decision to play him as a right winger against Scotland, and certainly in a formation that doesn’t match his club position. Even Plan B doesn’t fit: Should Harry Kane not be fit to start and therefore Wayne Rooney selected as a striker, Lallana will be asked to play No. 10. 

Furthermore, if Southgate selects a midfield of Eric Dier, Henderson, Raheem Sterling, Lallana and Rooney behind Harry Kane, none of England’s five midfielders will be playing in the position where they last appeared for their club. I like what you did to get into the squad, now let’s change it.

Even by usual standards of shoehorning players, that’s some effort, but it’s also exactly what England did against Slovenia. Rashford played on the right having played on the left for Manchester United, Jesse Lingard played on the left having played on the right, Henderson played in a midfield two rather than a three at Liverpool, Eric Dier played in central midfield having played in defence against Sunderland before getting injured and Dele Alli played as a No. 10 having played as a deeper central midfielder for Tottenham against Manchester City. Don’t be surprised if we look disjointed again.

It’s impossible to get everyone into their best position, but also hard not to think that Southgate is either missing a trick or wilfully ignorinh one. In Lallana and Henderson, he has two of England’s form players this season (for club, not country), both excelling in a three-man midfield. Would a three-man midfield of Dier, Henderson and Lallana with Sterling right and Marcus Rashford left of Kane or Rooney not make more sense?

In changing what has worked for Klopp and other managers, Southgate might be risking weakening England’s own chances. With Lallana, it’s in danger of curbing a wonderful improvement. One of the best midfielders of this Premier League season is still being mis-sold as Mr Versatile at international level.


Daniel Storey

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