Joe Allen: 5 Areas of Improvement Next Season

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Clive Brunskill/Getty Images
Philippe Coutinho, Iago Aspas, Jordan Henderson, Luis Alberto, Stewart Downing, Joe Allen.

Discounting the versatile Luis Suarez, who might be on his way out of Liverpool anyway, the anonymous Oussama Assaidi and reserves Suso, Raheem Sterling, Jordon Ibe and Jonjo Shelvey, that’s six players considered first-team options in Liverpool’s attacking midfield.

And that’s also excluding Daniel Sturridge, who has experience drifting in from wide, and Steven Gerrard, who has been moved back to a more withdrawn playmaking role.

After an excellent start to life following his £15 million move from Swansea City last summer, Joe Allen’s form dipped spectacularly as he transitioned from a mainstay to a passenger to an observer. (We placed him in the attacking midfield bracket above as he cameoed in such a role in the second half of the season, though he will obviously also be considered in a deeper position.)

With such formidable competition in the first team next season, how can the Wales international keep his place in Brendan Rodgers’ team?

Here are five areas of improvement for Joe Allen in the coming season.

 

Fitness

The first order of business is physical fitness.

Joe Allen notably struggled with a shoulder injury since October, according to the Liverpool Echo, which impacted his performances for the club as he gradually diminished in influence and physical presence.

Early in the season, when Liverpool struggled to adapt to Brendan Rodgers’ new system, Allen was the standout performer in the heart of the midfield, and even when Lucas was out due to injury, he filled in as a defensive midfielder with impressive ease.

When news emerged of his injury troubles, his drop in form became understandable, but the bigger question was why Rodgers continued to play him despite the shoulder problems.

Allen ultimately missed the end of the season, so he will have had a full summer of rehabilitation before returning to action in the first team.

If he does get over his injuries, perhaps Liverpool fans can see Allen return to his previous good form?

 

Tackling

Standing at a diminutive 5’6″, Joe Allen’s size does not constitute as an advantage considering that he plays at the center of midfield in a physical and fast-paced league.

While the aforementioned shoulder injury had a part to play in his less wholehearted physical performances after October, the turning point for his confidence (and subsequently, his form) was arguably the 2-2 away draw at Everton on October 28, when Allen proved an unfortunate mismatch against the formidable Marouane Fellaini.

What Allen lacks in stature, unfortunately, it seems he also lacks in tackling. In the previously listed EPLIndex analysis piece, in a comparison with 13 other Premier League central midfielders, Allen’s tackle success rate was the lowest, at a mere 64.81 percent.

That he conversely ranked near the top for minutes per possession won (10) had a lot to do with his interceptions, for which he deserves credit. But he also placed bottom in the minutes-per-defensive-error chart (384), which will be a cause for concern.

If he is to establish himself in a high-energy, pressing midfielder who’s focused on winning the ball back, he will need to rely on far more than just his anticipation.

(Stats from @Kopology‘s excellent article in EPLIndex.)

 

Transitioning in the Counterattack

Early last season, when Brendan Rodgers’ new Liverpool side was largely focused on replicating his Swansea successes, much of the approach play was concentrated in short passes and dominating possession in the midfield.

Joe Allen, who thrived in his debut season in the Premier League in such a system, unsurprisingly stood out as the player most comfortable on the pitch. Even the likes of Steven Gerrard struggled at the beginning, when Liverpool were trying to find form on the pitch.

As the Reds’ identity began to change during the season, however, things started looking different.

There was much more variability to the attack. While keeping possession was still an important facet of an evolving Liverpool, more long balls were used, especially as Gerrard got into his rhythm of spraying passes all over the pitch from his deeper playmaking position, while counterattacks became much more efficient and devastating.

Add in the speedy January signings in Philippe Coutinho and Daniel Sturridge, and suddenly, Liverpool became a team that pounced on the break and could break past opponents if necessary.

A Joe Allen who is most adept at recycling the ball soon found himself out of the team (though his injuries had played a major part as well).

To get his place back, he will need to make up for lost time and catch up with a new, slicker Liverpool.

 

Final Ball

Stewart Downing made the headlines in his first season at Anfield for notching zero goals and assists, despite being known as a fine crosser of the ball.

So a Welsh Xavi that draws blanks in both areas (in league play) will be equally frustrating and surprising.

It’s not that Allen isn’t good at passing. He is: At an average 89.7 percent pass success rate, he was the most accomplished passer in the midfield and forward areas.

But a simple drill into passing statistics explains his lack of a telling contribution to the Liverpool attack: With 0.8 key passes and zero through-balls per game, Allen just didn’t impress. Compare that to Steven Gerrard, who averaged 2.6 and 0.3, and Philippe Coutinho (1.5, 0.8), and the difference becomes clearer.

A single-faceted midfield player may thrive in a single-minded game, but in an ambitious Liverpool side aiming to vary attacking approaches, Allen needs to vastly up his impact in terms of the final ball.

(Stats from WhoScored.com.)

 

Shooting and Goalscoring

Now, it’s all well and good for a central or defensive midfielder to play a simple game and not manage a single goal throughout a league campaign. (Joe Allen did score two goals elsewhere, against Oldham Athletic in the FA Cup and against Zenit St. Petersburg in the Europe League.)

But as a player who has the positional and technical awareness to cameo as an attacking midfielder, and as a central/defensive midfielder lacking in the previous attributes, perhaps a little more contribution in terms of goals is in order.

Joe Allen simply does not possess the power in his shots to contribute goals from long range, nor the composure and finishing required to put away clear-cut chances. His usual position further behind the attack prevents him from getting in the thick of the action.

Who wouldn’t welcome a Joe Allen who added goals to his game?

But focus on improving the first four aspects and that will already be enough to secure Allen a place in the first team this season.

 

This article first appeared on Bleacher Report, where I contribute regularly on Liverpool and other Premier League-related matters.

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English Football Weekly: Week 2 Recap; Fulham’s BT Outrage; Final Week of Transfers

EPL Week 2 Recap: Routines, Blanks and Upsets

Simply because the bore draw between Manchester United and Chelsea doesn’t really deserve center stage in any weekend roundup do we give it just that. But we should’ve known, for this was David Moyes’ first big game as United boss, and Jose Mourinho’s first in his second reign at Stamford Bridge. Mourinho’s team selection—a curious 4-6-0 with no Juan Mata or Fernando Torres—overshadowed the match itself, while Wayne Rooney’s performance overshadowed the teamsheets in turn. All the same, it will be seen as a point gained for Chelsea, and for United, an uncertain buildup to Liverpool this weekend.

Speaking of Liverpool, they’re one of two teams who still hold a 100% record this season. And we’re only two games in. This is a big deal at Anfield though: It’s been five seasons since they’ve won their first two league matches. Daniel Sturridge, just as he was against Stoke City last weekend, was the match-winner this time around at Villa Park, as Liverpool transitioned from a dominant possession-heavy side to a deep defensive shape against the young counterattacking pace and power of Aston Villa. Whisper it quietly—but could Kolo Toure and Simon Mignolet actually be upgrades on Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina?

The other team is, of course, Tottenham Hotspur, and that’s not the only similarity: They’ve also only scored two goals in two matches, both from the same striker. Different from Sturridge’s two excellent match-winners, however, is that both of Spurs’ goals have come from the spot. Roberto Soldado has proven a reliable option from 12 yards, and the Mousa Dembele-Etienne Capoue-Paulinho midfield triumvirate looks formidable and indomitable. What Andre Villas-Boas has to solve now, given that Gareth Bale looks even closer to the exit, is finding that player to link the midfield play with Soldado. Erik Lamela will do just fine.

Swansea City got outplayed on the ball by a confident and powerful Spurs, but that wasn’t the only upset of the weekend. By now, you’ll have heard about newly-promoted Cardiff City’s famous 3-2 home win over big-spending Manchester City. Cue the headlines about money not being important and that football will still triumph at times. Of course, such headlines ignore the fact that Cardiff may still face a hard season ahead, and City will in all probability finish in the top two. Anyway. Manuel Pellegrini and Joe Hart have a lot of work to do—and who better to have scored the winner than ex-United man Frazier Campbell? Karma, eh?

Oh, Modern Football…

This season, followers and viewers of the Premier League in England will have another broadcaster to choose from: BT Sport have joined Sky in carrying PL coverage, and have already been competing to gain viewers with a variety of different features and attractions. (Brian Barwick has more on the Daily Mail.) Unfortunately, there are inevitable downsides to those fans who still decide to attend matches live—and as Fulham fans found out at Craven Cottage on Saturday against Arsenal, it might prove to be a long season in the stands. The reason? BT’s new cameras are quite blatantly blocking the view of season ticket holders.

Now, it’s all well and good to be advancing with the times when it comes to studio technology, and BT (and Sky) have done excellent work improving their coverage. But surely the core of football is the fans at the stadiums, and no amount of media rights or television deals should obscure this fact. It gets a bit tricky when older stadiums like Craven Cottage are involved, as they’ll likely require more intricate planning and reconstruction to allow for this type of equipment to be installed. But BT’s statement in response didn’t just lack class; it was a slap in the face to the match-going Fulham faithful.

“BT doesn’t decide where cameras are placed at Premier League football grounds, but we always try to minimize the impact of them for fans at the match. We’re sorry if any fans at Craven Cottage are upset by the camera position, but hope that thousands of Fulham and Arsenal supporters, who couldn’t make it to the match, enjoyed the game on BT Sport.” (Daily Mail) Given the choice, I suspect those supporters to plump for the insight and analyses of Jamie Carragher and Gary Neville—who are fast proving to be a star draw—than the monotonic commentary of Michael Owen. Just sayin’.

Loans at Anfield and Blockbusters at the Emirates

Rejoice, for it’s the last week of the summer transfer window! What’s been an interesting start to the season—with a new era of unpredictability across Premier League results, and with the enhanced coverage that has been introduced to TV audiences—has been obscured by the long-running sagas that have dominated the summer. When is Gareth Bale moving to Real Madrid? Wayne Rooney to Chelsea? Willian to Liverpool—sorry, Spurs—sorry, Chelsea? What’s Joe Kinnear doing to stop players arriving at Newcastle United? Is Arsene Wenger ever going to sign someone?

Quietly doing their work behind all the smoke and (lack of) fire are Liverpool, who are still doing this work now because their previous work to land Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Diego Costa and Willian failed. So it’s time to knuckle down and actually aim for realistic targets, which is why the rumors of Juan Mata making a move to Anfield have died down and those linking Victor Moses with the Reds have ramped up. Linked to Liverpool back in the Rafa Benitez days, Moses has fallen off his star at Chelsea, but still has loads of potential. Not a marquee signing for sure, but look at Toure and Mignolet for more reasons to believe in the “transfer committee.”

Over at the Emirates Stadium—where they’re reportedly smoking something—there finally seems to be some activity. Yes, that’s right, a “chief negotiator” has arrived at Arsenal’s London Headquarters to work on transfers, according to the Daily Mail, which makes you think why he didn’t do that a couple of months earlier, when he’d still have time to get signings in, you know, before the season actually started. Two seasons ago, that infamous loss to United prompted some frantic last-gasp transfer activity. The Gunners are being linked with Karim Benzema and Angel Di Maria this week—but last time around, it was Andre Santos. Watch this space.

 

This piece was part of my English Football Weekly column for SWOL.co.