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Daniel Sturridge, who has experience drifting in from wide, and Steven Gerrard, who has been moved back to a more withdrawn playmaking role.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.
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?
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.
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.