If you were to look back on the statistics of Liverpool’s 2016-2017 season, you would see how a strong performance by several members of the squad allowed Liverpool to return to the top four, something which has been highlighted in any tactical analysis of that season. One of the stars of that Liverpool side two seasons ago was Adam Lallana, who following a torrid 2017-2018 campaign, made only his second league start of 2018 in the away match against Huddersfield as he looks to make his mark this season and re-find the form that made him such a crucial player before his injury woes.
What’s Lallana’s position?
For much of the 2016-17 season, Lallana’s best in a Liverpool shirt, the fleet-footed Englishman was used in a central area. Playing a deeper role than in previous years, he won many plaudits for his work-rate and the way he pushed the midfield up and “set the press” with lung-bursting runs to close opposition defenders down as close to their own goal as possible. However, it is worth highlighting that Lallana provided more than just hard-work, contributing eight goals and seven assists in an impressive season all-around that is often forgotten because of the brilliance of Phillipe Coutinho, Roberto Firmino and Sadio Mane in front of him.
However, even though his best form for Liverpool has come from the centre of midfield, for the Huddersfield game, Lallana lined up on the left wing with the central position taken up by Xherdan Shaqiri, with the Swiss international being the more natural wide man because of his explosive style. However, it is this attribute that may have influenced Jurgen Klopp into starting Shaqiri centrally and Lallana out wide.
In the second half of last season, following the sale of Coutinho and in Lallana’s continued absence, Klopp moved another natural winger into the creative central midfield role in Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain. Upon doing this, the whole of the Liverpool side appeared to have greater balance with Oxlade-Chamberlain using his impressive fitness levels to start in Liverpool’s defensive shape before surging forward and causing opposition defences problems.
With Liverpool struggling creatively in the midfield so far this season, Klopp wanted to replicate the Oxlade-Chamberlain effect as much as possible by playing Shaqiri here instead of Lallana. However, playing out wide meant that Lallana’s clever turns and close control were underutilised and with him still returning to fitness following his succession of injuries, he was unable to provide support to Andrew Robertson in the defensive third, leaving the Scot exposed in a way that would have been punished by stronger opposition.
How much game time is Lallana going to get?
It is obvious that in the last year Lallana has gone from being a key player in this Liverpool side to a player on the fringes of the squad due to his lack of game time. However, over the course of the season, Lallana will be afforded game time during which he will need to show his undoubted quality if he wants to appear with more regularity. But, he may find that if Liverpool’s midfield continues to struggle creatively and Shaqiri does not prove to be the solution in the centre of the park, he could be the man Klopp turns to due to him being the most creative midfielder currently at the club.
Lallana’s best season in the top-flight in terms of goals and assists came in the 2013/14 season while he was still at Southampton with him bagging nine goals and eight assists, marginally better than Shaqiri’s best season in a top European division, where he scored eight and assisted seven. However, the majority of Shaqiri’s assists will have been crosses as his best campaign was last season in a Stoke side where he played as a right-winger, whereas Lallana was playing as number 10 in his best season, so would have had a higher proportion of passes being assists. The only Liverpool midfielder who has had a more productive league season in terms of goals and assists combined in their career than Lallana is James Milner, who had a combined 19 one season, but this was all the way back in 2009-2010, before he had even signed for Manchester City and was still at Aston Villa.
Is criticism from the fans warranted?
Ever since Liverpool seemed to reach a higher tempo last season playing fast-paced football and scoring freely, there has been a section of fans on Twitter that bemoan Lallana whenever he plays. They say that he doesn’t match Liverpool’s fast-passing game and is only useful in the press, something that other players have improved while Lallana was injured so his prowess is less noticeable now. This was glaringly obvious in the Huddersfield game where Lallana’s lack of pace in comparison to Sadio Mane, the regular starter on the left wing, meant that the Huddersfield defence wasn’t being stretched as much as fans would have liked giving Liverpool problems breaking Huddersfield down.
Indeed, the way that Liverpool play with pacey wingers and overlapping full-backs does make Lallana seem like a square peg in a round hole when played out wide. However, he has not played many games centrally since the arrival of Mo Salah at the start of last season because of injuries and arguably hasn’t played a single game where he has been fully fit and not rusty from a lack of game time. This means that we have not seen an on-song Lallana in a team where spaces are being opened up by Liverpool’s rampaging wingers who he will be able to feed with his passing. Meanwhile, he’ll be getting involved with the tricky interplay around opposition boxes with his quick feet in a style that has come to characterise Liverpool in his absence.
Personally, I am a big Adam Lallana fan and I desperately want to see him do well. I think that he will be able to offer Liverpool a lot this season and as a minimum, will be a vital player when it comes to keeping others fresh for big clashes against teams like Manchester United, Chelsea, Spurs or Man City by playing against weaker sides who are likely to sit back and soak up pressure. I think that a fit Lallana is Liverpool’s most likely source of inspiration against sides that sit back following the failure in the pursuit of Nabil Fekir. By just playing regularly, he will begin to show Liverpool fans why he is still needed on Merseyside, despite this Liverpool team being more dynamic than the one that he was a key player in before his injury nightmare.