In the 56th minute of Liverpool’s home game against Middlesbrough on the final day of the 2016/17 season, Adam Lallana netted the Reds’ third goal in a 3-0 victory that ensured their place in the Champions League play-offs. It was that goal which finally quelled the nerves of the home faithful at Anfield, with the scores level until just before half-time, and it was the perfect way for Lallana, who had just turned 29, to round off the best season of his career. All the signs in the first half of 2017 indicated that the England midfielder was in peak form and had won over many of those who criticised him during a slightly inconsistent first season at Liverpool.
However, Lallana’s 2017/18 was completely curtailed by injury and he could only watch on as his team-mates took the Reds to the Champions League final, where he came on as a subdued replacement for the injured Mohamed Salah. This season, the ex-Southampton man has become something of a fringe player at Anfield and, even when Jurgen Klopp has given Lallana opportunities, the midfielder has looked a pale shadow of the effervescent player who made many team of the season XIs for 2016/17. Our tactical analysis looks at Lallana’s statistics from recent games and ponders whether he is in a short-term rut or beginning a slow decline now that he’s six months into his 30s.
Going into the October international break, the midfielder had played a grand total of three minutes this season, appearing as a late substitute in the 2-0 win at Crystal Palace in August. He sat out several games from the subs’ bench, with a recurrence of his long-standing injury problems curtailing his involvement. He was finally given his first start of the campaign away to Huddersfield on 20 October, playing on the left-hand side of a front three in a more advanced role than the midfield position he often occupies.
Lallana was withdrawn on 69 minutes after an evening where he squandered the chance to make a statement to his manager. A silly yellow card in the first half meant that he was walking a disciplinary tightrope as he looked leggy against a Terriers side not renowned for searing pace. Despite playing in a forward position, he did not register a shot at the John Smith’s Stadium and he was far too casual in possession, losing the ball on four occasions (see image), one of which occurred just in front of Liverpool’s penalty area. An ineffective display saw him hauled off to be replaced by Fabinho, who provided the grit that the Reds needed to see out a very hard-fought 1-0 win against a team in the relegation zone.
Lallana was given 22 minutes as a sub four days later in Liverpool’s 4-0 romp against Red Star Belgrade, replacing the lively Xherdan Shaqiri with the home side already three goals to the good. The England international didn’t have the most taxing assignment against the anaemic Serbian champions and generally looked assured during his time on the field, but he ought to have netted his first goal of the season in the 80th minute when, upon bearing down on goal with only goalkeeper Milan Borjan to beat, he shot straight at the Canadian. The Lallana of two seasons ago would have coolly slotted it to the net to raise further cheers at Anfield.
Three days later, he was back into the starting XI for Liverpool’s home fixture against Cardiff. Playing on the right of midfield in a 4-2-3-1 setup, it was another disappointing afternoon for the 30-year-old. He made just 42 passes, the fewest of any of the outfield Reds who started in the 4-1 victory, and again was culpable of coughing up possession no fewer than four times (see image), including two instances in Liverpool’s half.
After an hour, with Klopp’s men 1-0 up but struggling to put daylight between themselves and the visitors, Lallana was withdrawn for Shaqiri and the Swiss maestro immediately gave the Reds far greater impetus going forward. It was his 84th-minute goal that made it 3-1 to the home side and eventually killed off a resilient Cardiff, gambling on being in the right place at the right time to finish off Salah’s setup.
Lallana didn’t feature in the Reds’ next outing, the 1-1 draw at Arsenal, but he was among the beneficiaries of a surprise Klopp reshuffle for the Champions League trip to Belgrade. In what has undoubtedly been Liverpool’s worst performance of the season so far, he was among those receiving the most criticism. He committed three fouls in the first half alone, the third of those resulting in a yellow card, and again he was ineffective, this time in a midfield three.
He registered a mere 37 passes, compared to Georginio Wijnaldum’s 65 and James Milner’s 96, while relinquishing possession four times. This was all across the course of 79 minutes before he was called ashore for Divock Origi in a vain last-ditch attempt by Klopp to rescue a match that realistically had drifted from Liverpool’s reach.
Worst of all, though, was his part in Red Star’s opening goal in a wretched 0-2 defeat. As the corner was being taken, Lallana was picking up Milan Pavkov, whose height and penalty box prowess made him an obvious set-piece threat. The Serbian striker ended up with a free header which he bulleted firmly past Alisson Becker to give the home side a deserved lead.
Indeed, when the corner was initiated, Lallana was not even looking at the play (see above image), unlike Pavkov who was on his bike and ended up a good three or four yards ahead of the England international (circled in below image) when he connects with the ball (see arrow in below image). While Klopp’s preference for a zonal marking setup in defending corners often makes it hard to assign blame to one player when a goal is conceded, in this case, you would have expected Lallana to have made life far tougher for Pavkov when the danger of the situation was so clear.
Shaqiri missed the trip to Belgrade owing to a bit of ethnic needle going back to his eagle celebration when scoring against Serbia at the World Cup, but when restored to Liverpool’s team instead of Lallana for the 2-0 win over Fulham on Sunday, he was the pick of the bunch in red, troubling the Cottagers all day and netting the insurance goal. His energetic, effective displays are in stark contrast to what his older team-mate is currently producing and, in short, Shaqiri is now what Lallana had been two or three years ago.
As a long-time admirer of Adam Lallana, it pains me to see him performing so far from his best in recent games. Perhaps it is a temporary loss of form which can be traced back to him being ruled out for so much of the last year, but at 30, he is entering the twilight years of a fine career. Also, having been sidelined for so long, will he ever get back the vivaciousness that he possessed in 2016? Are we witnessing a player whose best days have been and gone, with the trajectory of his career going gradually yet steadily in a downward direction? Indeed, if things keep up the way they are, will Lallana even be a Liverpool player this time next year? Time will tell whether this is a short-term trough or the start of a terminal decline for a man who, whatever happens from here, has justified his £25 million move from Southampton in 2014.