By David Lynch
The infamous 'Being: Liverpool' documentary aired over the summer contained a much-derided segment in which manager Brendan Rodgers held up three envelopes to his squad in pre-season and claimed they contained the name of three players who would let the club down during the coming campaign.
Regardless of the fact that the likely truth about those envelopes is that they contained nothing, an ever-eager fanbase regularly speculated over their contents. Predictably, Kenny Dalglish-signed trio Jose Enrique, Jordan Henderson and Stewart Downing were the most popular names put forward for inclusion at the time - but one would imagine that, if such an exercise were to be repeated today, supporters would nominate three different players entirely.
Joe Allen is one of the unfortunate few to have taken on the mantle of scapegoat following this popularity swing and, equally, he will doubtless hope to walk the same path to redemption in the coming months.
It wasn’t always like this, of course. Things started rather brightly for the young Welshman, particularly in the second week of the Premier League season as the Reds faced the tough test of taking on reigning champions Manchester City at Anfield.
Following an injury to Lucas Leiva just five minutes into that fixture, the 22-year-old stepped up to the plate admirably to anchor the midfield when faced with some of the league’s biggest talents. However, six months on from that promising showing, his declining form was fully exposed against City’s local rivals Manchester United at Old Trafford.
A statistical comparison of those two fixtures speaks volumes, with Allen’s pass completion rate - a statistic which embodies his true value when on form – of 93.5 per cent against Roberto Mancini’s men, dropping to a paltry 86.8% against the Red Devils.
|"Joe's role is to keep the ball and that, in Britain, is a special talent. It is why Paul Scholes is still playing at his age. It is such a rare talent for a midfielder to rarely give the ball away"
- Brendan Rodgers
The Wales international’s pressing, a sizeable factor of Rodgers’ philosophy, has also clearly suffered. Allen won the ball once every 16 minutes on average against United but did so twice as regularly (once every eight minutes) during the early-season clash with City.
The reasons for this become evident when you compare the player’s schedule at Liverpool to that which he kept during his debut Premier League season at Swansea last term. Allen has already played seven more fixtures than he had by this date last season and, with further forays in the Europa League and FA Cup hoped for on Merseyside, this disparity will become even clearer as the campaign progresses.
It is for this reason that the Carmarthen-born midfielder is likely to feature in the FA Cup clash with Oldham on Saturday, as the Reds look to rest their ‘first-team’ players ahead of a midweek trip to Arsenal.
The in-form Jordan Henderson currently looks an immovable presence in what would be Allen’s midfield berth, and the Englishman has fully justified his inclusion ahead of his tiring team-mate in recent weeks.
|9/1||Liverpool are 9/1 with William Hill to win the FA Cup
Yet, despite all the evidence to suggest Henderson is the better option as things stand, Allen has a chance to change the status quo should he line up against the Latics on Sunday. He also remains highly rated by his manager, who responded to media criticism of his protege in November by telling reporters: "Joe's role is to keep the ball and that, in Britain, is a special talent. It is why Paul Scholes is still playing at his age. It is such a rare talent for a midfielder to rarely give the ball away."
Liverpool should in fact be thankful that a new signing has time to adapt to what Rodgers described as the club’s “heavy shirt” away from fixtures of potentially confidence-crushing importance. That is a luxury the Reds have rarely been afforded in recent history, as the disastrous attempts to ingratiate Alberto Aquilani proved.
Of course, while he may not welcome the competition, Allen need only look to the man who has ousted him for hope that things will eventually get better at Anfield. After all, Rodgers quietly described Henderson as “in the Andy Carroll club” over the summer, and that is a comparison he is unlikely to make ever again.
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