With injuries to captain Steven Gerrard and Brazilian Lucas Leiva – and Emre Can’s conversion to a centre-back – leaving Liverpool light on midfielders there was doubt that they would be able to cope with the power and guile of Manchester City’s central players. However, after playing 120 minutes in Turkey on Thursday night, Joe Allen came of age on Sunday and gave his best performance in a red shirt, providing the foundation and calmness that allowed the likes of Coutinho and Lallana to star.
His Liverpool career hasn’t been the easiest ride so far for Joe Allen. A £15m price-tag hanging above his head along with being christened “The Welsh Xavi” by manager Brendan Rodgers haven’t helped the 24-year-old adjust to life at one of England’s and Europe’s biggest clubs, but this past Sunday against defending Premier League champions Manchester City, Allen delivered on the promise he had shown early on at Liverpool before injuries disrupted his development and involvement. So impressive was he that former Reds legend John Aldridge described his performance as one that “epitomised everything that was good about Liverpool in the richly deserved victory over Manchester City.”
The build-up to the match was expectedly large. It was around 11 months ago that Liverpool defeated City in the same fixture last season 3-2, taking them to the top of the table and putting their Premier League destiny in their own hands.
Of course, we all know what followed, and a slow start this season following the sale of Luis Suarez and injury to Daniel Sturridge had stalled Liverpool’s progress and at the halfway point of the season the Reds sat in 8th place after 19 matches. However, since the turn of the year Rodgers’ side has kicked on and is unbeaten in 2015, moving to within touching distance of the top three and European qualification, meaning that this match took on extra significance in the hunt for the Champions League places, where defeat could have left them back in 6th place, with Spurs only one point behind but with a game in hand. Crucially though, it would have left them five points adrift of United in 4th.
With Brendan Rodgers opting to be more pragmatic in his approach, sitting a little deeper than normal to offer space on the break, the role of Allen and midfield partner Jordan Henderson was going to be crucial in providing both cover for the back-three, physicality in the middle and smart ball movement to retain possession or release the likes of Philippe Coutinho, Raheem Sterling and Adam Lallana into space.
And they did so with aplomb, with Allen in particular running the game.
The Welshman was everywhere, clocking up over 11km in the match – an incredible effort considering he had played the full 120 minutes in Istanbul only a couple of days prior – and his and Henderson’s harassing of Yaya Toure made the Ivorian star barely more than a bystander throughout the match as he failed to take control. Allen finished the match with 3 tackles, 2 interceptions and 10 ball recoveries in the 90 minutes, making him among the top three Liverpool players in all of the mentioned categories.
It wasn’t just his defensive efforts, work rate and tenacity though. Allen led Liverpool in passing and was third overall, completing 50 of his 57 attempts at 88%, and while he has often been maligned for being too cautious with the ball, 41 of his passes were forward passes, often finding the feet of Coutinho or Lallana to spark another Liverpool attack. He was perfect when dribbling the ball, with 2/2 in take ons, and created one chance in the match despite his deeper positioning on the park.
Allen has often been seen as nothing more than a bit-part player at Anfield, with many fans still unsure of what the diminutive Welshmen really adds to the side, though this performance will no doubt have changed a few minds.
“Superb,” was how he was described by ESPN FC’s David Usher, awarding him a 9/10 on their player ratings scale.
“[He] bossed the midfield from start to finish. There was a real purpose to some of his quick, incisive passing, and he was tigerish in his pressing throughout.”
While his overall performance both in attack and defence were impeccable, it was his calmness and composure under pressure that was perhaps most impressive, providing the calm head that is often reserved for Lucas or Gerrard alongside the box-to-box all-action style of opening goal-scorer Henderson. With City introducing James Milner for Edin Dzeko to add an extra body to midfield and prevent Liverpool’s control of the middle of the park (despite City having more possession), Allen responded superbly and helped maintain Liverpool’s organisation and influence over the result.
His first-time passing and play under pressure was exceptional in the second half, and had it not been for the magic of Coutinho, Allen would surely have been the man of the match.
With Steven Gerrard leaving in the summer there is some uncertainty around Liverpool’s midfield of the future. If Joe Allen can make this sort of game his base level rather than a one-off, that midfield is in safe hands.