Liverpool’s inconsistencies in the transfer market have been the topic of much discussion in recent years. For every Roberto Firmino there’s been a Christian Benteke, a Mario Balotelli to their Emre Can, someone who either doesn’t fit the style of football they want to play or who quite simply isn’t good enough for the standard desired of them. The very nature of buying players means that not too many transfers end up being a definitive success, but they’ve had far too many at the opposite end of the scale in times gone by.
Adam Lallana is one of those who, for many, sits closer to the bottom tier of that spectrum than the top. A circa £25 million arrival from Southampton in July 2014, at a time when the club had finally just qualified for the Champions League again and needed high quality to try to ease the departure of Luis Suárez, a string of mostly average performances and little tangible end product have made it tough to justify the England international’s big money move – let alone to pass it off as a genuinely good piece of business by Brendan Rodgers.
The general opinion of Lallana’s failings was that rather than being a stylistic misfit, he’s one of the ones that weren’t ever consistently good enough in the first place. Since Jürgen Klopp took over from Rodgers as the manager in October though his performances have undoubtedly improved (shown by his winning of the PFA Fans’ Player of the Month award for March) and feelings of animosity towards him have started to alter with that; and there’s a good argument to be made that Klopp’s differing tactical style has been the key to bringing the best out of him.
Following Lallana’s arrival in the aftermath of the title-challenging season in 2013/14, most of the remainder of Rodgers’ time at Anfield saw the team playing in something of a slow, possession-orientated style. An intentional choice or not, seeing as they so clearly thrived in a much quicker, higher intensity manner in that year they finished second, Liverpool’s build-up became considerably more deliberated and their utilisation of transitions and space in the final third decreased significantly. There was a period in the middle of 2014/15 where they found success with a fluid 3-4-2-1 shape, but for the most part they struggled to get the best out of their attacking players by operating in this way.
With him having earned his move to a bigger club by impressing under Mauricio Pochettino in a system much more akin to the quicker tempo one which Liverpool played shortly before he joined, Lallana then being used in quite a different way certainly proved to hold a strong element of risk to it. Regular tinkering of the attacking shape and Rodgers’ attempts to squeeze a wide variety of other signings into the side also didn’t help him either, and the now 27-year-old understandably didn’t live up to his Southampton form in that somewhat chaotic effort at a set-up.
Where Rodgers’ style was significantly varied from Pochettino’s though, the fundamental principles behind the way of playing that Klopp and the Argentine implement have a number of similarities. And it’s no coincidence that Lallana has played his best top-flight football under two managers that have many likenesses, while struggling to be impressive quite as regularly in a notably different one.
One of the biggest criticisms directed at Lallana is a tendency of his to take too many touches with the ball and bring the tempo of play down – a trait which particularly comes to the fore when playing in a side, like Rodgers’ one, that attacks in a slower fashion. Though not exactly a counter-attacking footballer either, he’s much more effective when surrounded by (both physically and mentally) faster players in a team with lots of movement that circulates the ball at pace in the final third, something which encourages perhaps the greatest strength of his to be utilised to its full: his instinctiveness.
Lallana’s an outstanding player on a technical level, and his ability to use first-time passes and a wonderfully thrilling range of fancy flicks to combine intricately with teammates is a huge asset in tight areas. His close control, touch and intelligence in finding small pockets of space are all similarly excellent, again emphasising his usefulness as a real ‘needle’ kind of player in the final third; skills which all help his side to bring the best out of other attackers like Philippe Coutinho, Daniel Sturridge and Firmino. He doesn’t have the final pass quality or clinical edge in front of goal that any of those three have, but if they do well then it’s likely that Lallana has had something to do with it.
Take his role for the goal in Liverpool’s recent 1-1 draw with Tottenham, for example. He didn’t even touch the ball in the passage of play. But his run to drag Kevin Wimmer into the box and away from play created the space that Coutinho needed to complete a one-two with Sturridge, and gave the Brazilian the chance to finish off the move. It won’t go down as an assist for Lallana, but it should be recognised as such. For without his run, there would be no goal.
His end product has improved recently alongside that too, though. Since the 23rd January, when he came off the bench to score in the winner in that thrilling 5-4 win away to Norwich, Lallana has got himself (including that one) three goals and four assists in 851 minutes of club football. That’s a direct goal contribution of one every 121.6 minutes that he’s played in that time. But despite the recent flurry of decisive play in the final third, that isn’t – and never has been – his main forte.
His two Premier League seasons at Southampton yielded a combined total of 22 goals and assists (12 goals, 10 assists), equating to one every 242.9 minutes, which is a decent return but certainly nothing spectacular. He also never produced high figures for shots or key passes per game, and hasn’t done in either of his two seasons at Liverpool so far, both of those metrics being better indicators for potential future output than actual goals and assists are. So though the overall lack of direct creation is without a doubt a valid criticism of his game, expecting him to continue producing in such a manner is asking something that’s pretty unrealistic.
Instead it’s those subtler, seemingly-less definitive contributions that he makes which are more likely to keep being present, and it’s the improvement of them within his general game again under Klopp and this new style that are the real talking point. The other thing which has notably resurfaced from his time at Southampton in this style is his effectiveness in pressing without the ball, a skill which plays nicely into his new manager’s defensive tactics. Firmino has to take the accolade of the best at closing down within the Liverpool team (perhaps even in the league as a whole), but Lallana isn’t too far behind him.
His spatial coverage in the middle of the field is very good, making it much more difficult for opponents to progress their possession up the centre against him, and the intensity he presses at is extremely useful for harassing opponents and forcing risky passes or long balls. Klopp’s regularly used Lallana as one of his main central pressers, one of the reasons likely being the ability that he’s demonstrated to help cover all this space. It’s also something that’s allowed the German to sometimes use his quicker, more productive attackers to simply help plug gaps and block passing lanes out wide, rather than chasing the ball quite so much centrally, letting them conserve a bit more energy for other, namely transitional and offensive, phases of the game.
And that’s something that quite neatly says a fair amount about Lallana. He’s not Liverpool’s best individual, and he’s never going to be their main creator or finisher when it comes to goals. But from both an offensive and defensive point of view he’s without doubt a player who's contributed a huge amount to the team under Klopp, helping to bring the best out of everyone around him; the German’s faith in him being rewarded by his superb form.
Whether Lallana has a long-term future at Anfield under Klopp is something that remains to be seen, like it is with a lot of the current squad ahead of the upcoming summer transfer window, but his high standard of performances in the new manager’s system in recent times will be doing him no harm whatsoever. If he keeps going like this, he certainly deserves to be kept around.