10 August 2012

On Joe Allen

Well, that took long enough. All that haggling, only to eventually, finally, reportedly meet Joe Allen's £15m release clause. Well done, Ian Ayre, you shrewd so and so.

Now then. I truly hate the "if he wasn't British…" or "if he were Brazilian/Spanish/nationality du jour…" aphorisms that frequently fly around whenever Liverpool – or some other club – buy a British player. It's facile, and it's often simply incorrect. Most British players (read: English) have very British (read: English) talents, tendencies, and faults. But not in this case.

Admittedly, it's hard to look past nationality after the utter flaming failures that were Liverpool's purchases last summer. However, forget last summer, as hard as that is. Joe Allen is not your typical British signing.

EPL Index: Joe Allen – Statistically Compared to Rivals
The Liverpool Word: Joe Allen – What would he bring to Liverpool FC?

For one, Allen was one of the best passers in the league last season: in volume, accuracy, and effectiveness.

The above articles comb through his stats effectively, but a look at his passing wheels (previous examples – for Lucas, Adam, Henderson, and Gerrard – here) helps clarify. Here are two of his best matches: against Arsenal, when he was ostensibly an attacking midfielder and tallied one of his two assists, and against Blackburn, when he was ostensibly a defensive midfielder and tallied the other.

Here are the StatsZone chalkboards for Arsenal and Blackburn.

An incredible volume and accuracy, especially when used as a deeper-lying midfielder, but predominantly short sideways and backwards knitting passes, with comparatively few forward passes. He is a link player, a player who keeps possession and keeps play moving. Which is the type of player and type of passer that Liverpool needs.

In these two matches, Allen was a defensive midfielder who joined in the attack against weaker opposition, and an attacking midfielder with a fairly extensive defensive brief against one of the best sides in the league. Allen made four tackles (six attempted) and two interceptions against Blackburn. He was five for five on tackles with one interception against Arsenal. Which was slightly ahead of his 3.1 tackles-per-game average (110 total), slightly behind his 2.1 interceptions-per-game (74 total).

While the tackles total is impressive, especially for a player not known as an out-and-out defensive shield, I'm more interested in the interceptions. This is a composite of all 36 of his matches, via Stats Zone.

That's a fairly effective defensive shield. Not to mention that 23 of Allen's 74 interceptions came in the opposition's half.

Allen may not be billed as an out-and-out defensive midfielder, but he was Swansea's more often than not. As much as Swansea used one in Rodgers' system. Only two players made more tackles over the course of the season: Cabaye and Dembele. Only nine midfielders made more interceptions: Mulumbu, Petrov, Gamst Pedersen, Parker, Cabaye, Modric, Reo-Coker, Cattermole and Jason Lowe. There's only two players on that list I'd rather have than Allen, and both are four years older and would cost even more. Had Lucas – a far more specialized defensive midfielder – completed the season, he'd have dwarfed those tallies, with 5.7 tackles-per-game and 2.8 interceptions when injured after 12 matches, but few others did. Spearing averaged 2.8 tackles and 1.1 interceptions, if you're curious. Enrique led Liverpool with 69 tackles, Agger with 59 interceptions.

Allen also completed 90 minutes in 29 of the 31 league matches he started, taken off after 75 minutes in his first start of the season against Arsenal and red carded in the 80th minute at Blackburn. Which is no small feat for a central midfielder, especially a 21 or 22-year-old. Comparatively, Adam completed 19 of his 27 league starts, Henderson 21 of his 31, and Lucas 10 of his 12.

Gerrard-Allen-Lucas would be an outstanding midfield, – my first choice, and arguably better than any except Manchester City and Chelsea's – but Gerrard-Henderson-Allen also appears outstanding, and would lose little steel were Lucas as unavailable this season as he was in the last (*knocks furiously on wood*). And then there's the future – Henderson-Lucas-Allen. Lucas is 25, Henderson and Allen 22. Not to mention that Jonjo Shelvey is just 20. Those five are Liverpool's top five central midfielders, the ones who'll see the most playing time. And their average age is 24.2, which includes a 32-year-old Steven Gerrard. The average age of Henderson-Allen-Lucas-Shelvey is just 22.25. Since the summer of 2010, Liverpool have spent around £58m on central midfielders (and recouped around £37m in sales). This purchase should mean that position is set for a good long while.

There's also something to be said for players who have worked with the manager before, who know his system, beliefs, personality, and desires. Sure, it's one thing if that manager is Roy Hodgson (wave to Christian Poulsen and Paul Konchesky, everyone), but it's another if that manager is Rafa Benitez (Luis Garcia, Momo Sissoko), and hopefully another if it's Brendan Rodgers. There has to be a reason Rodgers is willing to splurge for Allen, in fee if not in wages, where he wasn't for Sigurðsson.

Were he not British, not subject to parallels with Liverpool's previous purchases or England's (and Wales', and Scotland's…) repeated, hilarious failings, this would be far less controversial. There's also the similarity in fee, seemingly well over the odds, but that concerns me far less. It's a bargain if he succeeds, it's frightful if he fails. Same as it ever was. Rather than paying over the odds for nationality, Liverpool's paying over the odds because of Allen's age– especially for a central midfielder – and because Swansea really didn't want to sell.

So what worries me? After writing all of the above… the similarities with last summer's transfer business. Less Allen's nationality, more that Liverpool again are prioritizing central midfield while there are clear, glaring, gaping holes elsewhere in the squad.

Gerrard, Lucas, Henderson, Adam, Shelvey, and Spearing. That's six central midfielders already on Liverpool's books.

Suarez, Borini, Downing, Sterling, and Cole. Those are Liverpool's wide forwards, a problem position before losing Kuyt, Maxi, and Bellamy, as written about earlier today. And either Suarez or Borini will start as Liverpool's central striker in most matches.

Whatever their faults – and each player has at least one – of that central midfield group, I wouldn't have complained (much) had Liverpool gone into the season with that unit. Yes, Liverpool would have had no one who can truly replace Lucas, as the club learned, at great pains, last season, but Liverpool could cope, and probably would have coped even better in Rodgers' preferred 4-3-3 formation. However, I cannot say the same about the wide forwards. Especially considering Rodgers' preferred formation.

At the same time, it's seemingly another example of Liverpool getting on the train at one of the last stations rather than early in the trip. Yes, it's a completely different manager and a completely different system, but I can't help but wonder had Liverpool bought Allen instead of Henderson or Adam last season. They'd certainly have paid far less than £15m. Or, to compare to Newcastle, who have been very good at getting value for money, Yohan Cabaye – a very similar player, albeit four years older – cost around £9m. And would cost nearly twice as much today

Liverpool have picked up a nasty, costly habit of buying players at the peak of their price, and once again seem to be paying maximum value. As said above, I'm not incredibly worried about the fee, especially if Allen progresses as last season suggested he's capable of, but Liverpool certainly aren't maximizing value either, something which FSG supposedly wanted and promised to do.

Still, once again, Rodgers gets his man, one of his transfer priorities, despite the fee and despite Swansea's unwillingness to sell and supposed clause about Rodgers not poaching players. If we're buying the Rodgers system, it's nice to see all the chips pushed into the middle of the table. Despite Liverpool's logjam in the middle, Allen should improve the side. Imagine yesterday's side with Allen in place of Shelvey; no offense to the youngster, who played well, but Allen would have been an even better fit in that swirling, swarming Liverpool tidal wave.

Yes, there are still holes, and yes, it's a risk. But it seems a risk well worth taking. Welcome to Liverpool, Joe.


Leo Roberts said...

I can't but agree with everything you say.... Part of me is, again, dismayed that it's a midfielder we've bought when there seem to be other priority positions for which we are short of players but we've bought for the present as well as the future with Joe Allen.

Someone has got to go, though., to make room in the squad.

Charlie Adam would be the obvious candidate. He's not fulfilled his promise and has shown few signs of do doing. We'd take a hit on his transfer fee, of course, but not much as he wasn't that expensive (relatively)

The only other candidate is Jay Spearing and, as he came through our youth system, any fee is a bonus. I'd hate to see a local lad going, mind....

Anonymous said...

Fantastic article mate.... Just wondering why you don't mention Carroll in the attacking options.?

For me Rogers wants team players that love football and would die for the shirt a la Suarez /Agger/ Gerrard etc

We know Carroll has been touted about, and it's obvious that it's just the quickest way and least damaging to the team to raise some decent money. The fact the Carroll has insisted he wants to fight for his place leads me to believe that Carroll could have a future at Liverpool..But certainly not a £35m pound future.

I would hate Andy to play against us and sometimes in football you need that fear, look what happens to defenses when he comes on. His wages I'm led to believe do not amount to a key player. His fitness seemed to me far better than it was at Newcastle and it's not unrealistic to say that he will be England's first choice forward along with Rooney

This is all personal of course but this is the first time I've commented on a post like this as I appreciate how thoughtful and we'll written it is.

Saying that Carroll will probably be sold tomorrow... But que sera

I do genuinely believe out manager has the quality to make us great once again


nate said...

Didn't mention Carroll because that above section is about the wide forwards. Even if Carroll sticks around, he'll play as the central striker and nowhere else. But both Suarez and Borini will be preferred over him in that role; if Andy stays at Liverpool this season, at best he'll be used as a substitute and/or against certain opposition. And rarely at that.

I'm more much concerned about who'll play on the left and right, whether you want to call them wingers or forwards. Especially if Suarez and Borini somehow aren't available.

Thanks much for the kind words about the piece.

Tom Foolery said...

The problem areas aren't just in the wide forward positions, either. We have one real central striker, Carroll, and two versatile forwards (not sure how well Fabio would play as the middle man, but anyway). I like Suarez in that middle slot/false 9/whateverthefuck, which means we likely need additions in both forward categories (another left-footer would hit the spot, too).

And, I can't help but want to shout via capslock, "WE HAVE ONE SENIOR LEFT-BACK!!", sorry bout that. Seeing Wilson slotted there in two preseason friendlies doesn't bode well, and despite Jose's impressive physique, he can't last all season (especially since we're a European club, again). Hoping Brendan has eyes to see the holes, and backing to bring in the puddy.

nate said...

Jack Robinson's a fine back-up if he can stay fit, and both Johnson and Kelly have done okay at left back when needed. It's not that much of a problem area. But yeah, Wilson was not good there in preseason.

Suarez and Borini will be the main central strikers whether or not Carroll leaves. Suarez 1a, Borini 1b. When Suarez starts, Borini will play on the flank. But it's worth remembering that even though Borini usually played on the flank for Roma, he was the central striker for Rodgers' Swansea in almost every match he played.

If Carroll goes, yeah, Liverpool probably need to sign someone, mostly for the EL and cups, because Eccleston is not good and Morgan (or Ngoo for that matter) is not ready, but if Carroll doesn't leave, he'll probably get those handful of starts in the cups and few league fixtures when the others aren't available.

Daki4 said...

Love the insightful posts like this! Reading your blog over the years has educated me massively as a football fan. Keep up the good work.