As the Merseyside Derby draws closer, with pressure building around what seems the most important derby since the FA Cup semi-final of April 2012, and Liverpool immersed in a fascinatingly competitive rat-race for Champions League qualification, the FA could not help but get involved in some way or another.
This involvement, unsurprisingly, yet still perplexingly, was the injury of Adam Lallana whilst on international duty with the England team. With reports anticipating Lallana being sidelined for a month, at face-value, it appears that Liverpool are in a dire strait.
This season, Lallana has flourished in the midfield role ascribed to him by manager Jürgen Klopp, and has been applauded by pundits and fans alike, earning himself a new contract in the process. With the Merseyside Derby looming, and reports suggesting his expected absence from the team to last around a month, could this be a mortal blow to Liverpool’s Champions League ambitions?
Curiously, for a man described as ‘in-form’, Adam Lallana’s tangible direct output, (i.e. goals and assists) has been non-existent in 2017. In the 13 games following Liverpool’s 1-0 home victory over Manchester City, Lallana failed to register a single goal or assist. This run included games against Manchester Utd, Swansea, Plymouth, Southampton, Wolves, and Hull, amongst others. Perhaps it is unfair to criticise one player for their output within an underperforming squad, but what we can assert is that the team and Lallana in particular struggle against sides that play directly, with a low-block or both. When we look beyond the Everton game though, it becomes immediately apparent that playing well against a low-block is absolutely paramount to achieving those Champions League qualification ambitions: Bournemouth (H), Stoke (A), West Brom (A), Crystal Palace (H), Watford (A), Southampton (H), West Ham (A) and Middlesbrough (H) are the teams that await Liverpool after the Derby, and it would hardly take a genius to anticipate the tactics which are likely employed against Liverpool.
Returning to the issue of Adam Lallana; in games against teams that use either a low-block, or play direct, Liverpool, and Lallana are ill-afforded an opportunity to press, especially so in the half-spaces Klopp emphasises. Pressing in these regions usually results in mistakes, tackles or interceptions, all of which create chances and goals. However, when against teams, usually outside of the top-six, and most likely in the bottom-six, Liverpool dominate possession, and the opposition rarely have the ball; meaning Liverpool, and Lallana, positioned at the head of the midfield, cannot press. Simply put, Liverpool and Lallana can’t press if they already have the ball, and as discussed below: Lallana is no-good if he cannot press.
In Liverpool’s games (and losses) against sides with a low-block, or a direct approach, Anfield Index’s Under Pressure podcast (52:20), detailed that Lallana averages 14.3 presses per 90 minutes – a stark contrast to his average of 23.7 in drawn games, or 24 average in victories. Now, the criticism made earlier regarding his contribution in relation to the underperforming squad seems rather justified. Indeed, his pressing is one of his greatest assets, hence why Klopp decided to employ him as the most aggressive member of the midfield three of the 4-3-3 system. However, when deprived of the opportunity to press, or operate within a transition phase (as sides sitting back will rarely be caught out in a transition phase, as they do not commit forwards heavily), he essentially becomes defunct. He does not offer the pace, or running channels to break opposition lines, nor does he provide a goal threat. Instead he performs a sort-of turnover role, passing the ball without the precision or directness to create goal-scoring chances.
In these games, Lallana’s contribution and starting position is questionable: if he is pressing at a rate 10 units lower than his average, and is not providing goals or assists, should he really be playing against sides with a low-block, and actually, is his injury a blessing in disguise? In a sense, it seems so: Lallana’s absence in upcoming games, excluding Everton, may prove important in overcoming an issue that has plagued Liverpool’s season.
But, of course, Lallana certainly has a key role to play in Liverpool’s season, and hopefully, seasons to come, however it is now up to Klopp to find a suitable role for Lallana in games against low-block sides.
The solution to the low-block is generally thought as utilising at least one striker, with forwards in support; however, Klopp’s aversion to utilising Sturridge, or Sturridge’s own injury record indicates that for this season at least, Klopp’s own solution will lie elsewhere.
The return of Jordan Henderson to the side may yet provide another solution though. A midfield three of Henderson, Can and Wijnaldum would provide the defensive stability and protection that would help to prevent smash-and-grab counter-attacking performances against Liverpool – like that of Leicester. What this would also do is give one of Henderson, Can and Wijnaldum a greater chance of getting forward and providing a goal or an assist, something both Can and Wijnaldum managed to do against Burnley.
Liverpool will certainly miss Lallana, in what promises to be an entertaining, high intensity Derby Day, but with the remaining fixtures in mind, perhaps there is a silver-lining to his absence, which may prove crucial in Liverpool and Jürgen Klopp meeting the hallowed objective of Champions League qualification.