The Reds midfielder was ruled out for ‘at least two months’ due to a thigh injury picked up during pre-season.
Arsenal vs. Liverpool; Aug 14, 2016.
Emirates Stadium, London.
HT score: 1-1
The referee whistles to signal the start of the second half; four minutes in, Georginio Wijnaldum whips in the ball from the left edge of the box.
Adam Lallana, who has continued his run from midfield, takes Gini’s ball on to his chest, controls it with an exquisite first touch and rounds Petr Cech to launch the ball into the net from a tight angle.
All this occurs in a split second, proof of the man’s speed of thought.
The travelling Reds supporters erupt in joy from behind the net, as Liverpool take the lead.
It was probably a sign of things to come for the Reds number 20.
Lallana hit the ground running from the start of the season, scoring in the opening Premier League fixture against Arsenal and seven more times during 2016/17.
Adam Lallana on Instagram. 🙌 pic.twitter.com/4F3BglounK
— Anfield HQ (@AnfieldHQ) September 28, 2017
He also notched up 7 assists, thereby playing a direct part in 15 of Liverpool’s league goals in the season (vs. 10 in 15/16 and 8 in 14/15).
However, it would be naïve to measure his effectiveness using mere ‘goals and assists’ numbers alone.
We take a look at how sorely the former Southampton captain is being missed and why his return to the Reds lineup is so eagerly awaited.
The perfect ‘gegenpresser’
Having had a forgettable start to his Liverpool career since he was brought in – in the summer of 2014 – Lallana’s upturn in form coincided with the arrival of Jürgen Klopp on Merseyside.
The midfielder was among the first names on the team-sheet during the Reds’ 2016/17 campaign, so long as he was fit to feature.
In him, Klopp found the perfect man to execute his blueprint and style on the pitch.
— Anfield HQ (@AnfieldHQ) September 21, 2017
Along with Roberto Firmino, Lallana became the embodiment of the German’s famed gegenpressing, hustling the opposition and forcing them to commit errors.
Lining up against teams that defend deep, the Englishman’s presence on the pitch has often made the difference between 3 points and one/none.
Case in point: Liverpool vs. Manchester United. Lallana lacked match fitness to play 90 minutes against the visitors; Liverpool toiled in his absence. Chances were hard to come by against Jose Mourinho’s well-organised defence.
On the hour mark, he was brought on and the contrast in the Reds’ performance was evident.
His vision and game intelligence forced United further back while providing the Reds with more thrust upfront. Unfortunately, it was a tad too late.
Many a fan and pundit opined that a fully fit Lallana – drafted in from the start – could have propelled the Reds to a win. Instead, the home side had to settle for sharing the spoils.
This was not a one-off game where his contribution was apparent. During the couple of long injury layoffs that he suffered during the season, his energy on the pitch, ability to outwit defenders, and drag markers out of position were all sorely missed.
Creativity and ball control
Lallana may not have scored as many goals as Philippe Coutinho (14) or assisted as many as Wijnaldum (9) during 2016/17 but the midfielder’s impact has been telling nevertheless.
His technical brilliance and ability to work his socks off for the team have freed up Firmino to take on the mantle of scoring.
Minus Lallana, as is the case at the moment, the Brazilian is forced to drop down deeper – more often than usual – to ensure that the midfield is not overrun.
This means that his runs into the box occur less frequently, and a majority of goal-scoring duties have to be shouldered by Sadio Mané and Mo Salah.
One of the key reasons why Liverpool – and Firmino – are finding goals harder to come by is owing to this.
The midfielder’s ‘Cryuff turns’ are a pleasure to watch but his close ball control and the knack to press effectively in the centre of the pitch are what the Reds currently lack the most.
Jordan Henderson, Emre Can and Gini Wijnaldum are doing their bit, but none is as clean a presser and simultaneously as creative as the man currently sidelined.
📸 Adam Lallana on Instagram. pic.twitter.com/ealcQSB1Vw
— Anfield HQ (@AnfieldHQ) September 17, 2017
Lallana has the vision and awareness to press selectively, and keep an attack going even in the face of an opposition defender closing down.
Henderson has a tendency to be more defensive, Can has been a bit all over the place and the former Newcastle man is most efficient as a ‘recycler’. This means the Reds are short in the creative department and don’t have a direct replacement.
Dynamism and partnership
One of the primary reasons the Reds were/are able to plunder goals in Klopp’s system is the fluidity in their attack.
With Coutinho still not fully fit and Lallana injured, 50% of last season’s frontline are out of the equation.
While Salah has indeed hit the ground running, Firmino and Mané had an almost telepathic understanding with Lallana and Coutinho.
The four interchanged positions at will, making it impossible for anyone to mark them; it also enabled them to get behind the opponents’ defence easily.
This dynamism and innate understanding, where no-look passes and dummies resulted in goal and made the Reds a joy to watch is now absent.
The point is not to undermine the current attacking lineup; on their day, they are unbeatable. However, when patience to break down the opposition becomes key or retaining possession in midfield is vital, the reliable and reassuring presence of Lallana is called for.
On every single occasion that the former Saints captain has returned to St. Mary’s post his transfer to Merseyside, he has been booed without fail.
A part of it is courtesy of the Southampton fans’ love for Liverpool, but most of it is because the Reds took away their leader.
Lallana was a Saints academy graduate who was promoted to captaincy in due course. Under his leadership, the team became a solid unit and achieved promotion to the Premier League.
He was their player of the season, their star man – one of their own – whom the Reds prised away.
The midfielder’s leadership traits were evident at Liverpool too.
He is loud and vocal, and never shies away from a tackle. If it results in conflict, he can be counted upon to stand up – not just for himself but for his teammates as well.
His altercations with Yaya Toure, Diego Costa all come to mind; he is the rare tough side of an otherwise soft Liverpool core.
Key man’s return eagerly awaited
The key factor for Lallana under Klopp has been the manager’s ability to get the best out of him. It is clear as daylight that when the German said he has followed the Englishman for a while, he meant it.
The former Dortmund boss knew the best position to play the Reds number 20 at and his trust in the player translated to the latter’s confidence and performances.
Adam Lallana has gone from ‘Sell him in the summer!’ to ‘Why isn’t Lallana in? We play better with him’ among the Reds fan base, who sing his name among the loudest now.
That is some turnaround indeed. His hard work on the pitch and also in training, have paid rich dividends for the team and in turn, for him.
Liverpool miss the Englishman’s versatility, creativity, energy and leadership; the fact that no one player in the squad can be a direct substitute for him just makes it worse.
The news of his return to light training/running outside has been received a tremendous reception from fans. His reintegration to the first team is eagerly awaited and could not come soon enough.