Without naming him specifically, Brendan Rodgers took a clear and public swipe at Alan Shearer last week. In the wake of Liverpool’s 0-0 draw with Stoke at Anfield, the BBC pundit criticised Joe Allen for not being penetrative enough with his passes and too often opting for the safe option. Rodgers resoundingly jumped to the defence of his £15m summer signing, “Unbelievable. So-called pundits who don’t know the dynamics of a team and how it functions” he said.
As the saying goes, I couldn’t have put it better myself. That assessment of Shearer is almost impossible to argue with and Rodgers is by no means the first or last to take umbrage with his views. His continued employment on our flagship football programme baffles many, especially when there are so many more valuable voices that deserve to be heard. For someone who played at such a high level, his lack of basic tactical understanding is astounding. Blackburn Rovers fans have surely suffered enough over the last two years without the prospect of Shearer being in contention for the vacant managerial position. It must make Steve Kean look like a pleasant mixture of Ferguson, Guardiola and Mourinho in comparison (well, probably not but you get my point).
It is often said that British footballers lack the tactical appreciation of their continental counterparts and the ex-England captain is the personification of that. His misguided analysis completely misses the point of Allen’s role in the Liverpool system and does an injustice to the quality of performance he has produced since moving to Merseyside.
At a basic level Shearer is statistically wrong, suggesting that he performed little research before arriving at his critical conclusion. According to WhoScored.com, Allen attempted nine long balls during the game against Stoke and completed eight, with only Pepe Reina attempting more in a Liverpool shirt (just one extra). Even Steven Gerrard, who Shearer was probably comparing him with, completed just four out of seven long balls. A simple look at the stats for the game would have told the Geordie pundit that he was barking up the wrong tree.
It is tactically, however, that he displayed a real lack of nous in making his assessment. The Welshman is tasked with playing a very specific, disciplined role within the Liverpool midfield in direct response to his manager’s instructions. It must be remembered that with the unfortunate injury to Lucas Leiva early on this season the dynamics of the midfield were altered, meaning Allen has reverted to a deeper-lying position.
Playing in this role, he is required to be constantly available to receive the ball in central areas. Think of him as the base of a pivot, used to shift the focus of attacks when one avenue is closed, in a similar fashion to Mikel Arteta at Arsenal. Allen’s intelligent movement and willingness to receive the ball in tight spaces makes him perfect for this job. He typically receives the majority of his passes in these areas, mainly in and around the centre circle. When you compare this to the passes received by Gerrard and Nuri Şahin in the same game, the dynamic of Liverpool’s midfield is perfectly clear. Gerrard is given much more licence to roam and take up positions all over the pitch, influencing the game in both defensive and offensive areas. Meanwhile, Şahin operated from a much more advanced starting position, receiving his passes mostly in the attacking third.
Given the nature of this shape, Allen’s use of the ball is of much greater significance. His responsibility is not to create chances but to provide a platform for others to do so. He should therefore be judged upon the speed, accuracy and choice of pass rather than his output in terms of direct assists.
To this point, he should receivable favourable marks with regards to each of these barometers. The 22 year old is very efficient when in possession, rarely holding onto the ball unnecessarily and is highly accurate. Only the aforementioned Arteta and Rio Ferdinand (although the Manchester United defender obviously attempts less passes per game) have higher pass completion rates than Allen, highlighting his meticulous distribution.
And to suggest that Allen plays the simple, easy pass would be doing the young midfielder a great disservice. He rarely completes short five yard passes to his nearest teammate; instead he almost solely changes the angle of attack by switching the ball from central to wide areas. The pass completion chart from the game against Stoke reveal that the majority of his passes are made to either the wingers or advancing Full-backs to help stretch the play. Shearer’s criticism of Allen could not be any more unfounded. Contrary to his statement, Allen has actually been the most impressive Liverpool player this season, fulfilling his role within the midfield structure excellently. That he chose to focus on a midfielder when assessing Liverpool’s problems is bizarre enough, given that their shortcomings have been a result of defensive errors and the continued profligacy in front of goal. That he singled out Allen is even more startling.