Key Track: Whipping Post - The Allman Brothers Band
The phrase "suffering for the team" gets thrown about rather cavalierly, oftentimes applied to a high-work rate player who is simply willing to contribute defensively. At the risk of sounding like a cranky old-timer, the aforementioned attributes are more equitable with a cold, Bill Belichick-ian "do your job" than "suffering for the team."
Truly "suffering for the team," at least in my book, would read something like playing much of the year with a painful, worsening injury, while being played in a thankless, foreign position, while being kept up all night by a screaming new born baby. That, my friends, is "suffering for the team" and that is why I feel the need to defend the performances of Joe Allen over the course of last season.
Few players were worse victims of Rodgers's rather hyperbolic press meanderings over much of his early days in charge. Upon meeting the midfielder's buyout clause from his former club Swansea, Rodgers played down expectations and merely labeled his protégé "the Welsh Xavi." On top of this gentle pat on the back, Allen was universally assigned the task of helping his teammates implement Rodgers's famed possession-based approach. Whether it's reasonable or clinically insane to ask a 22-year-old from a perfectly respectable, yet significantly lower-profile Swansea side to enter Anfield's cauldron and dole out instructions to the likes of Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva was a question asked by too few.
Despite the enormous pressure, Allen initially took to Liverpool like a swan to water (that pun had a Producers-like "so bad, it's good" quality that I couldn't resist), with some impressive performances against the likes of Manchester City and Sunderland to open the season. Lucas's thigh injury however, saw Rodgers slide the Welshman further back in front of the back four. There, his useful tidiness and recycling of possession were welcome, but his 5'6" (1.68m) frame proved to be an impediment beyond his control while playing the holding role.
As his performances sharply deteriorated through the winter months, Allen came under heavy scrutiny by the Anfield faithful who, in some respects, came to view him as the stuttering start to the Rodgerian Revolution in a microcosm. Matters were only made worse by Rodgers's unfortunate insistence on keeping Allen in the side ahead of the much-improved Jordan Henderson, whose energy seemed to perfectly balance the Lucas-Gerrard partnership. A final, disastrous appearance against Southampton proved to be the moment when Atlas could no longer bear the weight and Allen's campaign reached an early end.
While the downturn in his form was clear to the naked eye, the extent of the midfielder's shoulder injury was not made public until after he was shut down. The fact that Allen played through the pain, in a more physical midfield role nonetheless, deserves serious praise. He attempted an aerial 50-50 every 74 minutes last year compared to 170 minutes in 2011/2012, that he raised his success percentage from 38% from 18% speaks to his serious commitment to the cause. Throw in the sleep deprived transformation of a new dad into a zombie and one understands the true meaning of "suffering for the team."
Season Rating: 5
Allen's price tag was a little inflated, Rodgers's ensuing press conferences much more than a little inflated, and the midfielder's form had truly bottomed out by the time he was shut down. That's all the bad news.
The good news is that a fully fit Allen was fantastic at the start of the season. A return to fitness with lower expectations and, hopefully, little time spent as a holding midfielder should see Allen become a welcome option in a healthy midfield rotation.