There's a need in the sports world to judge players with finality, to determine if someone is either good or bad, and douse this final decision in powerful hyperbole. While these opinions illicit muscular page view statistics and provoke response, they dumb down and oversimplify sports commentary. To some extent this process is unavoidable, not only because of the way sports media operates but also because of the passionate mind of the everyday fan. The key thing to remember though is that player performance is progressive rather than static - the good can become bad, the bad can become good, and Tom Cleverley will always suck.
Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen endured rash, mob-like hatred from fans after people determined they weren't up to Liverpool standards. But then something funny happened. Written off and thrown to wolves by their own supporters, they quite literally outran all of the negativity as two red blurs, and they don't plan on stopping. Their transformation and journey toward acceptance began with Brendan Rodgers' revised tactical approach and continued faith in the two midfielders, and all of the sudden Henderson and Allen find themselves at the heart of Liverpool's ascendancy.
At the start of the season, the midfield discussion came down to Henderson or Allen for a single spot, ignoring the possibility that the two could play together. Both players were seen as flawed even though they'd escaped their darkest moments at Liverpool; Henderson had a reputation for running without results, while Allen received criticism for his love of the sideways pass. When opening day came against Stoke, Henderson was the one in the starting lineup.
And over the next few months, it was Hendo who saw his stock rise significantly as Rodgers optimized his skillset. Rodgers pushed Liverpool to turn the heat up on their pressing, and this put a purpose behind Henderson's boundless energy. Where he'd gone anonymous earlier in his career, Henderson was suddenly sprinting at opponents all game, winning back possession.
Allen remained an afterthought until Steven Gerrard's injury in early December, when he came into the side and immediately hit a torrid stretch of form. An injury halted his positive run, but after a string of impressive substitute appearances where he showed creativity and a willingness to venture forward, Allen earned his way back into the starting eleven.
He's not the dull sideways passer he was initially made out to be, but despite the sparks he can occasionally provide, Allen's role in the attack is to filter to the more vaunted string pullers like Gerrard and Coutinho who look for the runs of the forwards. Allen excels in the short passing game, so this role suits him nicely. Meanwhile, Henderson is more adventurous but in turn less cautious, averaging 4 accurate long balls per game in comparison to Allen's 1.2. That's not a number that can define either player on its own, but it helps illustrate how Allen keeps Liverpool in control of matches while Henderson focuses more on linking up with the front line.
What they both do especially well is on the other side of the ball, relentlessly harrying opponents and covering large areas of the field. The fitness levels of Hendo and Allen are enough to run opponents into the ground, giving Liverpool an advantage late on in matches. Therefore, when Rodgers switched to the diamond formation against Southampton, he displayed his tactical acuity regarding the usage of the two midfielders. Employed on either side of the diamond, Henderson and Allen are positioned perfectly to succeed and grow, gobbling up space and controlling the flow of the midfield.
However, Rodgers is too smart to lock himself into a formation permanently, and against Spurs he smartly led with a 4-3-3. No problem though, as Henderson showed his versatility with a top class performance within the three man midfield. Allen wasn't left out of the fun, coming on to protect the lead as Rodgers switched back to the diamond midway through the second half.
Henderson and Allen are integral parts of Liverpool's success, and will be key to any hope of winning the title. If I wrote that only a year ago, Anfield Asylum would be shut down by the end of the week. Their transformation is a testament to their development and resiliency, but also a stark reminder of how brutally wrong we can be as fans when we rush to judge players with finality. Keeping that in mind, it's also fair to point out that both midfielders remain a work in progress despite their vast improvements. Henderson is further along in his development, but he still needs to take his passing to the next level and improve his shooting, and Allen needs to become more consistent. But it seems as if both Henderson and Allen are on track for long, successful Liverpool careers, which is astonishing considering all that they endured. To two midfielders who continue to run and smile to infinity, we're sorry. We were so, so wrong.