Adam Lallana, Paul Pogba take different paths to become vital players
When Paul Pogba was 21, he was voted the best young player in the World Cup. When Adam Lallana turned 21, his Southampton side had just been relegated to League One. When Pogba was 23, he became the most expensive footballer in history. When Lallana celebrated his 23rd birthday, it was three days after he played his final third-flight game.
When these opposites meet on Sunday, it is as equivalents, rather than equals. They have established themselves in the Manchester United and Liverpool sides in similar roles, as the left and most advanced of a central-midfield trio. If Lallana plays elsewhere, it will be because of a reshuffle caused by Sadio Mane's absence, yet these formations feel designed with them in mind.
They represented conundrums that have been belatedly solved: when Pogba lined up at Anfield in October, it was as a No. 10. On other occasions, it was as one of two central midfielders, where his lack of positional discipline proved an issue. Jose Mourinho only unlocked Pogba's potential by playing him in something approximating to his role at Juventus in a 4-3-3 system. Lallana, meanwhile, only really prospered under Brendan Rodgers as one of twin inside-forwards in a 3-4-2-1 formation. When he played as a sole No. 10, he wasn't productive enough. When he played as a winger, he wasn't really a wide man.
Jurgen Klopp arrived at Anfield, announced after his first game -- a 0-0 draw at Tottenham -- that Lallana could do "20 to 30 percent more" and promptly proved it by taking the Englishman's game to another level. Lallana has seven goals and a personal best seven assists this season. He has added end product to his Cruyff turns.
Quantifying Pogba's improvement since Mourinho shifted shape is not an exact science, but it is considerable. Since the change in thought to incorporate Michael Carrick, Pogba has three goals and three assists in the Premier League. Before then, he had one and none, respectively.
These are players who enjoy chemistry that helps their side prosper. Pogba identified a kindred spirit in Zlatan Ibrahimovic, another huge physical figure, another outsize personality and another Mino Raiola client. They look for each other at every opportunity. Pogba has picked out the Swede with more passes than any other teammate this season. Ibrahimovic has found the Frenchman twice as often has he has found Wayne Rooney, the man with whom he has otherwise combined most often. Yet Pogba has also prospered in a triangle defined by differences, with he and Carrick the opposites, even if Ander Herrera has more common ground with each.
Lallana is an example of how Liverpool's attacking players blend and blur into one, darting around each other, swapping positions in high-paced movement. He is on the same wavelength as Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho. He is an example of Liverpool's collectivism, Pogba a case of United's newfound fondness for individualism.
They actively pursue superstars. Klopp eschews them, suggesting in the summer that such an approach is alien to his ethos. "If you bring one player in for £100 million and he gets injured, then it all goes through the chimney," he said in August. "The day that this is football, I'm not in a job anymore, because the game is about playing together. I want to do it differently."
Thankfully for Mourinho, Pogba appears indestructible; indeed Klopp pronounced himself taken aback at the way that, after a mere two training sessions with his new club, he excelled for 90 minutes on his second United debut. In contrast, the recovering Lallana spent the first hour of these clubs' October stalemate on the bench. Liverpool missed him. In itself, that was a sign of how things changed. He was taken off at half-time in his first two games against United as a Liverpool player having influenced neither.
Lallana used to be faulted for disappearing into the background of too many big games whereas Pogba's perpetual prominence makes him a magnet for criticism, praise and attention alike. His qualities are more conspicuous. He is bigger, stronger, quicker, likelier to shoot from distance and attempt long-range passes, more prone to bookings and more disposed to trying the spectacular. He seems to have the physical attributes to play anywhere, even if his wanderlust complicates managers' decisions. Lallana, the sort of player the English traditionally struggle to categorise and understand, required managers like Mauricio Pochettino and Klopp who could determine what to do with him.
Whereas Pogba was fast-tracked, Lallana took the slower route to the top and longer to adjust to life there -- "In the first year here, I hear nobody was really happy about his performances," Klopp said this week -- and whereas the younger man scored his first international goal on his third appearance, the elder belatedly opened his account as he won his 27th cap. Perhaps it reflects a difference in their personalities. Pogba likes the limelight more. His Instagram account reveals more of himself to his 11.8 million followers. Lallana's is impersonal, branded "official" and followed by 10.9 million fewer people. He shields himself more.
Pogba is the extrovert, Lallana seemingly more shy. Pogba seems comfortable topping the bill, even for games of the magnitude of Manchester United against Liverpool. Lallana looks happier as merely one of several Liverpool luminaries, happy that each is overshadowed by their charismatic manager. They have acquired importance in different ways and at different stages of their careers. Yet their significance is such that a season-defining game could be determined by either.
Richard Jolly covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @RichJolly.