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Aug 11, 2012

Allen a key piece in progressive puzzle

No sooner had he been appointed than the Liverpool manager turned to the men he had already tried and trusted. His rebuilding doubled up as a reunion and, in a bid to bolster the midfield, he bid for a former charge.

"He will be a very good player to bring into our team," he said. "He is a player I know well, a player whose career I actually kick-started and I have followed him closely ever since." The player was not Joe Allen, Liverpool's £15 million signing from Swansea, but Christian Poulsen, the manager not Brendan Rodgers but Roy Hodgson.

That was the summer of 2010 when Hodgson brought in Poulsen and Paul Konchesky for a combined cost of £7.5 million; little by Liverpool's standards, but excessive given their abject performances. Rounding up old friends can be a sign of laziness in scouting. In Hodgson's case, it hinted at both a lack of funds and a fundamental underestimation of the requirements of a Liverpool player. Two years on, however, a successor has adopted a similar policy. Besides Allen, Rodgers has bought Fabio Borini. Between them, they have cost £25 million. Both were playing in the Championship in his Swansea side 15 months ago.

And yet, rather than nepotism, their arrivals are indications of the particular demands the Northern Irishman places upon his players. A legacy of Liverpool's past dealings is that they are unable to sign cheaply, but the more pertinent element is the newcomers' understanding of Rodgers' philosophy.

"Because of my methods, I need a certain profile of player," the manager had explained. "Technically the player needs to be strong, have the technical capacity to participate and learn the game, have the physical attributes to perform in a high-intensity pressing and passing game and the mentality and hunger to perform every day. These qualities won't be here right from the start but I will work towards this vision."

With every utterance, it becomes more apparent that Rodgers is a quiet revolutionary. Possession is of paramount importance, but pressing is as significant as passing. It is a tempo that requires precision with the ball and fitness without it. Allen's 91% pass completion rate was the stand-out statistic of his debut campaign in the Premier League, but his first task may be to win the ball back.

At Anfield, there is an obvious vacancy for him alongside a proven ball-winner, Lucas Leiva. Consider the 11 who started the second leg of the Europa League tie against FC Gomel and Jonjo Shelvey looked the odd man out, a caretaker until Allen became available.

The presence of a passer at the base of the midfield is a reminder that the search for a new Xabi Alonso has become an annual occupation at Anfield since the Spaniard's 2009 sale. Rafa Benitez plumped for Alberto Aquilani, the most talented of the pretenders, but a man whose fragility was a constant worry. Hodgson opted for Poulsen, a desperately unambitious choice of a player who appeared reluctant to move the ball forward. Kenny Dalglish went for Charlie Adam who, like Allen, arrived from a smaller club having forged a reputation as a passing midfielder in a progressive, promoted side.

There, however, the similarities end. Had Adam lived up to the billing, Allen may have remained a Swan. Instead, a supposed specialist distributor's carelessness in possession and predilection for the Hollywood ball meant his pass completion rate, of 72.6%, rather than rivalling Allen's exemplary figures, was just below Tony Hibbert's. Slow of thought as well as of foot, Adam produced a cameo of unfortunate haplessness on Rodgers' Anfield bow.

If his days appear numbered, he is not alone. The manager's politeness may mask a rapid, radical overhaul. The path to the exit is becoming well-worn even though it is reasonable to wonder if, at another point in their careers, Aquilani, Craig Bellamy and Maxi Rodriguez would have fitted Rodgers' bill. Each possesses at least some of the qualities he prioritises.

Specific demands dictate his idea of a player in every position. It is a reason he would be reluctant to sell Daniel Agger. "I like to have a playmaker from behind and that is his game," Rodgers said. Any replacement would have to be capable of delivering a penetrative pass as well as meeting Anfield's exacting standards. The step up may not faze Allen: his understated assurance when lining up alongside some comparative strangers in Great Britain's Olympic team bodes well.

The recent precedents do not. The last central midfielder signed to become an unqualified success was Lucas, and only after a troubled start. Since then the best part of £75 million has been committed to arrivals and Raul Meireles, who came and went all too quickly, was the closest to a triumph. So, while the reunion of Hodgson and Poulsen backfired, Liverpool's hope now is the familiarity breeds contentment as Rodgers and Allen are together again, pursuing their own particular, purist brand of football.

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