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Joe Allen: Still the ‘Welsh Xavi’ or something different entirely?

By Jonathan Chan

Famously branded by Brendan Rodgers as the ‘Welsh Xavi’, Joe Allen’s purchase in 2012 and subsequent career at Anfield has been hotly debated by Liverpool fans and Premier League observers alike. Allen has always been a player that has confused me. Rodger’s complete faith in him leads me to support him, but sometimes his role in our midfield and indeed the team puzzles me. So who is Joe Allen? And  Is Joe Allen still the ‘Welsh Xavi’ or has he evolved into a completely different player?

Let’s deal first with that Xavi comparison. Branded by many as one of the best midfielders to be produced by Spain, Xavi has been a vital cog in both his club side ( Barcelona) and national side over the past decade. His touch, passing and ability to find space when he has and doesn’t have the ball is phenomenal. Both players are utilised by their respective managers to retain possession of the ball and created opportunities for their team mates.

So before I give you any subjective opinion on the comparison, let’s look at the stats between the two this season (2014/2015). While everyone would agree both attempt and compete a lot of passes, what is interesting to note ( and perhaps more important to note) is the direction of the passers . Both Xavi and Allen can boast a similar percentage of forward passes ( 63% and 60% respectively), it is perhaps more interesting to note that Xavi has created four times the number of goal scoring chances than Allen. In an attacking sense, Xavi trumps Allen at every turn, but analysis of the defensive statistics paints a rather interesting picture. Despite playing fewer games this season than Xavi ( approx 300 less minutes of game time), Allen has made one and a half times more interceptions than Xavi and boasts more than three times the number of tackles won.

The picture painted by the statistics alone paint a story of two very different players gifted in quite different ways. So did Rodgers get it wrong by claiming Joe Allen was a ‘Welsh Xavi’? Well yes and no. At Swansea Rodgers played tika taka football ( or as close to it as an English team has ever got to it), while at Liverpool he has been forced/ chosen to adopt a slightly different footballing philosophy. Gone are the days of borderline obsessive ball retention and patient build up (at which Allen excelled in), instead Liverpool over the last two seasons have developed into an aggressive, slick and fast paced team. So how does that impact Joe Allen’s ability to play like Xavi? In every way possible. His new role, theoretically requires him to breakdown opposition attacks and immediately pass the ball off to the likes of Lallana, Coutinho and Markovic who can then start attacks. The onus on Joe Allen to create is perhaps no longer there.

So if Xavi is the wrong comparison who can we compare him to? Well we don’t need to look too far from Xavi to find the answer, as statistics and games show that Xavi’s team mate Sergio Busquets possesses a rather similar stack of statistics to Allen. Both players have a similar number of interceptions, tackles won and fouls committed. When watching Liverpool and Barcelona games, both players have a similar style of play and surprisingly similar mindsets.

This comparison creates one final problem I want to talk about today. What does Joe Allen bring to the Liverpool midfield? Using last season’s statistics we can see that Joe Allen is a perplexing figure. He played a similar amount of games as Lucas Leiva, yet had half the number of interceptions as Brazilian. Lucas also manages to win 30% more aerial duels than Allen. So if he isn’t as defensively efficient as Lucas then what is his role? Statistics reveal he isn’t superior either to Jordan Henderson’s attacking ability ( creates a lot less chances and goals). Frankly I often fail to understand Rodger’s insistence in both starting Joe Allen ahead of Lucas and/or Henderson. He neither excels in defence nor in attack when compared to his Liverpool colleagues. I could understand Joe Allen’s role in a possession-centric team such as Swansea or even Barcelona, but in what is fast developing into a new style of play and system under Brendan Rodgers Joe Allen may find his role in the team a little more unclear.

I don’t doubt for one second that Joe Allen is a good footballer and a good person, I merely wonder what is role in the Liverpool midfield is. Am I calling for the Rodgers to sell Allen asap? No, I have full confidence in Allen being able to adapt to a new role and style of play which benefits his team mates. Many players before him have been forced to adapt their style/ role under different managers and philosophies. For me, all that is certain is that Allen must find a new role to call his own and that Rodgers needs to find a new metaphor when talking about Joe. 

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