Friday 13 December 2019

Forget Mario, Liverpool braces itself for home debut of Adam Lallana

England midfielder was signing for long-term to embody Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers’ vision while Mario Balotelli was the last minute roll of the dice

Adam Lallana and Mario Balotelli are in line to make their Anfield bows against Aston Villa Photo: REUTERS
Adam Lallana and Mario Balotelli are in line to make their Anfield bows against Aston Villa Photo: REUTERS

Chris Bascombe

It’s the home debut every Liverpool supporter has been waiting for when Aston Villa visit Anfield on Saturday.

Finally, The Kop gets the chance to see the multi-million pound signing who could be the difference in the title challenge; a player pursued by Brendan Rodgers despite reservations expressed about where his target would fit into his side and whether the fee truly represents good value.

Mario Balotelli? Can we fix our gaze on someone else for a moment? The return to fitness of £23 million summer signing Adam Lallana is of equal, if not greater, relevance.

Lallana may have more reason than most to be grateful for the arrival of Balotelli prior to the transfer deadline as the Italian consumed all the attention when the Merseyside club’s summer business was analysed. The lone paparazzi permanently camped outside Melwood who obsessed for weeks about whether Lallana had started jogging again after his knee injury in pre-season is pointing his lens elsewhere.

The contrast in coverage between the English and Italian international will surely suit the former Southampton midfielder, and also work to Rodgers’ advantage.

Balotelli was the last minute roll of the dice, but Lallana was the more carefully calculated investment. In terms of staking a manager’s reputation on a deal, it is the performance of Lallana that will be more reflective of Rodgers’ judgement than the striker who the club felt virtually compelled to sign due to lack of viable alternatives.

As Liverpool have stated, if the Balotelli deal does not work they are confident they will eventually sell him for a slightly reduced fee. If Lallana is not successful, most of the £23 million will be written off.

Unlike the last-minute shuffling through a ‘who’s who?’ brochure of top class strikers in order to sign Balotelli, Lallana was coveted for months, Rodgers seeing a player who can be emblematic of what he is trying to create at Anfield - a team with plenty of British players who are as technically good as the top Europeans and South Americans. Lallana was a signing for the long-term to embody Rodgers’ vision. Where Balotelli still represents hope, Lallana also carries expectation.

The injury to Daniel Sturridge – who misses the next fortnight with a thigh injury - opens the possibility of the summer signings being paired, if not against Villa, almost certainly in the Champions League group opener with Ludogorets next week.

Anfield aficionados will be watching Lallana asking themselves if he can become the type of player all the great Liverpool teams had. He has been signed to see the passes others do not; to offer penetration the next time a team comes to Merseyside with no ambition beyond securing a 0-0 draw; to make sure when the table of ‘assists’ is printed in May, his name is close to the top.

The major difference between the most recent transfer window and the last couple at Liverpool is the vast majority of signings appear to have been more enthusiastically welcomed by Rodgers.

A year ago he was greeting certain new arrivals having been convinced of their qualities rather than – so to speak – bringing these names to the committee table himself. He agreed based on the recommendations to bring them to Merseyside but realised within a matter of weeks they were not good enough to immediately contribute (or in some cases ever contribute) to the first team.

The difference when Lallana signed was striking. Rodgers’ passion was apparent in the quotes he gave to club media on the day of the purchase. They went far beyond the usual ‘he’s a player we’ve watched for a long time’ standard. Lallana was received with the kind of tribute normally afforded those celebrating a testimonial.

"He is one of the Premier League's top talents,” Rodger said. "An exceptional young man with a love for the game, motivated by being the best he can be and being part of something special. He fits right in with what we are trying to do at Liverpool. He has a tactical awareness to adapt to what is required of him.

"He has leadership skills and personal qualities that make him a special commodity. He will fit perfectly with the culture we have at Liverpool.

"I'm excited about working with Adam and helping him to progress even further."

It’s fair to say Rodgers was not making similar statements about Iago Aspas and Luis Alberto last season.

Debates always rage nowadays about whether a Liverpool signing is a Rodgers choice or the pick of ‘the committee’ and the diplomatic answer from the club is ‘both’, but Lallana may as well have arrived at Melwood marked as a special delivery for the manager.

Liverpool’s No 7 shirt remains vacant since Luis Suarez’s sale. That is a consequence of unfortunate timing. Had Suarez been sold prior to Lallana’s transfer, the 26-year-old’s attributes would have made him a natural fit.

Some might consider that premature, adding too much extra weight to the jersey as he settles in.

That might be true, but the challenge for Lallana over the next eight months is to earn the right to be handed Liverpool’s vacant, iconic jersey next season. If he succeeds, Melwood’s resident paparazzi might rediscover a compulsion to scan the training pitch rather than focus solely on what Mario is up to.

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