Sunday 15 December 2019

Rise of the 'English Iniesta'

Lallana taking meteoric rise in stride with Rio on horizon, writes Nick Szczepanik

Southampton's Adam Lallana instantly took to international football when making his debut against Chile in November. Photo: Scott Heavey/Getty Images
Southampton's Adam Lallana instantly took to international football when making his debut against Chile in November. Photo: Scott Heavey/Getty Images

Nick Szczepanik

His club manager has compared him to Barcelona legends Iniesta and Xavi, and the debate about his England prospects is no longer about his seat on the plane to Brazil but whether he should be in Roy Hodgson's World Cup starting XI.

But Adam Lallana is taking nothing for granted – even his place in the national squad. "No way," he said. "I've only won three caps. It would just be silly to think that, wouldn't it?"

Not to most observers. Lallana saw at close quarters how little in football is guaranteed when his club and international team-mate Jay Rodriguez suffered a season-ending injury in the 4-1 defeat at Manchester City two weeks ago, but, fitness permitting, the Southampton captain seems certain to play a part in Brazil despite winning his first cap only last November.

His two-footed skill and vision in tight situations make him as much at home on the left of midfield as on the right side of attack or in a central playmaking role – a versatility unique in Hodgson's squad.


He dismisses the Iniesta/Xavi comparison. "It was a huge compliment and one that I don't really agree with, because they are absolutely world-class players, but I was touched by the manager's comments," Lallana (25) said.

"He (Mauricio Pochettino) has been great for me this year and I feel like my game has come on leaps and bounds working for him and playing under him, but there is no way I can compare myself to any of those players.

"They are the elite, they have won championships and World Cups, so many medals and trophies, but I will keep striving in that direction and, hopefully, keep getting better."

Although he watches La Liga, Lallana's game is his own and has been shaped more by the vaunted Southampton academy than the desire to copy others.

He credits Southampton's French former U-17 coach Georges Prost for making him two-footed. "My scholarship was two, three years long, and day in, day out you would work your left foot and work your right foot.

"I feel that those years were where I developed massively into not thinking about what foot you use and it becoming second nature. I've never been blessed with out-and-out pace, or out-and-out power, so the technical side of the game is something I have worked hours on end on.

"I feel that's a big component of my game so I'll never stop working on that."

Lallana instantly took to international football when making his debut against Chile at Wembley in November.

"You are playing with the best players in England so you are obviously going to notice the difference," he said. "The tempo and pace is definitely different to what you experience at club level, but it is something I would like to think I thrived on and I just want more of it."

His rise has been matched by that of his club. He signed a long-term contract with the Saints when others were jumping ship after their descent into administration and League One in 2009, but he has no regrets. His faith was repaid with the captaincy of the team that returned to the top flight in 2012.

"I've always been committed to Southampton; my contact has never run down. I've always been happy here," he said.

"The chairman had a five-year plan and he said by the end of it he wanted us to be in the Premier League and that's where we were after three years. We've grown even more as a team this season and it's credit to all the players and the manager."

Needless to say, Southampton's progress and their players' England recognition have led to transfer speculation, with Manchester United recently suggested as a possible destination for both Lallana and left-back Luke Shaw.

"When the players are getting linked with big clubs, the club must be doing well, recruiting good players, playing good football," he said. "But that's it, at the end of the day. We don't write the papers."

Lallana did make headlines in December when Southampton wanted referee Mark Clattenburg banned from their games after he suggested that Lallana had changed since becoming an England player when he challenged one of his decisions.

But Lallana puts the incident down to the heat of battle. "Things happen in football every week – it's a passionate sport and we all want to win games," he said. "Mark and me, we're absolutely fine. He has taken charge of our games since then and as far as I'm concerned he's a good referee."

One definite change was to the date of Lallana's wedding – originally planned for this World Cup summer but moved forward to last Christmas.

The arrangements began around the same time as England's qualifying campaign. "We were probably only playing in the Championship at the time," he said. "Luke Shaw would have only been 16, Jay was at Burnley.

"There is so much happening and it seems to happen so fast that sometimes you really have to take a minute to step back and think about everything.

"When you are playing in League One and the Championship, you are not going to expect an England call, but gradually I've improved with the club and the leagues we've been in.

"I have played on cold, wet, damp nights away in midweek and they are character-building, and the gradual process has helped mentally and physically.

"You realise how special it is to play in the Premier League and at grounds like Anfield, Old Trafford and the Emirates. But I had a great time playing in League One and getting promoted. It is all part of the journey, really.

"I learnt a lot physically in those leagues. If you've got people who want to whack you then it must mean you're doing something right.

"But obviously when you play for England there are different demands and pressures, playing in front of 80,000 fans and with better players. I just want to keep working hard and then, hopefully, I can keep playing well and get into Roy Hodgson's squad."

Lallana is surely in a minority of one if he believes his place is not already booked. (© Independent News Service)

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