Joe Allen and Nuri Sahin must fill a Lucas shaped hole in Liverpool's midfield.
When Lucas Leiva trudged disconsolately off the Anfield turf just 3 minutes into Liverpool's match against Manchester City, an audible air of concern was detectable from the home fans inside Anfield that was surely mirrored by the club's supporters watching around the globe. Lucas' absence from the side last season had an astoundingly detrimental effect on the side then managed by Kenny Dalglish and the notion of him again being injured seemingly presented the same problems that Dalglish ultimately failed to resolve last season to new manager Brendan Rodgers. Or so we thought.
Despite no signing of a like for like back up player for Lucas and the ever expanding dossier of evidence displaying Jay Spearing's inability to reach the levels required in that role, Liverpool managed the rest of the game against the Champions without a 'natural' defensive midfielder in an admirable manner. Step forward Joe Allen.
When Brendan Rodgers splashed out £15m for the Welshman, it was assumed that he would occupy the 'second volante' position in Liverpool's new midfield trio. Essentially he would be the playmaker, slightly advanced of Lucas and behind Steven Gerrard. Lucas would be the player charged with more of the defensive responsibilities, thus allowing Allen to concentrate of getting on the ball and dictating Liverpool's play from a slightly more advanced position. It was in this particular role that he excelled for Swansea last season with Leon Britton doing his defensive work (playing the 'Lucas' role, if you like) and while Liverpool lost convincingly to West Brom on his league début for his new club, Allen produced an accomplished personal display in that position.
However, with Lucas likely to miss up to three months of the season with his thigh injury and Jay Spearing seemingly on his way out of the club, Allen will most likely now be required to be Liverpool's deepest and most overtly defensive central midfielder. Admittedly this isn't ideal, but against City, the little maestro's performance showed that he is capable of filing the void left by the unfortunate Brazilian.
Aside from the outstanding retention of possession and smart, accurate passing on display from Allen last weekend, it was his interceptions, tackling and tenacity that eased the fears of losing Lucas to injury. Allen was imperious against the likes of Yaya Toure and Samir Nasri while positioned just in front of Liverpool's centre halves and never looked overawed at the complicated and slightly different role thrust upon him. For a player at a new club, in a new role in a game of that magnitude, he exuded maturity and tactical abilities that belied his tender years.
Allen's apparent versatility is looking likely to benefit Liverpool in Lucas' absence, but it is also offset with the astute loan capture of Nuri Sahin which also eases the headache that Lucas' injury has given Brendan Rodgers. Rather than having to compensate for the lack of a world class defensive midfielder with the introduction of a player of lesser quality like Jay Spearing (as Dalglish did), or trusting in the relatively unproven, inexperienced Jonjo Shelvey and Jordan Henderson, Rodgers now has the option to bring in an experienced and potentially world class player like Nuri Sahin into the side while readjusting the role of Allen slightly. Essentially, Allen can play where Lucas was meant to and Sahin can fill the gap that Allen's repositioning creates.
While a deep lying midfield duo of Sahin and Allen does not, on the face of it, offer quite the defensive solidity of that of Lucas and Allen in tandem, it does allow two of Liverpool's most technically gifted players to play alongside each other and help set the tempo for the side by dominating possession even more than with Lucas in the side. It is probably not the pairing that Brendan Rodgers would have preferred to have been able to select early in the season (especially with may difficult games on the immediate horizon), but the signings of Allen and Sahin now look even more inspired as it offers Liverpool greater flexibility and more options to deal with the unfortunate loss of Lucas. Rather than simply finding a less talented replacement for Lucas, Liverpool can now alter their tactical ethos slightly to incorporate a midfield trio with the outstanding technical qualities of Gerrard, Sahin and Allen. It may not be perfect and it may not click straight away but it is a mouth watering prospect that could ignite Liverpool's season.
If Allen had failed to re-assimilate himself impressively in the deeper role he was forced to undertake against City, then panic would now be sweeping the club and it's fan base. Instead, Allen's man of the match performance means that while he doesn't have the experience of Lucas at being the predominant holding player in midfield, Liverpool at least have a young man ready to step into the Brazilian's hitherto unfilled shoes and aid the midfield from the same position, albeit in a slightly different way.
If Nuri Sahin can integrate himself into Liverpool's system in the way fans hope, then Lucas' absence may not be as devastating as first feared. Allen and Sahin is a risky pairing in central midfield, but it is also a combination that cannot fail to evoke some excitement. Both players have wonderful technique and are famed for their passing styles. While Allen is busy and generally keeps play ticking over with short, simple passes, Sahin is capable of supplying much needed imagination to the team. He has an extraordinary passing range and will hopefully excel with a player like Steven Gerrard to constantly feed the ball to. If Allen can consistently replicate his performance against City with a fit and firing Sahin alongside him, then Liverpool may find themselves with a new midfield partnership that could be the envy of the Premier League.