August seems like forever ago, and in the worlds of Joe Allen and Raheem Sterling, it may as well be. Allen came straight into the starting eleven after signing from Swansea and was Liverpool's best player in early going, and Raheem Sterling's debut against Manchester City kicked off a string of exciting performances for a player who'd suddenly, at the age of 17, become a first-team regular.
Their work early in the season was one of the main reasons for optimism amid disappointing results--Allen filled in admirably for the absent Lucas, adapting well to a more withdrawn role than he was used to and showing a calmness in possession that was supremely impressive. Sterling was all action and no fear, running at defenders and working his way into dangerous areas throughout the final third. The goals didn't come in buckets for the youngster, but he had made himself an integral part of a Liverpool attack that desperately needed a spark.
Which all combines to make their respective drop-offs in recent weeks all the more troubling. Neither player looks to be struggling any ill physical effects other than tired legs, but both are clearly not their usual selves. For Sterling it's the decision-making and delivery in the final third, for Allen it's the uncharacteristic clumsiness in the tackle, carelessness in distribution, and lack of awareness while in possession.
Thankfully it's not lost on Brendan Rodgers, who today spoke about the prospect of giving both players some time off:
"There is no doubt Raheem is one who does need that breather. I've thought about it over the past couple of weeks. In order to do that you need to have that depth to take him out and put somebody else in. That's something I'm thinking about - who to put in. He's a naturally very, very fit boy but he needs that mental rest as well.
"For the kid, it's about efficiency as well, tactically he's still very young. That time will come and he will get the breather soon enough.
"There is no doubt after working with Joe and seeing him, he's another one. If we're honest, there are a few who could do with that breather, especially mentally. It's something for sure I need to have a wee look at."
Who to put in seems fairly straightforward from a distance, which obviously doesn't account for the day-to-day observations and judgments that Rodgers is afforded. In the case of Sterling there's a bevy of names, albeit ones that aren't quite as impressive--Oussama Assaidi, Stewart Downing, Jose Enrique, Suso, and Jonjo Shelvey can all do a job of varying quality in Sterling's absence, and there's still the chance that Steven Gerrard can push into a more attack-minded role now that Lucas is back in the squad.
As for Allen, the impressive form of Jordan Henderson makes for an easy fill-in; Henderson's arguably been Liverpool's best midfielder over the past month, and a spot in the eleven is deserved whether or not Joe Allen needs rest. There's also Nuri Sahin, who's faded from the collective consciousness and first-team football since early November, but unless Rodgers plans to give both Allen and Gerrard time off, I'd guess Henderson gets the nod.
Whatever decision Brendan Rodgers ends up making, it'll be a defensible one. We've been crying for some sort of rotation in the midfield for weeks, and Sterling's recent struggles have made it clear that he needs a break. Those that come in might not be of equal quality, but longer-term their appearances will hopefully benefit both Liverpool and the players they're replacing.