Few players have divided the notoriously chippy and captious extremes of the wider Liverpool fanbase as much as Joe Allen has. The Welshman, for a variety of reasons, has shown some perplexingly polarised form since he signed, soon after Brendan Rodgers' arrival. Assured and almost magisterial early performances gave way to hesitant and ineffective displays, as Allen succumbed to injury and loss of confidence. A vast chunk of last campaign and an unfortunate portion of this one were spent on the sidelines nursing a damaged body and an increasingly battered ego, worn down by his own hesitant form and the impatience of the more vocal Anfield moaners.
Despite starting his Liverpool career as the manager's go-to-guy, and although Lucas Leiva has been absent of late, Allen is no longer an automatic choice and the sublimely talented Brazilian, Philippe Coutinho seems to be Rodgers' preferred choice at the point of the midfield, certainly when Liverpool are favourites to impose their attacking style on the opposition. With Rodgers tweaking his system in order to accommodate Steven Gerrard, Allen's role in the side is less clearly defined and, like Jordan Henderson before him, he may have to endure being a moving part in a fluid machine until consistently good displays mean he cements a specific berth as his own.
Against Swansea, Liverpool fans saw the very best of Joe Allen. Certainly, he was efficient as ever in possession, but there was an energy and an almost manic intensity to his play, as he pressed and harried his way around the Anfield pitch, providing impetus and creativity whilst remaining solid defensively. Standard, lazy television punditry has Allen pegged as a useful if uninspired recycler of possession but there is far more to his game than that benighted assessment would suggest.
Allen can see an incisive pass, and despite a string of displays in which he seemed unable to assert himself physically, the Wales international has, like Coutinho and Raheem Sterling, a surprising tenacity and intensity in the challenge when his confidence is up. When all of these qualities are allied, as they were in the performance against Swansea or earlier against Arsenal, Joe Allen is a very useful addition to the Liverpool first team. The trick, it would appear, is for the player to be consistently strong both mentally and physically, thus providing himself with a platform from which to launch a run of good form.
The player himself is only too aware of the difficulty he faces in breaking into a side which is currently ahead of Rafa Benitez's 2009 title challengers in terms of points accrued at this stage of the campaign. To earn a place, even in an area as criticised as central midfield has been, is a challenge, with the Redmen still capable of producing their best ever campaign in the Premier League.
"It does get harder and harder to get into the team," he said. "But that can only be a good thing. That’s something that’s been great this season, the competition for places."
Many feel that the kind of discipline and rigidity of structure needed for the tough away fixtures that remain would best be achieved with Allen coming in for Coutinho. Still others, whose opinions I respect equally, visibly flinch at the mention of the Welshman as a starter, so poor has his form been on several occasions. Irrespective of your take on the player overall, there was no arguing with the intensity of his effort against his old club, so sit back and look at what he can do when he's in the groove.