If you were to pick the player who best encapsulates Jurgen Klopp’s frenzied management style, you’d be inclined to opt for the whirring creativity of Marco Reus, the muscular energy of Robert Lewandowski or even the buzzard-like ball-hunting of Roberto Firmino. But right now it’s a slightly less glamorous player – one who hasn’t kicked a ball all season – who best personifies his manager’s successes and struggles, at least during his two and a bit years at Anfield.
Adam Lallana, replete with dishevelled-chic beard and alice band, is set to make his comeback this week, which is quietly excellent news for a team whose season-so-far has been characterised by the sort of sluggish, stop-start hesitancy to which a once-underwhelming attacker now stands as the complete antithesis.
In two years under Klopp, Lallana has not so much stepped things up a gear as wrenched open the bonnet and modified the entire engine, his importance to the team hammered home by their recent travails without him. It is a longstanding rule of sport that a struggling side’s absentees improve with every passing loss – witness a nation’s five-year obsession with Wes Hoolahan – but in Lallana’s case you sense it’s less of an illusion than usual.
Not only has Lallana been at the heart of Klopp’s most memorable moments as Liverpool manager – the ludicrous 5-4 at Carrow Road, the dead-eyed demolition of United under the Anfield lights – he is also the clearest example of the German’s most tangible triumph at the club: the capacity to make his players better.
While Klopp’s tactics, transfers and organisational nous have come in for plenty of criticism during his time on Merseyside, it is a heartening feature of his reign that pretty much every first-team regular has improved under his tutelage. This is true for some more than others, of course, but alongside Jordan Henderson and Roberto Firmino, Lallana stands as the starkest beneficiary of Klopp’s bibs-and-cones handiwork.
It seems a while ago now, but back when the German pitched up in the autumn of 2015, Lallana was an emblem of Liverpool’s post-Slip tailspin: an expensive and apparently knee-jerk signing who had laboured wretchedly as the club plunged from champions elect to upper-midtable lightweights, from Suarez and Sturridge to Markovic and Manquillo. At Southampton he was a roving, languid throwback to Charlie George; in his debut season at Liverpool he was a throwback to Charlie Adam: overpriced, underperforming and in the end largely unwanted. And not only was he of little use during his time on the pitch, but that time itself seemed to be fundamentally limited – he barely ever made it through a 90-minute match, seemingly not fit enough to do so.
Lallana was an emblem of Liverpool's post-Slip tailspin: an expensive and apparently knee-jerk signing who had laboured wretchedly as the club plunged from champions elect to upper-midtable lightweights, from Suarez and Sturridge to Markovic and Manquillo.
For a season and a bit, the defining image of Lallana at Liverpool was him being hauled off, red-faced and out of breath, as a game entered its latter stages. So when the Klopp was appointed it was widely expected that he would soon become an early casualty of a manager famed for his hard-running, high-pressing blueprint.
Instead, the opposite happened: Lallana not only played but he played well, and – slowly but surely – he played until the end. Far from being unable to meet his new coach high-energy demands he rose heroically to exceed them, growing demonstrably more durable and visibly more explosive. You often notice a player becoming stronger, or smarter, or more canny on a game-to-game basis. But you rarely see them become faster. Lallana went from one-paced to outright explosive in the space of a few short months.
His tactical importance is also hard to understate. In a setup where so much relies on the timing and coordination of a bloodthirsty pressing arrangement, Lallana is the player who takes it upon himself to get the ball rolling. It’s his haranguing of the opposition which, when Liverpool’s pressing game clicks into gear, sets off a domino effect in his team-mates. His growth under Klopp, from peripheral to pivotal, has been remarkable.
It’s not all positive though. Triggering the gegenpress is all well and good but for an attacker, his tangible output – also known as goals and assists – is still objectionably low. He hit double-figure goal tallies in four of his last five seasons at Southampton, but has not done so once yet at Anfield.
And, again like Klopp’s Liverpool at large, injuries have proven a serious barrier to putting a consequential run together, from making the all-important transition from exciting to exceptional. In 28 months at Liverpool, injury has seen him miss 46 games; in the four years prior, that figure stood at 12. (He has also, as Raymond Verheijen will no doubt tell you, been sidelined with hamstring injuries on three separate occasions: he’s caught the flipside to Klopp’s methods as well as the benefits.)
Right now – for good and bad – Lallana exists as a neat emblem of Klopp’s Liverpool reign: exciting but inconsistent, fit but fragile, vastly improved but not yet worrying the elite.
But Lallana’s return will be rightly welcomed by a Liverpool team who could certainly do with his resilience and ferocity. And if such a sentence would have been unthinkable two years ago, then that is merely testament to the turnaround undertaken in that time. Lallana may never be the star attraction of this side but, like the rug that ties the room together, his presence is only truly appreciated when he’s not there.