LAST summer, Gareth Southgate: England Manager, decided that he would take his squad of international bottle jobs on a secret Royal Marines’ training course to toughen them up and teach them what it means to represent Queen and country. So secretive was this mission that several photographs of it conveniently found their way into the hands of the national press, who naturally had a field day, and the pictures really are a sight to behold.
All the lads are there. Joe Hart, looking like he could be sat on a sofa opposite Holly and Phil, discussing the Pride of Britain award he was given for saving that litter of kittens from a flood in Northumberland. Harry Kane, every inch the minor royal doing some active service to get a taste of civilian life, desperately attempting to convince the tabloids that he’s just a normal chap really. Kieran Trippier, trying to prove to his bullying stepfather that he’s not pathetic, still referring to him as ‘Ian’ and not ‘dad’ even though it upsets his mum.
And at the back, camo jacket fashionably long, hair coiffed to within a millimetre of the Golden Ratio, looking like a cast member of TOWIE on a god-awful E4 series that puts celebrities (in inverted commas) through hell (in inverted commas), is Adam Lallana.
In many ways this pristine pretty boy who doesn’t like to get his hands dirty reflects the accepted image many of us hold of Lallana. A graduate of the superlative Southampton youth system, the slight playmaker was a mainstay in a Saints’ side that endured a torrid spell of decline, before arresting their slump and gloriously reincarnating as a dependable top tier outfit. Lallana was there for all of it; the Tuesday night losses to Swindon in League One right through to the unexpected home victories over Manchester City in the Premier League, but could never properly shake the suggestion that he was a luxury player, albeit one who bordered on necessity for a side craving some form of creative spark.
As sure as swallows migrate north when summer comes around, Southampton players will similarly venture from their southern climes and rock up on Merseyside with a packed suitcase before the pre-season transfer window closes.
And so, when Brendan Rodgers signed Lallana for Liverpool in 2014, it was an understandable move for both parties. The midfielder got to satisfy his instinctual yearning, and the Reds got a player with hypnotic feet, mercurial flair, and a touch like velour pyjamas. But in spite of this, there was still the suspicion that Lallana’s game was too flimsy for him to be considered a top-level playmaker.
But all that was about to change. In Germany, an enigmatic lunatic by the name of Jurgen was looking for a new challenge having just parted ways with his previous employer. Jurgen’s interests included hipster fashion, continental travel, and long runs down the touchline, arms pumping like piston engines, spittle flying like a rabid horse. On paper him and Adam Lallana were polar opposites, but they were about to embark on a strange and beautiful bromance together.
To understand this Odd Couple love-in, some context must be given.
Gegenpressing loosely translates into English as ‘pressing against’ or ‘counter-pressing’. The likelihood is that you are already familiar with the renowned footballing philosophy popularised by Jurgen Klopp, whether that be through hours of listening to Alan Shearer exalt it on Match of the Day, or because Dave from accounts insists on putting it into practice at five-a-side on a Thursday night, but if you’re not, here’s a brief explanation.
Ordinarily when a team loses the ball they regather and settle into their defensive shape, allowing the opposition to attack them. With gegenpressing, however, a team hunts the ball as an organised unit from the moment that they lose possession. It’s hyperactive, aggressive, breakneck defending with an often overlooked element of discipline and decorum. You can understand why it appeals to Klopp so much.
Klopp himself refers to his side’s unceasing hounding of an opposition as ‘heavy metal football’. Assumptions should never be made of course, but it’s hard to envisage Adam Lallana whacking Slayer on during his morning commute to Melwood.
And yet, it is Lallana who has come to be regarded as the most fervent disciple of his manager’s teachings.
When the England international first made his move to Anfield, his form faltered and stuttered; not drastically, but enough to disrupt the fluidity on which his game thrived.
Lallana’s fledgling Liverpool career was so inconsistent that he felt the need to address the matter publicly. Speaking after a goal-scoring turn in a 1-1 Europa League draw against Bordeaux in September 2015, the playmaker said: “I definitely need to start delivering that quality in the box more consistently. It’s what I want to do now. At 27 I want to take responsibility and contribute towards the team.”
Logically, the appointment of Jurgen Klopp shortly after should have only served to exacerbate Lallana’s problems. In an article published in The Guardian a week after the German’s arrival, journalist Jonathan Wilson singled out the midfielder, suggesting that the full throttle intensity of Klopp’s mantra spelled bad news for a player, typically employed in a wide berth, who had only finished 11 of the 24 games he’d started for club and country since signing for the Reds.
The reality would prove to be something entirely different. Klopp’s first game in charge, a goalless draw at White Hart Lane, marked a watershed moment for Lallana and his Liverpool career.
Substituted in the 81st minute for Welsh chicken enthusiast Joe Allen, the playmaker made his way to the touchline and collapsed, exhausted, into the waiting arms of his boss. Even by Klopp’s tactile standards the bear hug embrace was tender and affectionate, and the message it projected was clear; Lallana had left everything on the pitch for his club, and Klopp had taken notice.
Some time later Lallana spoke about that embrace; “He went for a big hug and I just fell into his arms, looking exhausted. His big arms almost wrapped around me twice.” The seeds of something special had been sewn.
While there can be little dispute against the argument that Klopp’s tenure has accelerated the progression of several players in the Liverpool squad, Lallana seems to have benefitted more than most from working with a man he frequently and sincerely refers to as a ‘genius’.
As well as becoming a constant linchpin in Klopp’s relentless midfield juggernaut, a ventricle in the beating heart of an attacking behemoth, Lallana also established himself as a key member of the national side, and was voted FA England player of the year in 2016.
And it’s clear that the Englishman’s admiration of his mentor is anything but unrequited. Klopp’s public praise of his protege goes far beyond the usual magnolia platitudes wheeled out by managers to feed the press conference propaganda machine.
Despite an injury ravaged season, Klopp still describes Lallana as a ‘driving force’ in his Liverpool side, and one of the ‘top three or four players’ at Gareth Southgate’s disposal in Russia this summer.
Jurgen has also bestowed perhaps the highest praise he could upon his player by suggesting that the midfielder’s return from the treatment room was a large factor in Liverpool’s decision to hold off on signing a replacement for the Barcelona-bound Phillipe Coutinho.
Indeed, the two have such a strong personal relationship that they spent a happy and harmonious spell as next-door neighbours.
Given that Klopp’s image and demeanour sits somewhere on the spectrum between Jack Nicholson in The Shining and an extra from an Ikea advert, we can only surmise as to what that experience was like for Lallana, but it’s not unreasonable to assume that power drills were borrowed, long chats about the weather were had over the back garden fence, and banana bread loaves were baked and exchanged.
Evidently Klopp has been good for Lallana, the tripwire catalyst needed to reignite the touch-paper on a career that was threatening to drift the way of the Rickie Lamberts, Andy Carrolls, and Alberto Aquilanis of this world.
But only so much credit can be given to the eccentric German. The key to Lallana’s resurgence has been his own commitment and dedication to forcing his way into his manager’s plans. A studious approach to absorbing the tactics and ethos of one of the modern game’s great philosophers has allowed Lallana to flourish from a silken wallflower into an iron-lunged convert to the church of heavy metal football.
Simon Mignolet, Gini Wijnaldum, the departed Coutinho, and even Lallana himself have openly identified the Englishman as a teacher’s pet in the past.
Ultimately, Adam Lallana has thrived under Jurgen Klopp because he decided early on that he was going to thrive under Jurgen Klopp. In a game that increasingly panders to the whims and complaints of the disgruntled player, Lallana’s tenacity, grit, and willingness to adapt for the good of both himself and his team makes for a refreshing change.
If Jurgen Klopp is the king of heavy metal football, he doesn’t have to look far for a suitable heir.