Had anyone asked me a month ago what I thought laid in store for Jon Flanagan, I’d have had no hesitation in saying I expected him to be moved on, probably in January, and probably to a team in the Championship. Up until his last minute inclusion versus Arsenal in place of a sick Glen Johnson, Flanno had become something of an outcast under Rodgers, who famously told him not to do too much in an episode of Being: Liverpool, seemingly because he didn’t think he was very good.
Many fans, myself included, had come to hold the view that Jon Flanagan was a limited footballer lacking intelligence and awareness, but for myself at least (and I suspect many others too) it wasn’t always that way. Making a surprise debut against Man City under Kenny Dalglish, Flanagan put in a similar performance to his latest outing against Everton. Words like ‘uncompromising’ are banded about too often in football, but in the case of Jon Flanagan, no other word could be as accurate. When Flanno decides he is going for the ball, that’s it, nothing is going to stop him; he tackles as if he feels no pain. Tacking strongly but fairly is rare trait these days. That isn’t to defend unnecessarily macho displays of aggression on the pitch, or reactionary football values, but going in to a challenge with conviction and timing is a dying art-form in football. Instead we get a combination of stand-offish jockeying (nothing wrong with that) or reckless tackles like the one dealt Suarez by Mirallas, possibly as a consequence of pent-up frustration at having to be less physical than players’ instincts encourage them to be.
So Flanagan’s tackling ability is something to cherish, but it wasn’t only that which impressed me on his debut. As he did against Everton, he also showed a willingness and ability to not give the ball away cheaply, and looked an assured one-touch player with a decent range of passing. Two-and-a-half years on, I’d begun to question that initial impression, but in a performance Rodgers described as “immense” and which prompted club captain Steven Gerrard to say “Our star man, for me was Jon Flanagan by a country mile,” it now seems the real Jon Flanagan has again stood up to be counted.
Against Everton, Flanagan won 8 tackles out of 9 attempted (89% which was the most of any player), 11 out of 17 Ground Duels (65%), and made 4 Interceptions (more than anyone else) and 6 Defensive Possession Wins (again the most of any player). And this in a derby game, having only featured once (against Arsenal) in the Premier League for the first team in over a year.
Little wonder Rodgers is so surprised no Championship club have made a serious inquiry about his availability. With Jose Enrique ruled out for ten weeks through injury, and Aly Cissokho failing to convince on the left, Flanagan might be glad nobody showed an interest. From nowhere, the young Liverpudlian could be handed a prolonged run in the team at left-back, with games against Hull, Norwich and West Ham next in line.
Flanagan is still limited in some aspects: he was the most dribbled past player for Liverpool in the derby, and took a few minutes to get to grips with the mischievous Mirallas, before working out that the trick was to challenge him before the Belgian could turn or beat him for pace. Perhaps the most impressive element of his display was the intelligence and awareness he showed in coming across to cover for the centre-backs on a number of occasions – a quality to be admired at any age, let alone in a 20-year-old playing out of position.
Long-term, Rodgers’ assessment in Being: Liverpool that Flanagan is the full-back who holds his position, rather than rampaging down the wing, might limit his opportunities under a coach who uses full-backs as quasi-wingers, but at the very least Flanagan can offer Rodgers a different tactical option, and the spirit and determination of a genuine Liverpool fan prepared to give his all.