For all his faults Brendan Rodger actually did a lot of good at Liverpool. OK, he signed the likes of Mario Balotelli, Iago Aspas and Fabio Borini. But he took Liverpool to their best ever Premier League finish playing football that hadn’t been seen at Anfield since the halcyon days of the later 80’s. He turned Luis Suarez from a fantastic left winger into a world class centre forward. He bought Daniel Sturridge and Philippe Coutinho for a combined £20 million and has transformed them from players on the brink of becoming nothing more than wasted talent, and into two of the best players in England on their respective days. He also made Raheem Sterling a £50 million England international. One of his greatest achievements as a coach though may just be the salvaging of Jon Flanagan’s career at the club.
The career of Jon Flanagan began before Brendan Rodgers’ arrival at Anfield of course. He made his debut in the 3-0 home defeat of Manchester City in April 2011. That night, the then 18-year-old was tasked with containing the frightening strike force of Carlos Tevez and Edin Dzeko. When Tevez was forced off with an injury in the first half, it was future team-mate Mario Balotelli who was his replacement. How could this 5″6 teenager cope with the hulking frame of Balotelli? Apparently with consummate ease. The Italian never had a look in all game and Flanagan made him look so poor that, 15 minutes into second half, Balotelli was dealt the ultimate humiliation by being substituted after coming on as a substitute. The following week Flanagan played again in a dramatic 1-1 draw at the Emirates against Arsenal. He typified the backs against the wall performance of his team and stood up to the task of containing Samir Nasri and Theo Walcott with comfort. It was a strong finish to the season for Flanagan and it looked as though he was about to break into the first team on a full-time basis in 2011/12.
But that wasn’t what happened. He started the opening game, a 1-1 home draw against Sunderland, but was caught out of position for the away sides equaliser. He retained his place for the game against Exeter City in the League Cup that midweek, but wouldn’t play again until January. He was again in and out of the team as it appeared that Kenny Dalglish was losing faith in the youngster. His final appearance of the season was during the 3-2 win at Ewood Park against Blackburn Rovers and it was probably one of the lowest points of his fledgeling career. He hit a back pass to Alexander Doni, who was playing in place of the suspended Pepe Reina, but played it too short. Yakubu ran onto it and went to round the Brazilian ‘keeper but was brought down. Doni was sent off and Flanagan, clearly at fault for the penalty, was substituted after 20 minutes for Brad Jones. He wouldn’t play again that season.
It only got worse for Flanagan the following season. He travelled to Switzerland for the Europa League group game against Young Boys but wasn’t named in the squad. He played the next Europa League game at Anfield against Anzhi Makhachkala and in the return game in Moscow, but wouldn’t make another appearance that season. It seemed that a once promising career was veering off the rails. There was still hope; he was only 20 years of age and maybe a loan may salvage a decent career with another club either in the Premier League or in the Championship. But it looked as if his future certainly wouldn’t be at Anfield.
After recovering from injury Flanagan managed to stay at the club however. It took until November 2013 for him to make his next first team appearance and many were surprised when he was named in the starting XI for the Merseyside derby at Goodison Park. Despite the goal-laden 3-3 draw, Flanagan was highlighted as one of the best players on the pitch that day. He played as if he hadn’t missed a game for 2 years, not hardly played in that time. From there, he was ever-present for the rest of the season. He played in the 5-1 demolition of Tottenham Hotspur at White Hart Lane and scored his first goal for the club, a superbly executed half volley which bounced in off the underside of Hugo Lloris’ crossbar. He became a mainstay at right-back. The Liverpool team became one that rolled off the tongue. Mignolet; Flanagan, Sakho, Skrtel, Johnson; Gerrard, Allen, Henderson, Sterling; Sturridge, Suarez. It took Manchester City until the last day to claim the Premier League crown, but Liverpool pushed them all the way and the performances of Jon Flanagan went a long way to aiding the cause.
It seemed that he had performed a magnificent career U-turn. He was starting every game for Liverpool, he was staving off the injuries, and, at the end of the season, he made the preliminary 26-man World Cup squad for England. He didn’t make the plane eventually but Roy Hodgson did give Flanagan his solitary England cap in a warm up game against Ecuador in the U.S.A. It was a solid display by Flanagan but it would be his last game for almost a year.
In the build up to the 2014/15 season, Flanagan gained an injury in training and it was discovered he had a build up of fluid on his knee. He was scheduled to be out until September but this was pushed back and, in April 2015, he injured his other knee and was ruled out for a further 6-9 months. He returned in January 2016 and, at first, new manager Jurgen Klopp seemed to be willing to give Flanagan a fair crack of the whip. He was eased back into first team action and was given the captains armband for the game against Southampton in March. The following season he was sent on loan to Burnley to get some games under his belt, but things ultimately never worked out and Flanagan only made 6 appearances in a claret and blue shirt.
So now he is back at Anfield, what next for the now 24-year-old Jon Flanagan? The man once dubbed Flanny Alves by the Kop now finds himself playing fourth choice right back behind Trent Alexander-Arnold, Joe Gomez and Nathaniel Clyne. While poor Flanagan has been on the treatment table, the world has moved on without him.
Jon Flanagan had a number of drawbacks that he had overcome under Brendan Rodgers. First of all, he was never the quickest. In an era where full backs usually have lightning pace and are able to contribute to counter attacks, Flanagan relied more on his ability to read the game in order to get forward. But knee injuries notoriously deprive players of the pace they once had. For a player who wasn’t exactly rapid to begin with, this rule of thumb now means that Flanagan should be much slower than he was before. He is also very small, standing at just 5″6. This means that any notion anyone had of moving him into centre half to get playing time is unlikely as he will be easily beaten in the air. He could possibly be a ball playing centre half in a back three, but Klopp seems to prefer a back four so it is unlikely that this will happen anytime soon.
There are advantages to having Jon Flanagan around though. He is a Scouser and the importance of having local lads in the dressing room should now be downplayed. They play a vital role in educating new players in the ways and traditions of the club, and their passion can rub off on their team-mates. It is also obvious that he is a very good defender. It really is a shame that Jon Flanagan is so small because he would make an excellent centre half. His reading of the game and technical ability make him a suitable candidate as a centre back who can bring the ball out of defence. He could even still make a decent career as a full back on either side. He played left back under Brendan Rodgers on many occasions showing his versatility. He has also proven that you don’t necessarily need pace to make it in the Premier League as an attacking full back.
Jon Flanagan is still a capable full back. He can still have a good career in the Premier League. Unfortunately for him, it may not be with Liverpool. The amount of competition ahead of him may prove to be too much, especially when you consider that two of his competitors are younger than him and the other is a fully fledged international. It seems Jon Flanagan’s days in a red shirt are numbered and it really is a shame. We could be on the verge of saying goodbye to a man who could’ve been Liverpool captain.