Too early for Flanno?
No defender has been dribbled past more times than Jon Flanagan this season. This is not an overall criticism of the Liverpool youngster - far from it - but is it important not to fall into the typically British habit of overhyping a player before he has truly proven his ability...?
By Peter Fraser - Follow me on Twitter @SkySportsPeteF
Last Updated: 03/04/14 5:12pm
As recently as the end of last November, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers revealed the only reason Jon Flanagan had not left Anfield was because just a solitary League One club had shown an interest in signing the out-of-favour defender on loan.
Move forward four months and Rodgers said of Flanagan in the latter days of this March: "He has been a revelation, and particularly in the big games. It is great when you see a young player develop like that. You can see the confidence he has now. He has made himself an important member of the squad."
Rodgers has been cooing over the 'mature' level of the 21-year-old's performances, comparing his style of play to Liverpool legend Steve Nicol, and confirming a new contract will be on offer in the summer.
Flanagan has capitalised on the injuries suffered by squad-mates Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique over the course of this season to produce wholehearted displays at both right-back and, now, left-back. He has transformed himself from a player deemed not good enough by Rodgers to having played 17 Premier League games in 2013/14 after only making his first top-flight appearance since April 2012 at the beginning of November. Such has been Flanagan's reversal in fortunes, he has started the last 10 successive league matches amid Liverpool's eight-game winning run.
The effectiveness of Flanagan's performances means the right-footer is even ahead of the experienced Aly Cissokho at left-back in Rodgers' first-choice, table-topping team. And, in yet a further indication of his rise to prominence, there was dismay around Merseyside at his omission from England's Under 21 and senior squads in March's internationals.
Liverpool's fans have especially taken Flanagan to heart, given his Scouse heritage from Anfield's Utting Avenue and his tenacious hard work. The Kop had already created, albeit initially ironically, the nickname of 'RedCafu' after legendary former Brazil left-back Cafu and even the South American himself joined in with the moniker last Sunday when taking to Twitter during Liverpool's 4-0 thrashing of Tottenham Hotspur.
Good to see the RedCafu is playing well! Liverpool amazing to watch!- Cafu. (@officialcafu) March 30, 2014
Flanagan's committed approach has earned respect. Crunching tackles from a homegrown youngster have become a trademark - he averages 3.6 per game, which is joint with Lucas Leiva as more than any other Liverpool player and ranks as the fourth highest total in the Premier League overall this season. That is just the sort of thing to bring Anfield and pundits to their feet - just ask Spurs' Aaron Lennon or Roberto Soldado.
But Flanagan should also not only be viewed as some sort of boy-next-door enforcer. As Rodgers rightly said, the youngster has refused to be overawed by any opponent or any magnitude of game - against Arsenal or Manchester United, for example. A man-of-the-match performance in January's Merseyside derby thrashing of Everton even saw Steven Gerrard comparing Flanagan to the Liverpool captain's good friend, former team-mate and Kop idol - Jamie Carragher.
It is, though, important not to get carried away. Flanagan is young and, as an inevitable result, is still learning the game. When he faces West Ham United on Sunday, as is expected and as Liverpool aim to stay at the Premier League's summit, he will be making only his 30th league appearance in his short career to date.
That inexperience has inevitably shown in phases as Flanagan has represented a weak link in Liverpool's leaky defence. Of the 39 league goals Liverpool have conceded this season, Flanagan has been on the field for 20. Of the 10 clean sheets Liverpool have kept in 2013/14, Flanagan has been involved in just four.
There is no doubting Flanagan's tackling ability, although it should be said he was quite fortunate to avoid two yellow cards in the win at United and his no-holds-barred approach could in the future be deemed over the top by some referees, but the manner in which he reads the game - a factor of inexperience - is a problem.
Ever since his first Premier League season under Kenny Dalglish in 2010/11, Flanagan has been guilty of failing to defend properly at the back post. On the final day of that debut campaign, it was Flanagan's lapse in such a position which led to Stewart Downing scoring the only goal of the game in Aston Villa's 1-0 win. Worryingly, almost three years on, Flanagan was again guilty of a similar defensive indiscretion in Liverpool's 2-1 victory over Sunderland at the end of this March.
Flanagan avoided criticism for that most-recent error, with pundits instead preferring to focus on Daniel Agger and Martin Skrtel's failure to clear at the near post. His avoidance of criticism could be attributed to his local status or his young age, because it is difficult to imagine any such similar indiscretion from Enrique or Cissokho receiving such an easy ride, but they are mistakes which he must eradicate from his game.
As a further indication of his inability to properly read match situations, Flanagan has been dribbled past by an opponent on average 1.8 times per game. That total is joint with attacking playmaker Philippe Coutinho, a Brazilian flair player not known for his defensive duties, as more than any other Liverpool player this season. That total also unimpressively ranks Flanagan as being dribbled past more times per game than any other defender in the Premier League this season. This rawness was emphasised in Liverpool's 6-3 win over Cardiff City in Wales in March, when the home team's opening two goals came down Flanagan's flank before he was substituted in the 73rd minute.
Flanagan also has room for improvement in his attacking attributes, which will be vital in the offensive-minded tactics of Rodgers. Flanagan has scored this season, at Tottenham before Christmas, when team-mate Johnson has yet to find the back of the net but, probably connected to the fact he is playing on the left on his weaker foot, he does not offer the same attacking threat. Flanagan averages 38.5 passes per game while Johnson averages 48.9 and the latter has also contributed 10 more key passes having made just six additional appearances. Flanagan, meanwhile, has one assist after setting up Coutinho's goal versus Tottenham last weekend, to Johnson's two.
All of the above should not to be seen as a criticism of Flanagan - far from it. Most of his current shortcomings are nothing to do with natural ability and are instead associated to inexperience and naivety. But it is vital to allow him to develop before moving too soon into the typically British trend of hyperbole for a player who has not yet fully proven his credentials.
We should wait to see how Flanagan gets on against the calibre of players in international football or, next season, in the UEFA Champions League before putting too much expectation on his shoulders at the risk he cannot live up to those standards. Too many promising English players in the past have been crippled by the curse of being overhyped.
Given local lad Flanagan's commitment and determination to not give up on his Liverpool dream in the past, coupled with his natural strengths and learning curve, the club do undoubtedly have a player of talent. The tenacity of his on and off-field mind-set are probably Flanagan's greatest strengths and that bodes well for his ability to work on his weaknesses and progress as a player. Rodgers also deserves great credit for giving the youngster his further opportunity and for also helping his development. But it is the next step which is the key for Flanagan.