Making his first league start since May 2014 in Liverpool's 3-0 win over Manchester City on Wednesday night, Jon Flanagan made an instant impact, clattering into former team-mate Raheem Sterling in a contest-defining show of strength—and continuing to produce an impressive performance.
Supporters have called for the 23-year-old to be rewarded with a new contract, with his current deal set to expire at the end of the season.
"It was something I had to do to get the crowd up," he told the Independent's Mark Critchley after the game. "The crowd have been fantastic, always right behind me even in the dark days. Me and Raheem were good mates at Liverpool but now he’s gone to City it is just business on the pitch."
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Klopp admits he gets the feeling @jon_flan93 and @sterling7 "were not the best of friends" at @LFC. #LFC https://t.co/VCH1lhNX033/3/2016, 9:05:03 AM
His forceful challenge on Sterling, who left Liverpool for City in a £49 million deal last summer, brought Anfield to their feet, with the Merseyside faithful relishing the academy product's intensity. Among those appealing for the club to extend Flanagan's terms as a result was Andy Kelly of the Liverpool Echo.
But while this display, full of defensive strength and supportive endeavour in attack, showcased Flanagan's talents—and his worth to Jurgen Klopp's Reds squad—there is still much to do before the full-back can warrant a new deal.
Liverpool are right to practice caution, as after 619 days on the sidelines with a knee injury, Flanagan is still yet to prove his long-term fitness under Klopp.
Flanagan has enjoyed underdog status throughout his career so far at Liverpool, having broken into former Brendan Rodgers' first team during the Reds' remarkable title challenge in 2013/14.
The Liverpool-born defender, able to operate at both left- and right-back, established himself ahead of on-loan Frenchman Aly Cissokho on the left-hand side of Rodgers' defensive line, making 23 appearances in the Premier League, scoring once and assisting on a further two goals after being plucked from the club's under-21s ranks.
A no-nonsense defensive full-back, Flanagan became a cult hero for the Kop as Liverpool battled for the league title, with supporters labelling him—with tongue firmly in cheek—as the "Scouse Cafu."
That season, none of Rodgers' regular defensive options averaged more successful tackles (3.7) or interceptions per 90 minutes than Flanagan, highlighting his defensive quality.
Arguably his finest showing came in only his second start of the season, in the Reds' 3-3 draw with Merseyside rivals Everton in November 2013.
Nullifying the threat of both Kevin Mirallas and Gerard Deulofeu, Flanagan gave Liverpool a solid base to build on at left-back, leading to praise from Rodgers, with the then-Reds manager telling the club's official website that he was a "big admirer" of his young prospect:
He is a terrific boy, he is a kid that is wholehearted. It was a real test for him, first with [Kevin] Mirallas and then with [Gerard] Deulofeu. I thought he was outstanding. When you come to places like this, you have to be a man, you have to be able to defend.
I have seen enough of him. I have seen enough of him in training. It doesn't matter whether he is playing in front of six people at the reserves or in front of 90,000. He is the same. He doesn't get affected. That's what I needed.
He has done brilliant and that has given me something to think about.
Flanagan's composure saw him shine throughout 2013/14, outperforming Rodgers' experienced right-back, Glen Johnson.
This remarkable rise was capped by an England debut at the end of the season, with Flanagan also included in Roy Hodgson's standby group for the FIFA World Cup in 2014.
His substitute display against Ecuador proved to be his last in close to two years, however, with the defender suffering a debilitating knee injury during pre-season, ahead of the 2014/15 campaign.
Handed a one-year contract extension towards the end of that season, Liverpool put their faith in Flanagan, overseeing his recovery at the club's Melwood training facility.
Returning to full fitness as 2015 came to a close, Flanagan made his first competitive appearance for the Reds since the end of 2013/14 in January's FA Cup third-round replay win at home to Exeter City, receiving a standing ovation from the Anfield crowd as he replaced fellow youngster Connor Randall early in the second half.
Flanagan has made four appearances for the Reds so far this season, playing a key role in Wednesday's win at home to City.
That Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini saw fit to withdraw Sterling at half-time, despite a paucity of midfield options on his substitutes' bench, highlighted Flanagan's dominance over the 21-year-old, with Sterling struggling to best his former team-mate on City's left flank.
Flanagan made six successful tackles, six interceptions and three clearances against Pellegrini's side in a defiant defensive display.
His inclusion was one of a number of tactical masterstrokes from Klopp, who moved Nathaniel Clyne over to left-back to accommodate Flanagan, looking to benefit from his committed approach in defence.
Writing after the game, Kelly described Flanagan's showing as "a typical performance of intelligence, poise and desire," before proffering that, were he a "young continental prospect," his contract would have been extended "months ago."
"You can only imagine that it is the player's own loyalty to the Liverpool cause which has led the club to be so apparently unconcerned about securing his signature," Kelly continued.
"It is ironic that the very things which can make Flanagan so important—his connection with the fans, his understanding of what it means to wear that red shirt—are making his future so uncertain."
But while Flanagan's commitment, and his affinity with the Anfield support as a homegrown talent, make him a potentially valuable option for Klopp in the future, one major pitfall still remains when considering his contract situation at Liverpool: his fitness.
Point to Prove
Klopp spoke to reporters, including Goal's Melissa Reddy before Wednesday's clash, continuing to discuss the possibility of extending Flanagan's contract beyond the end of the season:
In this moment, the best news is that Flanno is back.
But then there's always a few things after this long, long time when he was injured that you have to be careful with. That's how it is and that's what we try to do but, of course, it is not too easy for Flanno because he has a lot of qualities but I don't think patience is the biggest one.
He's really had to be patient during this long trip and, after a game, he needs maybe a day or two more to recover or even after a hard session where we have to say "okay, stop". It's not easy for him and not perfect for us.
Klopp intimated that the club were looking to find a "solution" to the defender's current situation, but it remains unclear whether this will see Flanagan leave the club in search of regular first-team football or stay with Liverpool to prove his worth to his new manager.
With Reddy reporting that the club are targeting Leicester City's young left-back Ben Chilwell ahead of the summer transfer window, it is clear that Klopp has identified reinforcements on the defensive flanks as a priority.
In theory, Flanagan's return could provide an in-house solution, with the 23-year-old employing a full-blooded, front-footed style that adheres perfectly with Klopp's brand of heavy-metal football.
But with the months running on and Flanagan still requiring "a day or two to recover," he is facing a fight to prove his fitness.
While Kelly makes a perceptive observation when it comes to Flanagan's contract situation, one performance should not warrant an immediate extension; this should only come after a sustained run of form or, at the very least, fitness.
Omitted from Klopp's 25-man squad for the UEFA Europa League's knockout stages, Flanagan has just 11 Premier League games left to prove his value to Klopp.
But if he produces a handful of performances on the same level as against City on Wednesday, then Liverpool should push to secure his future—as he could prove to be invaluable for Klopp.
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