Here David Kennedy analyses the importance of Reds midfielder Lucas to Brendan Rodgers’ improving Liverpool side.
Early season optimism was building and building as Liverpool supporters longed for their beloved Crazy Reds to return to competitive action after a long summer break. Even without Luis Suárez, intrigue and anticipation awaited Brendan Rodgers side’s return to Premier League action at home to Southampton on the third Sunday in August.
Fresh from demolishing German powerhouses Borussia Dortmund in their final pre-season friendly, Liverpool, equipped with a whole host of new signings, were looking to prove some doubters wrong and show that they were far from a one-man team.
And then the team news filtered through, leaving a slight taste of disappointment in the mouths of Kopites; Steven Gerrard was, as expected, named in the deep-lying midfield position that he finished 2013/14 in but, deprived of the services of Adam Lallana, Brendan Rodgers ignores Joe Allen and Emre Can to name Lucas Leiva in the engine room.
As it turned out on that day (and for most of the first portion of the season), Liverpool lined-up in a boxy 4-2-3-1 shape, with Lucas and Gerrard in tandem on this occasion. It didn’t work – both holding midfielders were culpable when Southampton scored a deserved equaliser through Nathanial Clyne and both were generally shown up by young Saints playmaker James Ward-Prowse, who was exemplary on the day.
Lucas was then left out of the squad for Liverpool’s next game, the defeat at Manchester City, and barely featured from then on, with rumours of a departure to Napoli at the end of the transfer window ultimately proving to be nothing but speculation.
It was only after an abysmal 3-1 defeat at Crystal Palace in November did Rodgers turn to the Brazilian, opting to move Gerrard further forward for the Champions League trip to Ludogorets.
Lucas acquitted himself well on that night in Bulgaria and then went on to arguably perform as the Reds’ best man for their next three outings against Stoke, Leicester and Sunderland as Rodgers looked to grind results out by packing his side with as much needle as possible.
After visibly tiring during the 1-1 draw with Basel, which sealed Liverpool’s Champions League exit, the manager left Lucas out of the team for the trip to Old Trafford. That 3-0 reverse is Liverpool’s only defeat in all competitions since losing at Selhurst Park and is the only game the ex-Gremio man hasn’t started in that run.
Often maligned at various parts of his near eight-year Anfield career, Lucas has always shown a remarkable tenacity to bounce back in the face of adversity – recovering from being booed onto the pitch as a substitute in 2008 to shine in the famous 4-1 win against Manchester United at Old Trafford, proving his worth after being shown the door by Roy Hodgson to win the club’s Player of the Season award.
More recently, he has won his place back in the side after an anterior cruciate ligament injury setback that was followed by a further injury to his thigh.
The Lucas since being stretchered off at Stamford Bridge in 2011 has looked a slightly paler shadow of the colossus that seemed to be peaking prior to his 25th birthday, the all-conquering holding midfielder who had broken into the Brazilian national side after the 2010 World Cup.
The very nature of an ACL injury explains a lot of what’s changed in his game – turning exercises form a huge part of post-ACL rehabilitation and it’s clear to see that, despite undoubted work from the man and the club’s staff, he has lost a couple of yards when changing direction. It has taken time for his game to adapt but the signs are there that he has come to terms with his physical limitations.
Despite getting back in the team when Rodgers opted for grit in November, Lucas has continued to impress since the Northern Irishman switched to 3-4-2-1 over the past few weeks. Since returning from injury, the Brazilian has always seemed a little lost when playing in a midfield two, looking far more at home when acting as the lone holder in front of the defence.
When paired with another deep-lying midfielder (particularly Gerrard), he has looked slightly confused of his duties, particularly when stepping up to press or covering his full back. This provides an indication to why Liverpool seemed to continually concede chances and goals from opposition players bursting through wide open spaces between the Reds’ defence and midfield.
However, since being paired with Jordan Henderson in the middle for games against Swansea, AFC Wimbledon, Sunderland, Aston Villa and Chelsea, he has been as close to his 2011 form as ever before. The partnership with Henderson seems to work – Henderson isn’t a true deep-lying player, and the fact that there are three centre backs playing behind the pair seems to liberate not only the vice-captain but also Lucas to venture forward at times.
Although praised on Sky Sports’ Monday Night Football show by Jamie Carragher for his “destroyer” qualities that have always been present, the Brazilian has offered more than that during his run in the team.
When Gerrard plays deep, his passes are diagonal and almost always to a scampering full back, often spectacular and occasionally dangerous. However, Lucas’ use of the ball is far more underrated – he focuses on drilling twenty yard passes into the feet of the attacking trident ahead of him, getting Liverpool’s most dangerous attacking weapons turned towards goal in the most crucial area on the pitch.
As well as that, the leadership and emotional aspect of what he has brought to the side cannot be understated. When Gerrard leaves at the end of the season, Lucas will be Liverpool’s longest-serving playing staff member. His jubilant crowd dive after Rickie Lambert’s goal at Villa Park at the weekend will live long in the memories of the travelling supporters there on that day; it exemplified the change in Rodgers’ side over the past month or so.
Gone is the prosaic autumn. Things are beginning to look up.
David Kennedy, Pundit Arena
Featured image by Calcio Mercato via Flickr Creative Commons