The one Liverpool player Brendan Rodgers couldn't do without
When Brendan Rodgers sat down and assessed his Liverpool squad ahead of 2012/13, he must have been hugely grateful for the reliable presence of Lucas Leiva.
LiverpoolÃ¢ÂÂs midfield consists of players like Steven Gerrard and Charlie Adam, who must adapt their game to RodgersÃ¢ÂÂ system, and players like Jordan Henderson, Jay Spearing and Jonjo Shelvey, who canÃ¢ÂÂt yet be counted upon for consistent performances. And while Rodgers has signed Joe Allen, a trusted foot soldier from the manager's old club Swansea, the Welshman has to become accustomed to the added pressure of playing for a big club.
Lucas is the only midfielder Rodgers could sit down with and simply say, "Keep on doing what youÃ¢ÂÂve been doing."
Liverpool face Manchester City this weekend, a repeat of the fixture in which Lucas turned in his best individual display of last season, in a 1-1 draw last November. City arrived with David Silva in outrageously good form, and Mancini handed him a central playmaking role. With Adam and Henderson straying forward, Lucas often found himself isolated against Silva Ã¢ÂÂ but it was no problem. He turned in a faultless defensive display, making six interceptions and completing seven tackles. The positions of the tackles shows how well Lucas guarded the whole width of the pitch, as Silva drifted into wider positions, looking for space.
It was equally impressive how well Lucas coped with the powerful forward runs of Yaya Toure. The Brazilian didnÃ¢ÂÂt try to outmuscle the Ivorian Ã¢ÂÂ he simply made well-timed, firm challenges to win the ball cleanly. And, as usual, his passing was excellent. ItÃ¢ÂÂs particularly notable how many more times he played passes compared to receiving passes, indicating how often he won the ball himself, rather than had it given to him by a teammate.
Sadly, it would be LucasÃ¢ÂÂs last league game of the season Ã¢ÂÂ he suffered a cruciate ligament injury two days later against Chelsea in the League Cup.
Happily he is now fit again, and clearly suits the type of football Rodgers wants to play. Lucas was unfairly criticised in his first few years for his tendency to play short, safe, allegedly unambitious passes; now thatÃ¢ÂÂs the simple instruction for the whole of the Liverpool midfield.
But has LucasÃ¢ÂÂs style changed under Rodgers? ItÃ¢ÂÂs early days Ã¢ÂÂ we only have one game of data to assess, so itÃ¢ÂÂs impossible to make a definitive judgement. But compare his dashboard (a visualisation of all his recorded actions in one game) from last weekÃ¢ÂÂs match (left) against West Brom to the corresponding fixture last year (right), and there is an obvious change.
First, look at the types of balls Lucas played Ã¢ÂÂ particularly the incomplete passes, denoted by the red arrows. Against West Brom last season, out of keeping with his reputation, he attempted several ambitious through-balls towards the strikers, which generally found an opponent rather than a teammate. Last week, his passing was less vertical, less wayward and took place higher up the pitch, just inside the opposition half.
But itÃ¢ÂÂs also interesting that Lucas is doing less defensive work. There are noticeably fewer tackles and fewer interceptions. The Brazilian might be LiverpoolÃ¢ÂÂs defensive midfielder, but even he now plays a very proactive role in the side. ItÃ¢ÂÂs worth pointing out that he collected a booking last week, a slightly harsh caution for stopping a counter-attack. As Liverpool hold the ball higher up the pitch, more Ã¢ÂÂcynicalÃ¢ÂÂ bookings might come his way when trying to halt opposition breaks.
The expected signing of Nuri Sahin will prompt questions about the format of LiverpoolÃ¢ÂÂs midfield Ã¢ÂÂ Sahin and Allen are new arrivals, Gerrard wonÃ¢ÂÂt take kindly to being omitted from the team on a consistent basis, while Henderson needs gametime to develop and Adam could be of use.
Amid the uncertainty and options, we can be sure that Lucas will be anchoring LiverpoolÃ¢ÂÂs midfield throughout the season Ã¢ÂÂ and Rodgers needs another good performance from him against Manchester City on Sunday.
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