How Lucas Leiva reminded Brendan Rodgers of his importance this season
During the past couple of seasons, Liverpool's midfield was essentially about Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson. The latter was a younger version of the former, who would do the running Gerrard was no longer capable of; effectively the counterweight who would perform a useful functional role. If Gerrard was an attacking midfielder, Henderson would play a more defensive role. If Gerrard was a defensive midfielder, Henderson would bomb forward.
Gerrard has now departed, and Henderson was also absent through injury at Arsenal – on paper, a huge blow. But in reality, it might show the way Liverpool need to play for the remainder of the season.
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Their midfield balance hadn't been right in the opening two games of the campaign. In a fortunate 1-0 victory at Stoke, Adam Lallana and Philippe Coutinho, playing left-wing and left-centre-midfield in a 4-3-3 respectively, got in the way of one another. So too did Henderson and James Milner, who took it in turns to sit in front of the defence – and neither wants to do so, because both rely more on their energy. In an equally lucky 1-0 win over Bournemouth, Liverpool were now 4-2-3-1 but still had problems. The Milner-Henderson axis still didn't look right, although they were playing against a relatively flat 4-4-2 which caused them few problems between the lines. The performance against Arsenal, though, was something different. The introduction of Lucas provided Liverpool with a solid, reliable, no-nonsense holding midfielder sitting in front of the defence – and that allowed others to go forward.
Milner was more energetic, driving forward and getting beyond Christian Benteke. Coutinho was able to drift inside from the left, and Roberto Firmino – a more attacking option than Jordon Ibe or Lallana – buzzed around dangerously, too. But for all the quality from those four, it all started from Lucas, who also shackled Mesut Ozil excellently and prevented Arsenal from knocking balls into the feet of Olivier Giroud.
After the game, Rodgers was full of praise for the Brazilian. "Lucas is the best defensive midfielder we have," he said. "There will be games where we use three midfielders, and not always a defensive specialist as one of them – [but] when we play that way, he's the best we have. He came in tonight and did a great job.
"He's very much part of what we want to do, but of course every player wants to play every minute of every game. We can't guarantee that, but he's very much respected by myself, the coaching staff and the players."
For a player previously rumoured to be on his way out, it's a significant turnaround – but the praise was fully deserved. He completed 6/7 tackles, often surprisingly high up the pitch, and 4 interceptions in vital zones.
Lucas also offers something hugely underrated for a defensive midfielder – he knows how to get into the positions to receive short passes from the defenders, providing angles for passes to help team-mates play around the opposition press. It's not exciting and unspectacular, but it's among the most important attributes for a player in that position, and arguably even more important than the quality of their passing range. Lucas, of course, is not particularly adventurous with his use of the ball.
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That's the main thing holding Lucas back. Milner and Henderson are decent passers rather than genuine playmakers, which is why Rodgers has attempted to cram Coutinho into the midfield, and why Emre Can and Joe Allen will get the nod over Lucas at home against weaker sides.
But, as Rodgers acknowledges, Lucas will have a crucial role to play for Liverpool this season. Other players are more versatile and capable of playing various roles, but there's something reassuring about Lucas's solid, assured positioning ahead of the back four.