By Kevin Koczwara
Lucas Leiva will miss Liverpool’s game this weekend against Norwich because of yellow card accumulation. The Brazilian midfielder picked up his 5th yellow card of the season last weekend in the Reds’, 1-1, draw with Manchester United. Now, Liverpool manager Kenny Dalglish finds himself without one of his most consistent performers and his anchor in the midfield against a more than formidable side in Norwich.
Lucas, a once much maligned signing, has grown into a prototypical destoryer in the midfield for Liverpool over the past few seasons. As more and more responsibility has been heaped on him after the departures of both Javier and Mascherano and Xabi Alsonso, Lucas has responded by growing more confident and more adapt at being a one man wrecking crew in the midfield. He was the stand out player and most improved player for Liverpool over the last two seasons while the rest of the side was influx.
This weekend, Lucas won’t be available, and Dalglish acknowledged that the team needs to move on and cover for the Brazilian.
“At the end of the day that’s what you have a strong squad for – to overcome injuries and suspensions. This is the first suspension of the season so we have to cover it,” Dalglish told LFCTV this week.
“We have to make sure that, although we are saying he is a loss before the game, we are not saying the same thing afterwards.”
Dalglish has a few options to replace the anchor of the midfield. But the key is finding the right blend and mixture of players in the midfield. Liverpool doesn’t want to play too many players who bomb forward, and it doesn’t want to get outnumber by Norwich in the midfield — it has played a 4-4-1-1 formation this season with the extra attack dropping int o help the midfield with numbers. But Dalglish doesn’t wan this side sitting back either. He needs to find the balance necessary to boss the midfield and score the goals needed to win the game.
Over the summer, Liverpool brought in Charlie Adam as midfield reinforcement, but his poor-tackling and inability to cover lots of ground effectively makes him a liability if Liverpool wish to play a traditional 4-4-2. Adam operates as a deep-lying passer who works next to a holding type of player that can cover for his inability to tackle properly. This is why Lucas makes a perfect partner, he’s a complimentary player that can cover acres of space and he makes smart, decisive decisions on the ball and when going into the tackle. Adam will surely be in the starting line-up as the player to unlock Norwich’s packed defense.
Steven Gerrard has operated as a deeper lying midfielder for Liverpool before, but he’s desire to get forward and his drive to push through the midfield can leave the defense exposed at times. Gerrard has a great engine, but he shouldn’t be expected to be everywhere are once, especially as he is still coming back from that torrid groin problem. So, Dalglish will option to play a third central player inside the formation for cover for both Gerrard and Adam, so they can play their games without being hastled by extra-responsibility.
Jay Spearing would be a likely option to replace Lucas. But the little man from Wirral hasn’t seen much time this season for Liverpool, despite being a major part of Liverpool’s turnaround in the second half of last season as Lucas’ partner in a tough midfield. His ability to tackle and cover ground would be a welcome option for the Reds in Lucas’ absence, but don’t look for him to get the start because he doesn’t offer the security on the ball or the ability to read the game, yet, required when playing alongside Adam and behind Gerrard — this is all if Liverpool play the 4-3-3/4-5-1 formation that the team’s played much of the season. Look for Spearing to see time if Liverpool can break through against Norwich’s stingy defense early, as cover for either Adam or Gerrard, or if a central midfielder picks up a yellow card early that jeopardizes the player’s ability to get stuck into a tackle.
The most likely option to replace Lucas is Jordan Henderson. The England U21 captain came on for Lucas against Manchester United and added a bit of a spark to the side. He’s struggled playing as a right-sided midfielder this season since his big-money move from Sunderland in the summer. Henderson has struggled at times to get himself in the game, and he’s only shown flashes of his ability, but he had solid moments against both Everton and United — the last two games for the Reds. His volley chance against United was a great look at his skill and his confidence — something he’s lacked at times in the Liverpool kit this season. He struck the shot perfectly, and if not for David De Gea making a great save, it would have been a spectacular game winner.
For the past two seasons at Sunderland, Henderson has been good enough to garner call-ups to the England side, and his experience as a young leader for the Black Cats will serve him well as Lucas’ replacement against Norwich. He should have the confidence to be relied on for plenty of cover and solid distribution out of the midfield, which will be the difference in the game.
Look for Henderson, Gerrard and Adam to patrol the middle of the field for Liverpool. And look for the Gerrard and Henderson to work together on positioning and moving forward into space. Henderson has similar qualities to Gerrard, and the two of them should add to one another’s game and understand what the other is trying to do. The key will be finding the right kind of movement and covering for one another, because everyone knows Adam can’t tackle, and with Jamie Carragher in the center of the defense, Liverpool is slow, and Norwich can pounce on the counter and sneak a goal or two if the midfield isn’t controlled.
On a side note: This would be the perfect situation for Raul Meireles to get in the side if the club decided to keep him. The Portuguese midfielder played as a traditional central midfielder for Porto and tends to play deeper for Portugal. His tackling is above average and he has great ball skill and passing. He would be ideal in a situation where Liverpool had to make due without Lucas for a full 90 minutes. But, he is now plying his trade — and very well — at Chelsea in a similar position.