By Kevin Koczwara
Lucas Leiva barely got to feel the grass underneath his cleats in August for Liverpool before tearing his thigh muscle in what was suppose to be his triumphant and much anticipated return after a lengthy and greuling injury-recovering period. It wasn’t. Lucas had to come off because of injury in Liverpool’s second game of the season, which was against the reigning Premier League Champions Manchester City.
It was not what Brendan Rodgers and Liverpool supporters wanted to see. Liverpool’s best player in 2010-11 season and the best player at the beginning of the 2011-12 season, before an injury sidelined him in December, was again set to miss time with another injury. The only good news, it wasn’t related to the ACL injury he had just finished recovering from — Lucas went off injured on December 1, 2011 after colliding with Chelsea midfielder Juan Mata in a League Cup match and was out until August of 2012.
Liverpool’s midfield three (five, whatever you want to call it) struggled without Lucas’ guiding hand in the back. Rodgers tried pushing Steven Gerrard next to newly recruited Joe Allen and splitting Lucas’ duties between them (the outlet pass, the tackling, the covering, the breaking up of opposition attacks). It was all a bit sloppy.
Gerrard has never been a great defender. Allen, while great on the ball, wore out quickly with the added responsibility, and he’s got a wonderful penchant for fouling just outside the Liverpool penalty area that puts the Liverpool defense in a tough position. Nuri Sahin was brought in as a deep-lying playmaker, and he struggled the few times he was asked to operate in front of the back-four as a shield. Jonjo Shelvey doesn’t have the patience or positional awareness to clog the channels. And Jordan Henderson isn’t gritty enough, even though it’s where he belongs, I’d argue.
Liverpool struggled to break out and the space between its midfield and defense tended to be as large as the Atlantic. Rodgers’ side couldn’t press because it didn’t have the deep-lying midfielder who could clean up all the pieces. Rodgers was forced to wait. And wait he did. Until today’s 1-0 win over a Southampton team that was largely run off the field for the majority of the 90 minutes, Liverpool was an unfinished puzzle.
Lucas returned today, and the puzzle looked closer to completion — sans a second goalscorer — and Liverpool looked a side destined to fight for a position higher-up in the table rather than one looking to avoid the dreaded relegation zone. It was no surprise that Lucas came into the side and shackles were off both Allen and Gerrard, who looked more lively and got into more dangerous areas in this one game than he’s been in the whole of the season until now. It was, however, unexpected to see Lucas in the starting line-up despite not playing a senior game since August.
“I thought he was excellent. He’s come so far in training, I felt I needed to get him into the games,” said Rodgers about Lucas after the game.
“He’s another piece to what we’re trying to do here and you seen the difference he makes when he’s in the team.
“He offers the team great stability and he can deal with the ball, which is important,” Rodgers continued.
Lucas was much maligned when he arrived at Anfield. He is Brazilian, of course, but he didn’t look like the high-flying Kaka at AC Milan at the time. He was no Ronaldhino. He was just a squad player who had to fill-in for much respected Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano, which was too much to ask of a young player trying to adapt to a new country and new league. Since Mascherano and Alosno both moved on to Spain — to Barcelona and Real Madrid respectively — Lucas has become the rock that Liverpool bases everything around. He’s been the team’s most consistent player. He ended up being named Brazil’s captain even. In short, everything good that Liverpool has done in the last three season has involved either Lucas, Gerrard or Luis Suarez for the most part, but it’s Lucas who does the dirty work and sets the tempo. He’s the player who starts and stops the game. He’s one of a kind. And it showed against Southampton as he made his first start since August and Liverpool looked secure in the midfield again.
Lucas won eight tackles in the midfield in 88 minutes of play. The rest of Liverpool’s midfield three won, including Lucas’ replacement, four tackles. The entirety of the defense won five. That’s an impressive number, especially considering Liverpool was attacking for much of the game, and enjoyed close to 64 percent of possession.
Lucas had the most touches in the game for Liverpool with 101, as well. He passed the ball 88 times for 86 percent passing accuracy, which will increase as he gets more game-time and doesn’t carelessly overcook a pass or misplace ones everyone knows he can make.
Lucas’s ability to cover for Allen and Gerrard made them more of a threat in Southampton’s half, which meant Liverpool pressed higher and created more chances — Gerrard had six passes to teammates that lead to shots. And Lucas’s return to the side meant Joe Allen got to get a bit of a rest, which is good news because the former Swansea player was beginning to tire, and it showed in his performances of late.
Rodgers will hope Lucas continues to avoid setbacks in his return to form. The Brazilian is vital to the Liverpool side. He solves the midfield puzzle and allows his teammates to excel at things they do best while he dictates the tempo and sniffs out opposition attacks. Rodgers’s vision is getting close to complete and with Lucas filling in this side looks more dangerous than before. With a few tweaks during the January transfer window — namely the addition of a goalscorer — and the return of Fabio Borini, Liverpool should be able to push on the second half of the season and make some noise in the Premier League. That is, of course, if everyone can stay healthy and Rodgers is allowed to add to the side, which are big ifs.