By Ewan Roberts
It seems odd to suggest that the reintroduction of a player as defensive and destructive as Liverpool’s Lucas Leiva could ignite the offensive potential of the joint eighth lowest scorers in the Premier League, but against Southampton the Brazilian brought much needed balance to the Anfield club, acting as the pivot around which others thrived.
The 1-0 scoreline betrayed Liverpool’s dominance over the south coast side, and Lucas was at the heart of that control. Exuding an understated (and occasionally overlooked) authority, the selfless 25-year-old – the archetypal “player’s player” – was the main contributor to the 64% possession enjoyed by the Reds, who had 23 shots on goal (eight on target – their most in the league this year) and hit the woodwork twice.
Lucas is naturally adept at the high-intensity, vigorous pressing style Brendan Rodgers advocates, gobbling up the opposition, engaging players and pouncing on any heavy touches or wayward passes. Even a refined and elegant passing side, such as the one Rodgers is in the process of developing, requires a player with grit and tenacity, an angry, rugged ball-winner to compensate for the less aggressive and animalistic technicians in the side.
And that’s exactly what Lucas brings to the side. He’s a pickpocket, a brick wall, a Rottweiler, a monolith, and against Southampton he recorded eight tackles and won four aerial duels (the most of any player on both fronts), going toe-to-toe with the Saints’ physical and combative holding duo of Morgan Schneiderlin and Jack Cork.
Lucas is also hugely compatible with the passing aspect of Rodgers’ philosophy. Though an attacking midfielder with former club Gremio, Rafa Benitez, sensing greater potential in his new signing when deployed deeper, moulded the Brazilian into a more defence-conscious player, making him understudy to Javier Mascherano.
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Rodgers was effusive in his praise after the match: "I thought he was excellent. He's come so far in training, I felt I needed to get him into the games. He's another piece to what we're trying to do here and you see 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. It was a very, very good performance."
Lucas’ presence also frees Steven Gerrard and Joe Allen to play more offensive roles. Liverpool have had limited penetration through the middle this year, with both players recycling possession rather than driving at the opposition or probing the defence.
But with the Brazilian anchoring the team, they were able to play with greater abandon. Gerrard moved higher up the pitch and played six key passes (he had averaged 2.5 prior to Lucas’ return), lurking ominously on the familiar outskirts of the box, joining the attack and directing the offence. He could have grabbed an assist had Luis Suarez not handballed the ball over the bar from 4-yards.
Liverpool’s full-backs prospered from Lucas’ positional awareness and covering too, with Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique overlapping with verve and intent; the former picked up an assist for Daniel Agger’s winner, and the latter missed an excellent opportunity to double the Reds’ lead.
Rodgers’ teams are characterised by negative or defensive possession – the Northern Irish manager believes that the less time the opposition has the ball, the less opportunity they have to score – but that comes at the expense of adventure and directness.
While Lucas is adept at protecting possession and linking with the defence (he played almost like a sweeper at times against Southampton), he is also capable of stepping outside of that mindset and playing progressive passes forward, creating by himself or feeding the more inventive players around him. While Allen and Nuri Sahin’s highest pass combinations are often with Agger and/or Martin Skrtel, Lucas’ most frequent outlet against the Saints was, crucially, Gerrard. Almost a fifth of his total passes were to the Liverpool captain.
Not that Lucas’ display was without flaws; there were stray passes, miscommunication, a lack of sync with the rest of the side and an occasional directness that was at odds with Rodgers’ master plan. But it was a hugely promising performance given his prolonged absence, though Liverpool will face much tougher opponents than Southampton.
Liverpool may have found the missing piece of their midfield puzzle in the form of their Brazilian dynamo, but the next task facing Rodgers is converting their enormous possession and territorial advantage into something more tangible: goals. And while Lucas offers a degree of balance that makes him arguably as important as Suarez to Liverpool, he cannot sharpen the Reds’ impotent attack. For that Rodgers must wait until January.
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