Originally published on Premier Punditry.
Lucas Leiva has been confined to the pine of the Liverpool bench for much of 2014, after Brendan Rodgers decided earlier this year that Steven Gerrard would best serve his side as a deep-lying playmaker whose legendary distribution abilities could springboard the likes of Luis Suarez, Daniel Sturridge and Raheem Sterling up front.
It worked magnificently in the second half of last season, but the fact of the matter is Suarez is gone, Sturridge is hurt and Liverpool have been left to resort to Mario Balotelli and Rickie Lambert to lead the line — not the most mobile pair of strikers, to put it mildly. This is a dramatically different attack from the one that took Liverpool agonizingly close to the title seven months ago, and anyone who’s seen the team play this season knows that Rodgers needed to do something to adjust his team’s approach.
No longer can a blistering offense, playing at pace on the counterattack, be relied upon to mask a deficient defense. With Gerrard’s distribution from deep essentially nullified, Liverpool have been left with a 34-year-old converted defensive midfielder simply unable to do the legwork necessary to shield his backline. After the 3-1 loss at Crystal Palace on November 23, it felt like everyone who follows the club had had enough. Things needed shoring up, and fast.
It started with the 2-2 draw against Ludogorets last week. Rodgers drafted Lucas back into the side in his favored holding midfield role for a contest Liverpool simply could not afford to lose. (With four defeats in a row, losing was something Liverpool were becoming far too accustomed to at that point.) He was brilliant, shielding a backline that included fellow recall Kolo Toure and scarcely letting anything through. Lucas led the game with five tackles; more importantly, he provided the sort of balance that Liverpool have lacked far too often in recent times.
The approach was maintained in the critical 1-0 win over Stoke at Anfield last week, with Gerrard rested (no, not dropped) and Lucas yet again deployed at the base of midfield alongside Joe Allen. The two of them once more brought a stability (or steel, as the manager would put it) to the spine of the team that allowed Liverpool to tough it out against probably the most physically imposing team in the country. It wasn’t a pretty contest in the least, but it felt like it could have been a turning point to this season — the Reds grinded out the result every sense of the word, with Glen Johnson putting his cranium on the line to score the winner and Liverpool capturing three sweet, vital points. Not only did the team keep its third clean sheet of the campaign, but Liverpool made not a single defensive error in the contest — and as a Liverpool fan, I can’t tell you how important that is for a side that’s seemed incapable of performing the most basic defensive functions this season.
With the 3-1 victory at Leicester City on Tuesday night, Lucas has solidified his place in Rodgers’ side for the time being. No player in EPL action that evening finished with more tackles than the 27-year-old Brazilian, who spits in the face of all the trend-piece poppycock about the conventional holding midfield role being rendered obsolete in the contemporary game. Though no Stevie G on the ball, he’s a tidy player more than capable of building up play from the back, and he goes about his defensive duties — shielding his center-backs from through balls, mopping up after his fullbacks when they push ahead, actually competing for 50/50s and aerial balls — with the utmost diligence.
Lucas allows Rodgers’ Liverpool, as presently constructed, to basically make a whole lot more sense — something that could have been considered a negative for last season’s Tricky Reds but is absolutely necessary now that things like QPR away have been allowed to happen. Even Gerrard has benefitted; while there was a train of thought among some Liverpool fans that the two midfielders are simply too static, at this stage of their careers, to play alongside each other, Lucas’ return to the holding role (plus Rodgers’ willingness to ration Gerrard’s games) has seemingly ushered in the return of the swashbuckling, world-beating, talismanic captain we all know and love. With his MOTM performance at Leicester, Stevie now seems set for a run of games in the no. 10 role he virtually owned for much of the last decade. It’s not a position you expect to see the skipper in every week, but it’s undoubtedly the role he’s most comfortable in.
All this shouldn’t come as a shock. Before suffering a devastating knee ligament tear at Stamford Bridge in November 2011, Lucas had arguably become Liverpool’s most influential midfielder under Kenny Dalglish. He’s been at the club for years now as one of its longest-serving players; he’s seen it all in that time, and he’s a player who brings experience and composure to what is, for the most part, a very young and inexperienced side. There have been rumblings for some time now that limited playing time could see Lucas leave Anfield — perhaps as soon as January, with a move to Napoli mooted. But on current form, with the way he’s playing and what he means to this side at the moment, make no mistake: Liverpool would be insane to let that happen.
Other Thoughts on the EPL’s Midweek Action
It’s December, which means it’s the most wonderful time of the year for Premier League fans. The extracurricular nonsense of those monthly international breaks are now behind us until spring, and there are a flood of fixtures coming up that, by the time they’re over, will go a long way to deciding how this season shapes up. It all culminates in that most magnificent of annual occasions — the festive football programme, wherein highly-trained professional athletes are put through the gauntlet of an ungodly amount of fixtures in an unreasonably short span of time. It’s great, I love it, I can’t wait, don’t ever change.
This week pretty much represented the start of that wonderful period, with all 20 Premier League teams facing short turnarounds from last weekend’s action and battling it out on Tuesday and Wednesday. Here are a few thoughts from the midweek fixtures:
- With a brace in Man City’s demolition of Sunderland on Wednesday, Kun Aguero has now scored 66 goals in 101 Premier League appearances. He’s now averaging a goal every 108 minutes in the league — the best scoring rate in the history of the competition, ahead of Thierry Henry, Ruud van Nistelrooy, Robin Van Persie and Luis Suarez, in that order. On top of that, he set up Stevan Jovetic with what, for me, is one of the assists of the season — a genius little flick that helped Jovetic put City on top after they’d initially gone a goal down. There are moments in sports when players who previously ranked among the best in their profession find another level and catapult themselves into a group that constitutes the best, and Aguero is on the precipice. He’s pretty much the best striker in the world at the moment, and there’s no telling what City can achieve as long as he stays healthy.
- Vlad Chiriches got rocked at Stamford Bridge on Wednesday night, with Eden Hazard effortlessly blowing by him on a one-two with Didier Drogba for Chelsea’s first goal in a 3-0 romp. Chiriches is a centre-back who Mauricio Pochettino has been playing at right-back the last couple of games, and that needs to stop; something tells me a natural right-back would have at least attempted to get in front of Hazard, but Chiriches just stood there and did absolutely nothing. So yeah, maybe Spurs actually could use DeAndre Yedlin.
- You think Chiriches got rocked? Then I don’t even know how to describe what Loic Remy did to Jan Vertonghen for Chelsea’s third goal. Rumors of Vertonghen wanting to escape White Hart Lane for greener pastures have been going around for a while now. It’s a shame he didn’t make that career move earlier; now he has no career, because Loic Remy ended it. RIP Jan. (Worth noting that Drogba softened him up for Remy with Chelsea’s second goal.)
- Lee Mason was awful at the King Power Stadium on Tuesday night. I would go through the myriad awful decisions here, but I’ll spare myself the aneurysm. For the record’s, Bolton’s Own also so officiated Liverpool’s 2-1 loss at the Etihad last Boxing Day (a contest that included this decision and the subsequent Greater Manchester-gate controversy).
- Can everyone please stop comparing Danny Welbeck to Thierry Henry? Seriously, they’re not even in the same conversation. Danny Welbeck is a very good player; Henry was one of the greatest players of his generation, across all positions. You all do realize Henry wasn’t always a 37-year-old plying his trade in MLS, right?
- In Martin Skrtel and Gary Cahill, I counted two center-backs during the midweek fixtures who sustained head injuries that rendered them woozy (or, in Skrtel’s case, knocked them the fuck out) and subsequently continued playing with nary a modicum of concern from anyone watching. Look: playing soccer, particularly in its current contemporary incarnation, will never threaten its athletes with the sort of repetitive head trauma found in American football that many claim leads to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, or CTE. But this is just getting ridiculous. It’s time the Premier League takes the lead — as it has in the past in considering advancements to the game — and institutes a legitimate concussion protocol worthy of the brilliant athletes who ply their trade in this competition we all love. It’s 2014.