THE story of Lucas Leiva, the current longest-serving player on Liverpool’s books, is a fascinating one.
Rafa Benitez signed a swashbuckling attacking midfielder back in 2007, winner of the Bola de Ouro (Golden Ball) — an award presented to the best player in the Brazilian league — in 2006.
BBC’s expert on South American football, Tim Vickery, said at the time: “These moves are always a gamble, but I think this is a good one. He’s an exciting player of a type that Brazilian football hasn’t produced too many of recently.
“Of late their central midfielders have tended to be ‘holders’ who sit and allow the full-backs to push forward. Lucas is different. He’s a big, blonde figure whose power and physical strength comes with attacking ability. He can pass well and loves to rumble forward. He gets on the scoresheet both with blistering shots from range and from bursting beyond the strikers.”
And now Lucas, aged 29, finds himself as a centre back.
It’s a quite remarkable transformation. Lucas’s Liverpool career has had plenty of ups and plenty of downs — his debut saw him replace Steven Gerrard in The Dirk Kuyt Derby in October 2007 when he put in a very promising cameo that culminated in him winning the penalty that won Liverpool the game.
In a way, the fact that he was denied the decisive goal by Phil Neville and his banana-shaped face almost sums his career at the club up. Nearly, but not quite.
It’s a good way of looking at his achievements and overall performances.
Since Lucas signed, Liverpool have won one trophy. A League Cup in 2012 — a campaign when he suffered a season-ending injury during the quarter-final win at Chelsea.
He played no part in the semi-final against Manchester City, no part in the final against Cardiff City and watched as Liverpool lifted their first trophy for six years.
Four years down the line, Lucas lined up at centre back against Manchester City in the League Cup final — a position completely alien from the one he was signed for.
He had a fine game, following on from his first appearance in the position in the away leg of the semi-final with Stoke City. Again though, nearly but not quite.
Liverpool lost a penalty shoot-out 3-1. He would follow up a good performance with a missed penalty in the shoot-out. Another medal would elude Lucas for different reasons.
Going back to 2007, Lucas had what felt like the hardest job in the world — a world where the old ditty claimed we had the best midfield therein. Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso, Javier Mascherano and, er, Momo Sissoko.
If you’ve got Sissoko in your midfield you can’t really claim it’s the best because he wasn’t very good at the football thing. Great athlete, though.
Anyway, I digress — over the next few years Lucas’s role under Benitez was to come in and cover for one of those three — the swashbuckling midfielder that rose to the fore in Brazil was never really sighted in Red. He would come in and try to be Gerrard, or Alonso, or Mascherano.
It’s not disrespecting him to say it was hard, it would be hard for all kinds of players such is the quality of those individuals. Bizarrely, his inability to be as good as Liverpool’s finest three midfielders since Graeme Souness was used as a stick to beat him with.
Why? I’ve always felt for some he was an easy option as a target of abuse for people who didn’t like Benitez’s ways. There wasn’t really any other logical reason for it.
The 2008-09 season saw Lucas as the master of all trades and a jack of not many — he flitted in and out, had poor games (Wigan away an example, when he conceded a late penalty) and he had good games (like the 4-1 win away at Manchester United, although some didn’t notice this one, Jamie Redknapp praised Xabi Alonso’s input at a later date even though Lucas had taken his place). You can file that season under “Did a job”.
When Alonso left Lucas came more to the fore. The Spaniard’s replacement Alberto Aquilani was a crock and Lucas spent a large portion of the season alongside Javier Mascherano.
Mascherano sat back and tried to be Alonso, which didn’t work, and Lucas tried to be… well no-one really knows what. You can file this season under “A really poor team season, he played his part in that being the case.”
The summer after, Benitez left — the man who signed him, backed him and placed a huge amount of trust in him left.
In came Roy Hodgson equipped with a list from Christian Purslow and on that list was Lucas’s name — it wasn’t a positive list, it was a “get rid of him” list.
Lucas was linked with Stoke and Christian Poulsen came in to take his place. Well, in theory.
Fast forward 12 months and Lucas had seen off both Roy Hodgson and Poulsen. Liverpool career-wise, he had come back from the dead for the first time.
The spell from this point was his best at Liverpool. He had now become a fully-fledged defensive midfielder; he was aerially dominant, read the game well, positioned himself well and was becoming one of Liverpool’s most important players.
Then, two days after dominating Yaya Toure at Anfield, Lucas went down innocuously in a League Cup tie at Stamford Bridge. He had injured his anterior cruciate ligament and he missed the rest of the season.
The following summer would see Kenny Dalglish replaced by Brendan Rogers. Joe Allen then turned up to play as a deep-lying midfielder, where Lucas played. Jordan Henderson was emerging, Steven Gerrard was still there and Nuri Sahin was also signed that summer. Lucas looked fifth in line.
Four years on and he is somehow still here, still going, still contributing to the team, and seemingly has shown a fifth Liverpool manager what he’s about: that he’s a presence, that he’s a leader and that he’s someone who you need around the place.
Last summer, Rodgers nearly sent him to Turkey, this summer Klopp stopped him from going to Turkey. Five managers and a potentially career-damaging injury later, he’s still here and he’s found a new role.
Lucas appears to be our third-choice centre back at present. It’s a role that seems to suit him. His first outing there that I can recall was last year’s League Cup semi-final at Stoke.
Lovren went off injured early and he slotted in next to Kolo Toure having started the game in midfield. He earned Sky’s man-of-the-match award and would start the final against City there. Again, he played well.
It fits with his attributes — he’s deceptively good in the air, he reads the game well and he’s able to get out of defence and snuff out danger early.
Saturday’s game against Leicester showed how his use of the ball helps as well. He was heavily involved in Liverpool’s goals and if your centre backs can use the ball well it makes unlocking teams like Leicester at home a lot easier.
People will say that he isn’t a defender and that it’s a stupid thing to do from Jürgen Klopp’s point of view.
That’s understandable, but if Liverpool had £10million to spend on a defender to fill in, could the club get a better one, one who would fit better?
Remember, it isn’t just the on-field stuff that he helps with — he’s also a huge personality off it. It’s hard to go out and buy someone to replicate what he brings.
Tackles In The Premier League 2006/7-Present Day
On the pitch, I don’t think it’s much of a problem. If he isn’t as good as top-level defenders, then so what?
How many truly top-level defenders are there in the Premier League? It isn’t a league blessed with top defenders. What he offers on the ball in a lot of home games is far more important for the team than any concerns about what happens defensively.
Liverpool defended well on Saturday. The reigning champions came to Anfield and created one real chance that Jamie Vardy spurned just after Adam Lallana scored.
There are no defensive concerns whatsoever and there will be more than 10 clubs turning up at Anfield who aren’t as good as Leicester City. Some will battle, but Lucas is a battler.
Going back to a point from earlier, the level to which nearly-but-not-quite can be carried forward on Lucas really is quite extraordinary.
Take Saturday for example, for 99.9 per cent of the game he was superb. Aerially dominant, good with the ball, strong in the tackle, quick at getting out of defence and snuffing out danger — he did it all. But the 0.01 per cent cost Liverpool a goal.
It might sound a bit weird but that kind of mistake is something I find more tolerable than almost any other mistake that a player can make.
Does anyone really think he will do that again anytime soon? He won’t. It won’t happen in any game you watch this season, in any league, so just draw a line under it and forget about it.
I think The Kop thought the same when they sang his name — it was nice to see that a player wasn’t pilloried for causing a goal and was instead offered support. The new stand must be dishing out happy pills.
Lucas is a season away from a testimonial. All he needs to do is see out another year, and given what’s gone before, that should be a cakewalk.
Who would have thought when he got booed on to the pitch at home to Sunderland that we’d be saying that?
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