THERE’S a lot more to Lucas Leiva’s Liverpool career than the bare facts of 334 appearances in a red shirt.
In many ways the Brazilian defines the struggle of the modern Liverpool player entwined in the complexity of supporters’ expectations. Only through seniority, familiarity and an obvious refusal to buckle over 10 years has Lucas earned the respect of a crowd which once threatened to destroy him.
It would be easy to shun somewhat hypocritical plaudits coming his way in the more recent years of a decade at Anfield but such is his humility, there isn’t the merest hint of bitterness. Instead there’s just a beaming smile and a Liverpool accent born of 10 years in the city. Lucas now revels in the role of accepted elder statesman content in the knowledge his determination and professionalism has won all but his staunchest Scouse critics over.
His billing when signing from Brazil’s Gremio in May 2007 put him on a hiding to nothing from the start. Described as an all-action, box-to-box midfielder with a reputation for surging runs and eye for goal, expectations were further enhanced by comparison with fellow winners of the Bola de Ouro – the annual prize awarded to the best player in the Brazilian league.
Hopes that the Reds had acquired the new Zico, Falcao, Romario, Careca or Kaka didn’t take account of experience – at the age of 20 – amounting to just a season and a half in professional football, in a declining Brazilian league. Instead, Rafa Benitez had merely identified a young player with a strong mentality as an understudy to the Reds’ abundant quality in central midfield in the shape of Steven Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano.
After a quiet debut off the bench against Toulouse in a Champions League qualifier and a first start at Reading in the League Cup in a match memorable for an outstanding Fernando Torres hat-trick, Lucas next entered the fray in October as a 72nd minute substitute in a Goodison derby poised at 1-1.
That he replaced Gerrard; deemed by Benitez to have become too embroiled in the drama of a typically tense and boiling affair, to offer a more sanguine presence in midfield, saw as much head-scratching from Liverpool fans as from an irked skipper.
When a loose ball fell to Lucas in the 90th minute, his unerring side-foot finish towards the top corner was clawed away by Phil Neville to concede an obvious last-gasp penalty. Dirk Kuyt duly netted, Benitez was vindicated but Lucas was denied the kudos and hero status of a winning goal on his derby debut. It didn’t seem so significant at the time but missing out on such adulation would colour later perceptions.
By the time Lucas registered his first Liverpool goal, however – a spectacular 25-yard curler – against Havant and Waterlooville in the FA Cup fourth round, the club and The Kop was in turmoil. The dastardly deeds behind the scenes of Tom Hicks and George Gillett had been exposed and factions of the support railed against the owners, but just as many aimed their invective at Benitez and his methods.
From early in the season a predilection for occasionally resting and rotating Gerrard and Torres saw the manager come under fire as another shot at the league title gradually floundered.
Somehow, somewhere in the middle of all this, Lucas got caught up in Anfield’s civil war. As a growing number of supporters chose to ignore the bigger picture and jumped on bandwagons fuelled by a voracious media suggesting all Liverpool’s ills festered in the dressing room, Lucas duly became a lightning rod for increasingly snide abuse aimed at Benitez.
Benitez rode out the 2007-8 storms, reaching the semi-finals of the Champions League and qualifying again securely for Europe in fourth place; and embarked on a renewed assault on the league title at the start of the following season. Protests against the owners continued – twinned with support for Benitez from the same factions – and after 10 wins from the first 13 games of 2008-9 Liverpool topped the table.
From game to game the tension was palpable. When Benitez rested Alonso for a home game against Fulham in November, Lucas’s inclusion in his place was booed by The Kop. Lucas had yet to make his mark but this reaction spoke more of Alonso’s missing out. The game had barely settled into a rhythm before calls for the Spaniard rained down from The Kop.
Under the microscope, Lucas’s every touch brought groans from the stands. When Alonso was finally introduced, with Lucas struggling to influence the game amid a rotten atmosphere, it was Mascherano who was sacrificed and the barracking for the Brazilian intensified. Every now and then Anfield becomes an unforgiving place for Liverpool players under the cosh but this was different.
Supporters couldn’t appreciate what Lucas, deployed as a second holding midfielder, offered as an attacking threat and when the match finished goalless the concept of Benitez and his ‘pet project’ only deepened.
Benitez felt the need to go public in his defence of the player. Before a Champions League tie in Eindhoven he stated, “People just don’t know how good Lucas is. He is a fantastic player. He can tackle, he can pass the ball and he can win in the air.”
Despite the manager’s support, Lucas’s travails continued. After an assured showing against Inter Milan at the San Siro when deputising for Alonso, a dismissal in a losing cause at Goodison in a cup replay, and an injudicious trip to concede a penalty cost Liverpool all three points in a crucial game at Wigan had his critics once more out in force.
The Reds were drawing too many games, struggling to keep pace with Manchester United and Benitez was again being criticised not just for a cautious approach leading to too many draws but for erratic selection with Lucas often the prime focus. The Brazilian was struggling to convince; his appearances rationed by the stellar midfield cast in front of him and his adaptation therefore to the faster English game slow to take shape.
Against Sunderland at Anfield in March, Lucas was again callously booed on to the field when introduced as 70th minute substitute. Liverpool won the game 2-0 to claw back United’s lead to four points but frustration at the prospect of another title slipping away had become too much for Benitez’s detractors. The catcalls aimed at Lucas were a cowardly and convenient expression of dissent towards the manager.
Around the city, an insane clamour to see Jay Spearing – an untried, local reserve – given his chance ahead of Lucas grew with each passing week. Spearing’s lack of opportunity was also tied in with a growing perception of a disconnect between Benitez and The Academy and a refusal to entertain local talent at the expense of his foreign recruits.
When Spearing was given a surprise run-out from the bench in the following match – the 4-0 slaying of Real Madrid – his name was sung aloud and his every tackle cheered from the rafters. Lucas, also on as a sub, was ignored.
Benitez though, warding off brickbat from all quarters, reinstated Lucas for the subsequent trip to Old Trafford and his part in a memorable 4-1 win represented something of turning point. The Reds finished the campaign in some style but couldn’t quite reign in United; falling an agonising four points short in the annual quest for the title.
This was the high domestic watermark of Benitez’s tenure, but the following season finally saw the wheels come off. The manager bowed to the inevitable pressure of the wearying power struggle behind the scenes and increasing rancour among the fans. The need for a scapegoat on the pitch had passed.
Liverpool limped home in an unacceptable seventh place, sealing the Spaniard’s death warrant. Ironically, Lucas shone amid the gloom as Benitez faltered; becoming a regular starter in place of the now departed Alonso.
If Lucas felt he was finally established as a fixture in the starting line-up in readiness for the appointment of a new manager, he was sorely mistaken. Again his association with Benitez would haunt him as Christian Purslow, a financier involved in the impending sale of the club but also party to Benitez’s sacking, blurred the lines of responsibility and chipped in on football matters.
Allegedly, Purslow provided Roy Hodgson with a list of players deemed to be surplus to requirements, with Lucas the most prominent name at the top of the pile. Thus, the new season started with Hodgson lining up Christian Poulsen as a clear alternative to Lucas in midfield. The less said about Poulsen’s inadequacies and Hodgson’s brief reign the better, but we should at least credit Hodgson with eventually recognising the folly of Purslow’s amateur recommendations.
Lucas, now more accustomed to the speed of the Premier League, flourished under the freedom and enthusiasm of Kenny Dalglish to the extent he was quite clearly the player of a fractured 2010-11 season. Finally distanced from the Benitez stain and judged purely on merit, his reputation quickly blossomed from zero to hero. This was in part recognised by The Kop itself; Lucas becoming the maiden recipient of their cult Golden Samba award.
Sadly, just as Lucas was aspiring to even greater heights during Kenny Dalglish’s second season, he was struck by down by serious injury.
In the match preceding a fateful League Cup tie at Chelsea, he had absolutely bossed the midfield against Manchester City at Anfield. David Silva was given barely a moment on the ball and Yaya Toure made to look like a pygmy amid a flurry of blocks, tackles and interceptions. As ever, Lucas’s often unnoticed, intelligent vertical use of the ball in starting attacks was immaculate.
This performance in many ways sums up Lucas at the peak of his powers. That he succumbed to an anterior cruciate ligament injury three days later in a collision with Juan Mata was fate dealing its cruellest hand. That Liverpool went on to win that season’s League Cup in his absence – their only trophy during his 10 years at Anfield – was to rub to salt in the wound.
It is debatable whether Lucas has ever fully recovered from that injury and the thigh problem at the outset of Brendan Rodgers’ term which immediately followed his ACL rehabilitation. Under Rodgers and Jürgen Klopp, circumstances and new recruits have consistently seen his role confined to that of trusted deputy. His recent conversion to centre-half under Klopp, while testament to an underrated ability in the air and reading of the game, also recognises his most dominant days in the middle of the park are behind him.
Both Rodgers and Klopp speak glowingly of the Lucas the man, Lucas the professional, Lucas the player. But neither could find a regular place for him; always looking elsewhere for a more dynamic option for systems reliant on pace and thrust.
Despite limitless bravery, fight and character there is still something profoundly sad about Lucas’s time at Liverpool.
Perhaps the legacy of his reputation during those tough Benitez years still dogs him. Maybe that’s why for the last five years we’ve always been on the verge of bidding him goodbye; forever writing him off. It is no coincidence that the warmth shown to him in recent seasons has coincided with his almost constant presence at the exit door.
— The Anfield Wrap (@TheAnfieldWrap) February 21, 2017
Even while writing this, with Lucas on the verge of a 10-year testimonial, most are still predicting an impending departure. When he produced a performance against Spurs a fortnight ago warranting a standing ovation for his expert torment of Harry Kane, it was still noted as a something of a surprise. The acclaim felt like it was delivered with a note of contrition; an apologetic cap doffed to a doughty servant on his way out.
Lucas has rightly won admiration in spades but in light of what went before, a recent sense of adulation seems a little forced and misplaced. Even his greatest supporters would be reluctant to publicly concur with Benitez’s assessment of him as “a fantastic player.”
The Brazilian has had the misfortune to represent Liverpool during a turbulent period in our history. Despite numerous setbacks, he has always played with a smile on his face and never once thrown in the towel. His Liverpool career has been forged on proving supporters wrong and convincing a succession of managers of his worth. Throughout he has shown all of the finest Liverpudlian traits.
When fans and managers speak of the weight of the Liverpool shirt, Lucas should be the prime example of someone who has shouldered that burden with dignity and class. He has risen above the abuse of some supporters when it would have been easier to crumble. Instead he kept his counsel, worked hard and played some bloody good football. His eventual reward was being able to embrace and feel the love of a sometimes cutting, alien city.
Lucas might not have the medals to belong in a conversation about the Liverpool greats but after a decade of struggle and fortitude he has red blood coursing through his veins.
Well in Lucas, lad.