THERE’S a video doing the rounds on the internet at the minute showing Lucas Leiva’s absolute joy when greeting Player Liaison Officer Ray Haughan shortly after full-time on Saturday.
He’s by an absolute country mile the most enthusiastic of the Liverpool players who make their way back into the dressing room. It’s something that shouldn’t come as a surprise; he’s been at Liverpool for nudging 10 years now and shows all the passion of someone with the best part of 250 appearances for Liverpool.
It wasn’t just the passion of Lucas that was important on Saturday, it was his general performance as well. Lucas came in for, what was by my reckoning, his first league start in midfield of the season and he was phenomenal. I talked about it in depth on the main Anfield Wrap show that went out on Sunday and there are things that have appeared since then to support my point. I said that it felt like he was winning the ball with enormous regularity and then someone did the numbers. He won 15 battles in the air, he made 15 tackles and three interceptions.
Have a think about that, that’s a number of 33. The ball was generally in play for around 65 minutes, so he effectively won the ball every two minutes of play. That’s astonishing and something (admittedly without checking) I’d expect doesn’t happen regularly if even at all.
The point of this isn’t to blow smoke up Lucas’s arse, it’s a general point about having a squad, about having players capable of coming in in times of need and producing performances good enough to make up for the absence of their team-mates. It’s clear that in every football team there is a hierarchy. You have players who always start, players who’ll generally start, players who offer things off the bench, and bit-part players who will fill in and do a job and get time in the early stages of cup competitions.
People seem to have this belief that every football team should have 20 players of the same standard, that are all brilliant, that can all do as much as each other. At best it’s unrealistic, at worst it could either cripple you financially or you’d have 20 players who were mediocre.
We need depth in this squad – it’s hard to argue that we actually have any players who fill in every so often and do a job. Lucas has started seven games and been a used sub eight times in the league, and started in seven of our nine cup ties. That’s filling the role of bit-part player pretty well, and that number could legitimately be less if we had more depth at centre-half.
Next season we’ve got European football guaranteed unless West Brom managed to perform a miracle and finish above us. What the competition will be we don’t quite know, although it’s looking increasingly likely that it’ll be Champions League and this means an increase in games. Yes on the face of it, it does look like there’s far less scope for him to play next season, but this is a season where Liverpool will play far less games than next. If we come fourth, the absolute minimum number of games we will play next season will be 48, which is one more than this season and that’s without considering any cup runs.
We are going to be the third seeds in the Champions League next season should we get there and because of that we won’t be getting penalty kicks, we’ll be getting 2 very tough games, and could even pick up a sleeper from pot four like Hoffenheim. We could get Juventus, Barcelona and Hoffenheim as a group.
That’s probably the worst possible scenario, and it could similarly be Feyenoord, Porto and a bunch of Eastern European pig farmers but we need to plan for the worst possible scenario. To cope with this we’ll need players that we can rely on. You might not want to go to the Camp Nou with Lucas playing against Andres Iniesta, but you would be happy with letting him play against Joey Barton three days before and allowing Jordan Henderson to have a rest.
Alberto Moreno is even one you could use here. People really seem to dislike him, but if we’re concerned about the defensive abilities of a full-back against this dreadful Premier League then we should probably sell all our other players for not being good enough to make up for any mistake that he probably won’t make. James Milner can’t play every week and if he’s first choice you’re going to struggle to get a better option. So why not coach him and use him in certain situations?
How many of our players can we declare completely useless relative to our cause next season? Going through our squad on Wikipedia the only ones you would probably think have absolutely nothing to offer are Connor Randall, Kevin Stewart, Daniel Sturridge and Danny Ings. There’s a discussion about Alex Manninger but it feels like a waste of time.
Everyone else should be kept, with the possible exception of one goalkeeper if we are able to find someone much better than our current incumbents. If we can’t say that they’re obviously better than Simon Mignolet or Loris Karius, then don’t bother. It’s a waste of time. Negligible improvement leaves you with Andrei Voronin, Christian Poulsen and Paul Konchesky.
That leaves us with two goalkeepers, 15 senior outfield players and then the likes of Marko Grujic, Joe Gomez, Trent Alexander-Arnold, Sheyi Ojo, Harry Wilson and Ben Woodburn. Fifteen senior outfield players isn’t enough for a campaign of this ilk, it means you need to buy a lot or you really need your kids to step up.
But let’s pretend that we sell Moreno, Lucas, and Ragnar Klavan which I suspect most people would be fine with. You’re then down to 12 senior outfield players before you’ve even thought about signing a single player. That’s a lot of upheaval for one summer.
Obviously we’re going to sign players, and hopefully good players who’ll be among the first names on the team sheet, players who’ll be good enough that Roberto Firmino can have every fourth game off, that Philippe Coutinho can sit on the bench for a game and come on if required, that Sadio Mane can go to the African Cup of Nations in early 2019 and us cope better than this time.
One of the things I really like about the depth Rafa Benitez developed during the middle of his spell was that no one would have a clue what the team would be, it was similar with Gerard Houllier’s squad. In 2001 Michael Owen won the Ballon D’or, the highest individual award in European Football and Liverpool won a cup treble. In the first of these cup finals Owen didn’t kick a ball.
Imagine getting to the League Cup final next season and leaving Firmino to kick his heels because you don’t need him.
I’ve become slightly sidetracked from my broader point of depth here because the specific focus was on Lucas, but anyway, good professionals like Lucas don’t grow on trees. You can’t go out and get someone with the experience, and the passion, and the ability to fit the role that Lucas has this season. It’s easy to say that his role would change next season with the arrival of a centre-back, but there are more opportunities for him to play in his preferred position like he did on Saturday.
He’d be the first name on the teamsheet for any League Cup game before Christmas, for any FA Cup tie against in excess of 55 teams that we could draw in the third round. There is definitely a place for him.
If he wants to play football as he edges towards the twilight of his career (given he’s three weeks older than me, that was difficult to write) then that is perfectly valid. An experience of a new country, a different type of football, maybe even the chance to go back to Brazil, then you would have to accept that and wish him the best of luck.
What we absolutely shouldn’t do is march him out of the door. There are many qualities in football and some of them you just can’t buy. He possesses them in spades. Bottle his passion and sell it, don’t sell his passion.
Someone who has the capability to win a football back from the other team as much as he did on Saturday should be appreciated, not packed off to play in Istanbul.