IF you’d have asked me a few weeks ago about who would be leaving the club this summer, I would have said, with a very heavy heart, that Lucas Leiva would be on the ‘definitely’ list.
He appeared to have been relegated to a position in our squad as an auxiliary centre-back, competing with Ragnar Klavan to be first reserve to Dejan Lovren and Joel Matip, sometimes playing out of his skin in his new position, sometimes being exposed as the rookie he is in that role.
The recovery of Joe Gomez for the under-23s and our constant links with much-needed new blood at centre-back seemed to spell the end of a glorious roller coaster of a Liverpool career for the now much-loved Brazilian.
But then injuries took hold of our squad, Jürgen Klopp was almost forced to play Lucas back in his favoured deep-lying centre midfield role, and things started to change.
All of a sudden, those of us who had in our minds that Lucas was 35 and in the twilight of his career were reminded by the man himself that he’s only 30 and still has many years to play at the highest level. His serious knee injury against Chelsea in 2011 also means that there are fewer miles in his legs than some of his peers, which could extend his career further.
In recent matches, having had a run in the team at centre midfield for the first time in a few years, we’re almost starting to see the Lucas who was impressing everyone before that desperately unlucky injury, when he had been turning doubters (and boo-ers) into believers long before our new leader coined the phrase. It surprised me to see when looking back over his career with us that he was named as our player of the season in 2010-2011 (which maybe says more about that season than it does about Lucas, but still).
I wondered earlier in the season why Lucas hadn’t had any real chances in the deep-lying role for Klopp, bearing in mind his general attributes. He’s arguably our best midfielder in the air, he loves to play on the front foot and can pick a pass out playing vertically up the pitch. On paper at least, he looks like a man Klopp would love. On the flip side, his apparent lack of mobility seemed to be the one key flaw in his game that prevented him being given a chance. On recent performances, though, even that seems like a harsh assessment.
What never ceases to surprise me is how often we write players off for being too slow or lacking mobility, when in reality all that was lacking was match practice and sharpness. We’ve all labelled Emre Can as being too cumbersome earlier this season, and now that he’s injury free and having a good run in the team he looks anything but. The same can be said of Lucas.
I often find myself having sympathy for multi-millionaire footballers (an emotion I know most football fans won’t empathise with), purely on the basis that many of them are judged harshly yet they don’t have control over lots of the factors that have a bearing on their form. Emre Can is a perfect example, only recently mentioning during interviews that he was playing earlier in the season through the pain barrier for the good of the team. Perhaps that’s one area of the game in which Football Manager-type stats before the game could help: “Emre Can is only 60 per cent fit today, so give him a break”.
Back to our Brazilian elder statesman, it’s far easier to envisage him staying at Anfield beyond his testimonial year after his recent run in the team, subject of course to knowing that he has the manager’s trust and a place in his plans, even if that isn’t as first choice. He’s settled in the area, very much playing the adopted scouser role that we’ve seen so many times down the years and, as the longest serving member of the squad and someone who the fans now identify as being someone who understands the city and the club, the off-the-pitch incentives to keep him speak for themselves.
What’s important for Lucas and Klopp is whether they can find a way of him being satisfied with the number of games he would play if he sticks around, in addition to the frequency of those games. As we’ve seen, there’s a huge difference between playing once every three weeks to playing once a week.
In recent weeks, we’ve had more debates about a lack of player signings last summer and, in addition to that, for the first time we’ve been re-assessing whether we sold too many players. Looking at the current incarnations of Christian Benteke and Joe Allen at Crystal Palace and Stoke respectively makes many Reds yearn for them to still be occupying squad shirts at Anfield. What we can easily overlook is that those players have both thrived after extended runs in their teams, and we haven’t had the pleasure of watching them during all of those matches when they were rusty and finding their feet again. Even with a new team and regular football, Benteke took much longer to get into his stride than Allen, and a change of manager was necessary to get the best out of him. Meanwhile, at the other end of the Crystal Palace teamsheet, we’ve had Mamadou Sakho having many Reds who despised him in a Liverpool shirt now proclaiming him to be the second coming of Paolo Maldini and demanding he be brought back into the fold.
Would we have picked up more points with Benteke, Allen and Sakho in our squad this season? Perhaps. But then perhaps we’d have just seen more lads struggling to find form after sitting on the bench for weeks on end before being thrown into the Anfield cauldron and expected to turn on their best form with the flick of a switch.
It’s here that a lack of any form of European football has a huge adverse effect on a squad like ours, with a reduced number of games creating problems that none of us think about when celebrating the fact that we’d have a week to prepare for most games. Klopp spoke last week of the negative impact having star players not getting a game has on the atmosphere of the squad, which can be addressed by having more games in which they can all be given an opportunity. Hopefully, last night’s result will help secure the Champions League football we all crave (for the sake of assisting us to sign better players, if nothing else), which should mean that our squad next season can take a number of additional faces, all of which will get enough game time to keep them happy and game-ready.
If that’s the case, we come back to Lucas and whether or not he should stay. You will have seen by now the stats doing the rounds about him this week. He now has as many assists this season as the world’s most expensive player, and more assists than in his last 363 seasons at Anfield combined. If we heard of a Brazilian playing defensive centre midfield for RB Leipzig with his recent stats who we could sign on a free transfer this summer we’d be made up (well, our scouts and transfer committee would be made up, the fans would prefer he cost £50million because it makes him feel like a bigger and better signing).
I’ve realised lately that this has become my standard argument when talking about signing new players and putting the ones we’ve got in the bin. We’re all eager to believe that someone else’s player is fantastic and is just what we’re missing, mainly because we don’t have to endure their terrible performances before they sign for us so we can kid ourselves that they’re the new messiah, before realising in August that they’ll probably need a season or two to settle in like every other signing has always needed. With Lucas (much like with Simon Mignolet, but that’s an argument for another day), we have a player who the manager knows inside out. Jürgen knows precisely what the player can and cannot do, and he has also seen first-hand what his character is like and how he responds to a challenge. Bear in mind that Lucas mentioned a few weeks ago that Klopp had asked him to contribute more in the attacking third of the pitch and, since then, he’s got three assists in his last five Premier League games. (Imagine what he’d be like given more notice…!)
I wonder if that in itself is enough to make Jürgen question whether he’d let the Brazilian leave this summer. One thing it definitely does mean is that he doesn’t necessarily need to buy someone unless he can get a player who is a clear upgrade on the man currently in possession of the shirt, which is what we should be focused on as supporters.
Should we buy a new goalkeeper? Absolutely, if we can get one who is clearly better than Mignolet and Loris Karius. Should we buy someone to play centre midfield? Absolutely, if we can get someone who is clearly better than Lucas.
That’s not as easy as it might once have been, though, and whether or not it means we should sell the players after buying new ones is an entirely different question.
One which I’m sure Jürgen and his team will be putting plenty of thought into following recent performances.