“Transition” is a word that has cropped up regularly in talk about Liverpool this season. As Brendan Rodgers has gone about implementing his new system, not only has the team had to adapt, but individuals have adjusted to tweaks in their roles and developed fresh relationships with teammates all over the pitch.
One area of the side in which two players need to have an almost telepathic understanding is the central midfield positions. With this is in mind, I have decided to take a closer look at Liverpool’s preferred double-pivot midfield duo: Steven Gerrard and Lucas Leiva.
For those who might be unfamiliar with the term, a “double-pivot” midfield refers to the “2” in a 4-2-3-1 formation. The two deep-lying midfield players will usually be assigned with different roles, as one player looks to break up opposition attacks and his counterpart tries to dictate the play from a deeper role. Partnerships like Xabi Alonso/Sami Khedira and Javi Martinez/Bastian Schweinsteiger are currently some of the best in the business at fulfilling these bespoke duties.
For extended parts of this campaign, Gerrard and Lucas have occupied these two positions in Brendan Rodgers' starting XI. The England captain has been the man tasked with stamping his authority on games from deep positions, whereas Lucas has the license to get about the pitch, make tackles and win the ball back.
Whilst their roles differ, both players have a responsibility to protect the back four, as the overall aim of the double-pivot is to enable the three advanced players freedom to interchange. This can only be implemented to full effect when a team has the insurance of two players sitting in front of the defence.
It also has massive benefits from a defensive perspective. From the oppositions point of view, it is menacingly difficult to break a side down who's two holding midfielders know how to block off the middle and screen a defence.
So, how good have Gerrard and Lucas been so far?
Well, Liverpool have certainly played their best stuff when these two are at the base of the midfield.
Gerrard in particular has adapted to his new role well. He no longer bursts forward at the earliest opportunity but picks his moments with greater consideration and increased purpose.
His goal at the Etihad last month is a perfect example of this, as Gerrard follows up the play from a much deeper starting position than we are used to seeing him in. On the occasions he does surge forward, he knows he has defensive cover as the disciplined Lucas never looks to get ahead of the play.
In the above graphic, we can see how Gerrard has honed in his attacking instincts and looks to stay close to Lucas. At times this season you could throw a blanket over Gerrard and Lucas as they have offered a compact base for Liverpool to build their attacks from.
They rarely stray further than 20 yards away from each other, blocking off the space in which the oppositions main creative threats look to influence the game. Even against the supposed lesser opposition (like Norwich in the above graphic) Gerrard has remained mainly disciplined.
Unfortunately for Liverpool, they have not been able to get Lucas and Gerrard into these roles as often as they would have liked. Gerrard has had a remarkable season in terms of his fitness (playing every minute of every game in Liverpool’s Premier League campaign), but the same cannot be said for Lucas, who has had some harsh luck on the fitness front.
Despite Gerrard flourishing in an almost regista-type role, it is the Brazilian who is the key man in this partnership working. Without him, The Reds lack a true defensive minded option.
When Lucas has been out of the side, Gerrard has stepped into the Brazilian's more defensive minded role, with Joe Allen taking up deep-lying playmaker duties.
Gerrard is still an athletic player who can get about the pitch and make tackles. But his lack of defensive awareness has always been one of the few flaws in his game. He is not quite as switched on as Lucas when it comes to anticipating danger and tracking opposition runs into Liverpool territory.
This was why Rafael Benitez, a manager who is particularly defensive by nature, would very rarely play Gerrard as part of a central-midfield two. The former Liverpool manager preferred to use Gerrard out wide or pushed forward as a second striker.
A recent case in point comes from Liverpool’s 3-1 defeat to Southampton. Without Lucas, Southampton cut through Liverpool’s central midfield at an alarming rate. Gerrard and Allen were unable to stem the flow of Saints pressure, with neither having the positional nous to help block off the middle.
The lack of a defensively-minded player was especially evident in the concession of Southampton's first goal.
Morgan Schneiderlin (circled red) is supposed to be being picked up by Gerrard (circled yellow). Whereas Lucas would more likely be aware of the danger, Gerrard doesn’t look over his shoulder once in anticipation of any blind-side runs.
This allows Schneiderlin to get past Gerrard and break into the box. The Liverpool man, at this point, is in the proverbial no-man's-land.
The resultant cross is finally headed back across goal, and with Skrtel unable to get goal-side Schneiderlin manages to poke the ball past Pepe Reina. By this point the Frenchman has run ten yards to get level with Gerrard and then ten yards past him. The England man in comparison, has shown virtually no anticipatory skills in an attempt to cut out the danger.
Without Lucas tracking runs and breaking up play, the double-pivot looks a lot less solid. In the Southampton game picked out above, Joe Allen was replaced by Lucas at halftime. Liverpool’s defensive work through the middle improved. as Liverpool were able to shut off Southampton’s central surges and force them wide.
Lucas made four tackles and three interceptions in the 45 minutes he was on the field, whereas Allen and Gerrard made two tackles and two interceptions combined.
It just goes to show important a Lucas-type player is in this system. If Liverpool are going to continue using this formation, then they are going to they need another out-and-out defensive midfielder.
This will give them ample cover for Lucas if he is unable to feature, not to mention that the Liverpool captain will be not be forced out of a role he is getting better and better in.
If we look at sides like Bayern Munich and Real Madrid, they have players in reserve who are capable of covering for either point of the double-pivot. If Liverpool intend on being a major force again by using the 4-2-3-1 system, then they need to bolster their options, especially in terms of another "destroyer."
For now? Pray that Lucas can stay fit!
What do you think? Let me know in the comments section or on Twitter @MattJFootball