In a season of astounding attacking excitement and unexpectedly consistent success on the pitch, Liverpool manager Brendan Rodgers has won plaudits not just for his team's offensive nature but also for his tactical flexibility and capacity to structure his team in different systems.
Naturally, such tactical changes have led to certain players coming in and out of the side or changing their role, with Lucas Leiva one such player to lose his regular starting spot this term.
A frequent starter at defensive midfield in the first half of the season, Lucas has only played for more than an hour on one occasion since mid-January. The Brazilian looks as though he has another fight on his hands to establish himself at the club ahead of a busy summer.
Lucas, the First and Second Iterations
Upon arriving at the club in 2007, Lucas had played a box-to-box, aggressive attacking role for previous club Gremio. His slight frame and habit of taking time on the ball, however, made him ill-suited to that kind of role in the Premier League.
He was not always appreciated by supporters initially and took time to adapt to playing for Liverpool, but he has grown to be one of the biggest presences in the dressing room and his work rate, desire to help the team and the obvious appreciation shown of him by team-mates has long since changed that.
Boss Rafael Benitez thus charged him with becoming a more disciplined, defensive player, looking to the Brazilian to hold the centre of the midfield together from the 2009-10 season onward.
That was the role he played in the side for four years (plus the first half of this season), injury permitting, as a regular protector of the back line and a frequent name in the Brazilian national team squad.
Lucas' best performances perhaps came at the start of the 11-12 season as he was looking like one of the top defensive midfielders in the Premier League, before a long-term injury curtailed that success.
Steven Gerrard's Role
This season, Lucas found himself injured and out of form at different times, and his return to fitness coincided with Steven Gerrard having switched to playing the controller at the base of midfield.
The club captain and chief creator, Gerrard not only brought good defensive protection and determination to the role but also a more incisive, adventurous ability to pass the ball out of the back line than Lucas was able to offer. In exchange, the Reds needed more energy and pressing ahead of Gerrard in midfield, to allow him time on the ball; Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen bring this as box-to-box central midfielders, and Lucas has been asked to do so, too.
Lucas himself admits his playing style has gone full circle as a result, as per Phil Reade of LiverpoolFC.com:
We used to play a lot of time in a diamond. We had a holding midfielder, a playmaker, then me - more box-to-box. The playmaker did not run forward so much but I had the energy and freedom to join the attack. It's pretty much the same Brendan asks here if we play in a diamond. Yes, you have to look after the full-backs and, when the ball is on the other side of the pitch, help outside the holding midfielder. You also have to keep the ball but contribute to the attack.
It is in this role that the Reds' No. 21 now has to show, once again, that he is worthy of being a regular starter—not just as an alternative option to the energy of Henderson—but also showing the same ability to play forward passes as Philippe Coutinho, or say, winning the ball back, as Allen does.
If Lucas is to play regularly, he must show he can do all of this and more as Liverpool's attack-minded side continues to evolve and improve.
Summer of Change?
Liverpool will be making signings this summer, and a more consistent defensive side of the team is likely paramount to Rodgers' plans.
The Reds have outscored, won more games and gained more points than every side in the league so far...except Manchester City, which have exactly the same stats as Liverpool in those areas. The one difference is in goals conceded.
Midfield will have to be improved, too, with the Reds needing both more quality and more quantity in their central options. They've been linked with the likes of Germany midfielder Lars Bender, via Jan Molby of the Liverpool Echo, and Lazio youngster Ogenyi Onazi, via Nick Lustig of the Daily Star, both of whom might play similar roles to Lucas. The suspicion might be that one player coming in who can provide the box-to-box athleticism and cover defensive midfield is required.
That could easily see Lucas pushed even further down the selection order.
It would be easy to say he'll likely be sold as a result, but as the Brazilian midfielder has shown more than once in his Liverpool career already, there's always a way to show the fight and quality that top teams always want and win a place back in the team one way or another—even in a new position or role.