A month ago Liverpool were a club in crisis: outplayed at Spurs and out-muscled at home to Villa, last year’s Premier League runners-up slumped to two early defeats.
For a club that suffered only two losses in 38 games last campaign it was a stuttering start which saw many critics write off any possibility of Liverpool winning an elusive 19th League title.
A young 22 year old in the heart of the Reds midfield bore the brunt of the blame. Lucas Leiva was the easy victim. He’d been given the daunting task of replacing the fulcrum of the Liverpool side: Xabi Alonso.
The problem at White Harte Lane was clear. Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres were isolated from the rest of the team. Neither Mascherano nor Lucas could provide the link between defence and attack.
They aren’t renowned for their distribution or creativity. They are destroyers. The absent Xabi Alonso was sorely missed. Over a week later against Villa, Lucas wilted under the pressure, the bating breath of the Kop sent shivers done his spine, leaving him paralysed in midfield.
However the Brazilian has shown a wealth of improvement in the past few weeks.
The player deserves credit for the unerring mental toughness that he has shown. He has defied critics and has produced mature performances against Burnley, West Ham United and Hull City.
Why has he been targeted?
The loss of Xabi Alonso has of course had a huge impact on the team. He was the cog in the engine room and vital to the system Liverpool had used to such great effect.
Mascherano would sweep up any attacks playing the short, simple pass to Alonso. The Spaniard maestro would unleash memorising passes to thrust Liverpool’s attackers into action. That system was disrupted when Alonso was sold to Real Madrid.
Lucas was never going to be a suitable replacement for Alonso. He is the same breed of player as Mascherano. Therefore Liverpool were always going to miss that creative flair in midfield and inevitably as the new worker in the Anfield engine room, blame was assigned to the Brazilian.
The owners failed to provide reasonable funds for further investment in players. Rafa Benitez was forced to sell in order to generate revenue for new acquisitions. It is another example of broken promises from Gillett and Hicks.
Arguably Lucas suffers from the Brazilian stereotype. When you think of great Brazilian players names like Pele, Romario, Ronaldo, Ronaldinho, and Kaka all spring to mind.
A defensive, holding midfielder isn’t exactly a ‘Brazilian’ position. Ironically Brazil’s current manager Dunga was a great defensive-minded player in his day and was a hero for Lucas.
Benitez too must shoulder some of the blame for his side’s shortcomings. He purchased a midfielder who was crocked and wasn’t due to return before October. Alberto Aquilani has the talent to prove a hit on Merseyside but with his prolonged absence, the first few weeks were always going to be ropey for the Reds.
Benitez stuck with his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation despite the loss of Alonso. The losses to Spurs and Villa encouraged Benitez to tinker with that tactic. In recent weeks, Gerrard has dropped back to central midfield and the results of this switch have been evident.
Gerrard has revelled in the central midfield role. He has the license to room while Lucas provides that vital insurance defensively. The Brazilian sits in front of the back four breaking up any sparse attacks from the opposition.
Meanwhile Gerrard is able to expend his boundless energy making explosive runs from midfield. In addition he has the ability to spot the intelligent runs of team-mates and if required is able to defend too.
The tactical switch has sparked a revival in Liverpool’s form. Since the loss to Martin O’Neill’s men, Fernando Torres et al have scored 16 times, only conceding five.
Lucas was particularly impressive against Burnley, West Ham and Hull. He cut out the rash challenges, didn’t over complicate matters and released the ball early.
While he partnered Gerrard in midfield, there was no pressure on the 22-year-old to produce blockbuster passes or unlock resolute defences.
The talismanic Liverpool captain has been quick to defend the Brazilian. When questions were asked over the future of Lucas at the beginning of the summer, Gerrard was quick to jump to his defence.
“Lucas has had criticism and for me it’s been unfair,” said Gerrard, in an interview last May.
“He’s a young lad learning his trade and he’s certainly got a bright future. He does a lot of work that goes unnoticed in this team. He’s come into some big games when the manager has said ’sink or swim.’
“He swam, very well, and he’s done really well for us.”
It is a fair evaluation of Lucas’ contribution. Reflecting upon past seasons he has enjoyed success in some of Liverpool’s biggest games, even asked to deputise for the missing Alonso at the 4-1 Old Trafford success.
Gerrard has been quick to pipe up in defence of his midfield partner this season too, especially in the wake of the out-pouring of discontent from many Liverpool fans.
He had lavish praise for the “mental toughness” Lucas showed after the demoralising early season losses.
The Brazilian could take heart from Darren Fletcher. He is another midfielder player who suffered from a lot of criticism at the start of his career but has now firmly established himself as a regular fixture in the United side.