Transfers: Why Liverpool Must Add a Defensive Midfielder This Summer

Tony Lucadamo@tonylucadamoContributor IIIJuly 10, 2012

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - AUGUST 27:  Leiva Lucas of Liverpool is tackled by Ivan Klasnic of Bolton Wanderers looks on during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Bolton Wanderers at Anfield on August 27, 2011 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Clive Brunskill/Getty Images)
Clive Brunskill/Getty Images

The 2011/12 season for Liverpool can be split into two halves. Essentially, the Reds were a completely different side before and after November 29.

In 17 matches across all competitions, Liverpool won 10 and drew five. They averaged 2.06 points per game prior to that date. Going into December, the club sat just three points out of fourth in the league. They also managed four Carling Cup wins. This includes a quarterfinal victory over Chelsea.

Things changed dramatically after November, however. In the closing 35 games, Dalglish’s side lost 14 and drew seven. The average of 1.44 points per match over that span represents a significant dip in form. They fell to eighth in the table, 17 points behind fourth-place Tottenham and four points back of Everton in seventh.

What then, you ask, is the significance of that date?

The more astute Liverpudlian should recognise it right away. On November 29, Lucas Leiva went down with his season-ending knee injury. Rarely has the impact of one contributor been so pronounced. The team never fully recovered from his absence.

Lucas completed 68 tackles in the 12 contests he started. That was one short of the team leader, Jose Enrique with 69. When you consider that Enrique started 33 games—nearly three times that of his Brazilian teammate—Lucas’ intrinsic value becomes clear.

The following chart illustrates Liverpool’s defensive midfield play.

 2011/12 Tackle Won % Ground Duels Won % Minutes per Ground Duel Mins Per Tackle Mins Per Challenge
Lucas Leiva




































The graph displays two major trends.

First, Lucas’ relative efficiency is placed in stark relief.  Just about every measurable statistic attests to his quality.

As Stephen McCarthy notes, “Of all players to start 10 games or more last season [Premier League], no player put a tackle in more often than Lucas.”

Further, you have to go back to 2009/10 and Javier Mascherano to find a Liverpool player with a comparable tackle-per-minute ratio. Even then, he fell short at 15.48 minutes.

If there is room for improvement, it is in the percentage of tackles that he wins. It is surprising that he finishes third in that regard. Brendan Rodgers will expect the Brazilian to get better. However, given his past propensity to adapt quickly, expect this ratio to increase.

In addition, the numbers show that what Lucas lacks in efficiency, he regains in work rate. His ability to cover the field is second to none at Anfield. That marathon mentality is what distinguishes him as a great midfielder.

Unfortunately, the second major trend gleaned from the chart is more disheartening. By a wide margin, none of the other midfield options are a suitable alternative to Lucas.

Here’s a quick snapshot of why:

Jonjo Shelvey wins just over half of the tackles he attempts. Steven Gerrard contributes less than two tackles per game. Charlie Adam averages less than three. For every twelve minutes they are on the pitch, Lucas challenges for the ball three times as often as Jordan Henderson.  Finally, Jay Spearing took part in ground duels nearly half as often as Lucas.

Spearing’s numbers in particular do not seem as bad at first. However, he was the individual most often deployed as a substitute when Lucas went down. Thus, his relative ineffectiveness should be given an extra dose of scrutiny.

In short, it makes sense that the club’s form fell off so drastically. There is really only one viable defensive midfield option on Merseyside. Such ineptitude in depth is unbecoming of a top-four side. Present management would be wise to take note. As they draw up plans for expenditure this summer, the purchase of a stand-in must be a part of the equation.

Popular opinion purports that focus in the transfer market should be fixed to decidedly offensive elements. Within that framework, an attack-minded central midfielder, striker and left-sided central forward are the most common suggestions.

Certainly, there is great merit to this view. After all, the defense was tied for third best in the league with just 40 goals allowed. In contrast, the attack finished eleventh with just 47 goals scored. Thus, it makes sense that attention remains on the attack.

However, the statistics do not lie. The Reds were over half a point better per game with Lucas on the pitch. Clearly, he has a pronounced impact on proceedings.

This is because football is not so simple a game as to be merely subdivided into black and white, offense and defence. The game is more complex than that. Each player, no matter their respective position, can profoundly affect output on either side of the ball. A team without an adequate rear-guard to its midfield is weak throughout.

With Lucas gone, Liverpool put in more tackles in the back and played longer stretches in its own third. As a result, the build up takes longer, passing becomes more speculative and confidence wanes. Thus, having a better option in reserve than Spearing can be just as important to the scoresheet as the signing of a new forward.

If Liverpool are to succeed, it cannot allow this vulnerability to persist. Quality in depth is a necessity. The club must act now to secure the future. Signing a proper understudy for Lucas this transfer window should be a primary goal for FSG and Brendan Rodgers.