Lucas, Liverpool's Best Midfield Performance and Why Coutinho Poses a Problem

Karl Matchett@@karlmatchettFeatured ColumnistOctober 28, 2013

LIVERPOOL, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 01:  Coutinho of Liverpool in action during the Barclays Premier League match between Liverpool and Manchester United at Anfield on September 01, 2013 in Liverpool, England.  (Photo by Alex Livesey/Getty Images)

Poor performances, individual mistakes, loss of form or perceived ill-discipline can make for plenty of negative reading when things don't go according to plan for a team on the football field, so when things go right, it's important that due is credit is widespread and acknowledged.

Fans, viewers and the players themselves might not like their downturns in form being highlighted, yet great results and performances often bring up as many questions as answers.

To that end, Liverpool put in their best performance of the season on Saturday against West Bromwich Albion, took the points it merited and saw a big return to form in key areas of the team.

No player epitomised that more in a red shirt at Anfield than midfielder Lucas Leiva, who set the platform for an attack-minded display but who also formed part of a trio which produced the best all-round midfield performance of the season.

The 1-2 Midfield Shape

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Having opted for a 3-5-2 of late, Brendan Rodgers tweaked his system a little for the home game against the Baggies.

Previously, a central midfield pairing had seen Victor Moses operate in the 10 role ahead of them, in what was essentially a 3-4-1-2 formation.

That was altered against West Brom, inverting the midfield triangle to a 1-2 shape instead of a 2-1, leaving Lucas at the base to patrol the width of the pitch in his defensive half and eschewing a single attacking midfielder in favour of the two-pronged penetrative act of Jordan Henderson and Steven Gerrard.

It worked perfectly, as the three of them overpowered, out-passed and out-worked the energetic and physical Youssouf Mulumbu and Claudio Yacob, to the tune that one was subbed and the other booked after a series of fouls.

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Henderson and Gerrard alternately surged, Lucas shielded and all three used the ball extremely well.

Lucas in Numbers

Had it not been for a truly outstanding individual performance from hat-trick-striking forward Luis Suarez, who added to his personal tally of ridiculously unscorable goals with an 18-yard header into the top corner, Lucas would have been the Reds' man of the match.

The holding midfielder made more passes than any other player on the pitch (69) and completed 93 percent of them, essentially completing more successful passes (64) than any other player even attempted.

They weren't all five-yard passes to get things going again, either. Lucas completed nine of his 11 long passes and sent 19 balls into the final third.

Lucas Leiva passes into final third vs WBA
Lucas Leiva passes into final third vs WBA

Eight tackles—easily the highest of the game—three interceptions and two clearances further showcased his very best form defensively, while at least 300 replays and angles of the penalty he conceded have yet to actually yield a reason why it was ever given at all.

Numbers alone don't sum up the performance of Lucas, though. The stats don't account for his anticipation and acceleration—something badly missing from his game of late—to sweep up a stray ball after a Martin Skrtel error in the penalty area. Nor do they highlight the timing in his sliding challenge inside the box to cleanly win the ball and prevent danger from a relatively rare West Brom skirmish forward.

Coutinho's Return

Liverpool's next Premier League game sees them face off against table-toppers Arsenal at The Emirates Stadium.

While the likes of Joe Allen and Glen Johnson have returned from injury recently, key playmaker Philippe Coutinho has yet to return. He is expected to make his comeback to the squad in time for the Gunners clash, though—but that's not to say he'll be straight into the starting XI.

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After six weeks out, it would be unrealistic to expect the Brazilian to hit the ground running, and in such a key match, the Reds can't afford any passengers.

He'll likely start on the bench, an offensive weapon for later in the game should Rodgers require one, or else to get a few minutes on the pitch later as he seeks full fitness, should the match go well for Liverpool.

Coutinho's return, however, provides another selection dilemma to Rodgers over the more medium term: how to accommodate him into the system considering the better all-round display of the team.

One game doesn't make a season, but it's clear how much better balanced, how much more attacking thrust and how much more control the Reds had over a game—including their ability to press higher up the pitch, a vital component—by flipping the midfield shape.

As far as the 1-2 in the middle goes, Coutinho doesn't quite fit it. He's an archetypal "1" in a 2-1, but that might not be the best way forward for the team right now.

Formation Going Forward?

Rodgers will, barring any new additions to the physio room, soon have his full complement of first-choice players available. Iago Aspas is only a squad player, Seb Coates is not even that, and everyone else is either fit and ready or else out on loan.

So, in theory, Liverpool fans should soon see exactly what shape the team will have for the rest of the season, with Rodgers sure to not want to have to keep changing every couple of months.

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Will it be the 3-5-2 variations, or will Rodgers' initial 4-2-1-3 return?

Again, the latter gives the Reds a 2-1 midfield shape, rather than the 1-2 which has seen them exude greater control over games, even going back to last season when performances were generally good, yet results were not always forthcoming.

The obvious solution would be a diamond midfield—the 1-2 midfield shape still largely applies, yet there is room for a true 10 like Coutinho—which Rodgers has spoken about in passing, but the fact is Liverpool haven't played this system with anything like a regular occurrence.

Of course, the same was true of a 3-5-2 until a month ago, so it can't entirely be ruled out.

What is sure is that, regardless of overall formation, the midfield shape against West Brom has allowed Liverpool to put in their best shift of the season. They have been accused previously of not performing for the entirety of a 90 minutes beforehandno longer can that be the case after West Brom were swatted aside from start to finish.

Individual players must keep up the improved form, Rodgers has to make good and brave selection choices in a key run of fixtures ahead, but Liverpool as a club and as a team have given themselves a wonderful platform for success in the opening three months of this season.