Lucas Leiva is no stranger to criticism.
Prior to winning the Standard Chartered Fans’ Player of the Year award for 2010–11, the Brazilian midfielder was far from a fans’ favourite, but as one of the few players to come out of Hodgson’s brief stint in charge with any credit, the days of Lucas as scapegoat are over. Or are they?
Despite conceding fewer shots from the primary scoring zones than any other side in the league last season, suspicions remain that Rodgers’ Liverpool are sexy but soft-centred. The need for defensive reinforcements is widely accepted, but more contentious is the debate around the role of the holding midfield player, and so Lucas has come in for examination once again.
As the only midfielder in Liverpool’s squad best known for his defensive attributes, some feel the club require a second holding player regardless of Lucas’ performance. The role Rodgers calls the ‘controller’ is perhaps the most important in a system set-up to control possession, build slowly and create overloads in the attacking third. With so much focus on attack, the holding player needs to be dominant, intelligent and mobile, providing balance and mopping up the scraps. As the formation transitions into an in-possession 3-4-3, his role is to drop in between centre-backs split to either side, picking up possession from the keeper and feeding it to the full-back-come-wingers or his midfield teammates ahead of him. Rodgers made no secret of how well-suited to this role he felt Lucas was last summer, so losing the Brazilian to a second long-term injury came as a huge blow.
Some fans question whether Lucas is the same player after two long spells out with injury. Others say a more physical player is needed in what is a small side. If the media links to potential signings are anything to go by, however, Rodgers himself sees no need for reinforcements in the control room.
During one of the interview sessions with fan sites, Rodgers gave some insight into how the ‘1’ in his ‘1-2’ midfield functions in relation to the other ‘2’. At this point Lucas was still out injured, and Joe Allen (who was doing a great job in the early matches) was playing as the holding midfielder, but Rodgers’ words remain relevant to Lucas.
“This guy here dictates the rhythm of your game, the tempo of your game,” explained Rodgers, referring to the holding player. Turning his attention to the two players in front of him, he continued, “These two here are players [who] have to have the capacity to control, but also run and get forward and get back in.”
“This guy here is the controller. [He] dictates, dominates, commands the game from behind. The guys here can join in, but then as the team moves up the pitch they have to be able to move with it.”
The point he was making was that the team must defend and attack as one, which requires mobile midfielders to keep up with the play at all times. This is perhaps why Jordan Henderson seemed to improve our midfield balance when he played, his strong running allowing him to stay involved wherever the play broke and make up for the increasingly immobile Gerrard.
We know results picked up after Lucas returned in December (although the additions of Coutinho and Sturridge certainly played a part in that too) but how did he fare statistically compared to his contemporaries?
Despite coming back from two major injuries, Lucas scored well against his Premier League counterparts in most areas. Only Diame (11.97) and Ramires (13.63) beat his Minutes Per Ground Duels Won rate of 13.75, and in terms of Minutes Per Tackles Won, Lucas is out on his own with a phenomenal rate of one every 21.69 minutes. That’s way ahead of Yacob (27.59) in second place and the average (38.98) among these players.
Lucas’ Minutes Per Interception ratio (30.5) is some way better than the average of 41.22, as is his Loss of Possession ratio of 8.38 compared to an average of 7.71. The Brazilian’s Passing Accuracy isn’t a problem either, with his score of 87.63% again ahead of the group’s average of 85.84%.
So far, so good.
If we look at the stats for how often these players were dribbled past, however, the numbers start to tell a different, revealing story.
Alarmingly, an opponent dribbled past Lucas once every 46.47 minutes last season. To put that into perspective, the average of all 14 players listed above was 98.86 minutes, meaning Lucas was dribbled past over twice as often as the average. Cheick Tiote was dribbled past once every 50.28 minutes, but after him the next most frequently beaten was Ramires on 74.17. The best in the group was Sandro on 177.9, meaning Lucas was dribbled past almost four times as often as his fellow Brazilian.
This points to an observation many fans made about the team’s fragility last season. On several occasions, opposition players (think Lukaku) were allowed to run at our defence from deep with seemingly little resistance coming from midfield. The responsibility for protecting the defence doesn’t rest solely on the shoulders of the holding midfielder, but the last thing a centre-back wants is a player with the ball coming towards him one-on-one at full pelt through the middle of the pitch. A key part of the holding midfielder’s role is to stop runners through the middle, or to at least slow them down or send them wide while the team recovers its defensive shape.
Judging by these stats, Lucas didn’t do this effectively, but was it all his fault?
For extra context, I’ve compared Lucas’ stats for 2012-13 with his numbers for 2011-12 and 2010-11, as well as Joe Allen’s while playing the holding role last season and Javier Mascherano’s in his last season with the club.
As we can see, there appears to be another twist in the story these stats are telling us. Despite being dribbled past at a panic-inducing rate last season, in 2011-12, Lucas was far harder to beat, being beaten only once every 87.08 minutes. This is still more often than the average of the players I looked at for last season, however, and his dribbled past ratio for the 2010-11 season falls back to 51.08, so an inability to stop players running past him still appears to be a weakness Lucas needs to work on.
A player many Liverpool fans would like to see back at Anfield is Javier Mascherano, but as we can see, although his stats generally show he was superior to the crop of defensive midfielders currently playing in the Premier League, he was also dribbled past far too regularly in his final season – perhaps a factor in that season’s decline?
But what we are interested in now is why Lucas was dribbled past more regularly last season than any of the rival midfielders I’ve looked at, or our own holding players over the last four years.
To understand the issue tactically, we must go back to the fan-site interview with Rodgers. Liverpool had just been beaten by an Arsenal side that had failed to score in their opening two games. In the absence of Lucas, Rodgers had chosen a ‘1-2’ midfield of Allen, Gerrard and Sahin, with the Welshman playing the deeper role shielding the defence.
“We started with that [a 1-2 midfield] again against Arsenal, but I thought that we couldn’t dominate so much” explained Rodgers, while touching the finger representing Allen playing as the ‘1’. “[Diaby’s] running ability was causing us a problem, and … we weren’t together.”
Rodgers went on to describe how Steven Gerrard and an off-the-pace Nuri Sahin had left Allen isolated and exposed behind them, drawing chuckles as he described how “The three, became one.”
“See the first goal. If you look at it from a tactical perspective, we build the game perfect. Joe Allen drops in (between the centre-backs), he gets turned (turns his man), he makes the ball (out to Johnson) so you’ve broken four players with one pass.”
“We’re high up the pitch, the right-back’s on the ball. Great. But because we’re not a team yet that’s got good patience at the top end of the field… cos when that pass is played and Glen Johnson receives it in the right-back position we have to move as a backline, to condense the space.”
“So what then happens psychologically with the defender, once Johnson plays the ball inside and we give it away, they (the defenders) stay, and then you look at the gap then – the gap between where we lost the ball, to one pass through into here (the defence).”
This was early in the season, at a point when the players were still getting used to Rodgers system. The defense were too slow to move up with the play and Johnson was too quick to play the ball, instead of giving the players behind him the time to move up the pitch and close the gap between attack and defence.
As I’ve written before, however, the problem continued after Lucas’ return. The reintroduction of Carragher to add physical presence to the backline came at the expense of defensive pace. A defense is only as quick as it’s slowest player, and with Carragher anchoring the defense deep to negate the threat of a ball played in behind, a gap opened up in the middle of the pitch whenever we went forward – particularly when braking quickly. On the occasions when those attacks broke down, sides could exploit the space with a quick ball in behind our two advanced midfielders, leaving only an exposed Lucas and the centre-backs between them and goal.
With Carragher retired, Toure brought in and the likely addition of one or more quick centre-backs, our defense next season should be able to move forward with the attack more quickly, holding a higher defensive line and squeezing the space to give us a far more compact midfield.
If the midfield three are too far apart, there’s enough room for strong-running opponents like Gareth Bale or Romelu Lukaku to reach their top speed and simply drive past a relatively small defensive midfielder like Lucas. With a midfield trio in closer contact with each-other as well as the defence, however, opponents would have less space to accelerate through between challenges, as the space is instead left between the goalkeeper and defence.
Even if this tactical tweak is made, the role of the holding midfielder will remain vital in Rodgers’ system. With such an attacking philosophy in which the ‘2’ in a ‘1-2’ midfield are expected to join the forward players when attacking, it’s imperative that the holding player is mobile enough to chase down counter attacks and physically imposing enough to break them up.
He certainly hasn’t become a bad player overnight, and there is nothing in his stats to suggest the injuries have caused permanent damage. The ease with which players went past him last season has to be a cause for concern, though, and with no other recognised defensive midfielder in the squad, bringing in another to at least provide competition would be prudent.
In what is an increasingly small and attacking side, a more mobile, physically imposing player in the holding role could provide a more stable platform for the creative players to launch from. Were that to happen, Lucas could then feature as the slightly more advanced player in a two-man pivot, or as one of the ’2′ in a ’1-2′ midfield.
One thing is for sure; this will be a key season for a player who has silenced his critics once already, but must still prove that his Player of the Year season was descriptive and not the exception that proves the rule.
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Sep 15, 2014 0