Sunday’s 3-1 demolition of Manchester United was a game that will live long in the memory of Liverpool fans, with outstanding performances all over the pitch. The post-match talk has been all about Luis Suarez’s sensational footwork, Dirk Kuyt’s super hat-trick, and the first glimpses of Anfield’s new hero, Andy Carroll.
However, the brilliant performance for me this weekend, was of our Brazilian midfielder, Lucas Leiva.
As I watched the game for a second time, revelling in our thrashing of United, something stood out for me. The performance of Lucas completely underlined the vast improvement he has made over the past year or so.
There is no doubt Lucas endured a difficult start to life on Anfield. For his first three seasons he was made the scapegoat for all of Liverpool’s problems and flaws, and I’ll admit, I was one of the many who called for the young Brazilian to be sold.
In Lucas’ defence, the £6million price tag he commanded probably didn’t help him when he arrived from Gremio in 2007. I, like many, expected a lot from the Under-20 Brazilian captain. He came with a good reputation as a box-to-box midfielder, and maybe it was a bit premature to expect we may have found the next Kaka.
It’s fair to say Lucas struggled to find his feet in the Premier League. In his debut season on Merseyside, Lucas was seen as the Achilles heel of the Liverpool team. He seemed to lack the physical presence needed as a central midfielder in England, often being knocked off the ball. His passing was also wayward, and when he did complete a pass, it was usually either backwards or sideways.
Unfortunately for Lucas, his second year was even worse than his first. Games were passing him by, and Lucas was becoming a passenger in the Liverpool team. Something not expected of a Liverpool player. As his poor displays carried on, the Liverpool fans were starting to get on his back, dwindling away at any shard of self-confidence he had left.
The 2009/10 campaign saw the introduction of Lucas into regular first team action. With the loss of Xabi Alonso, who completed a move to Real Madrid, Lucas was to sit in midfield alongside Javier Mascherano. My first thoughts were who the hell is going to create chances for Steven Gerrard and Fernando Torres? The combination of Gerrard and Torres was helped massively by the creative traits of Xabi Alonso, who seemed to be able pass a ball through the eye of a needle. Lucas, as far as I was concerned, didn’t have the ability to provide for Gerrard and Torres in the same way Alonso did.
After putting on a few pounds in pre-season, the midfielder looked as though he was more of the physical presence I mentioned earlier. However, filling the boots of Xabi Alonso was an entirely different proposition. On paper I was right, Liverpool did miss the influence of Alonso as the reds stumbled to a seventh placed finish, the club’s worst finish in over 15 years. However, there was no doubt that Lucas was improving, showing glimpses of his real potential. In fact, Lucas was probably Liverpool’s best player that season, maybe that was a testament to him, or maybe that was simply because everyone else was so dire.
When Lucas’ biggest supporter, Rafa Benitez, left at the end of that season, it seemed the writing was on the wall for the young midfielder. After being linked with here, there and everywhere, I was expecting Lucas to go. Stoke looking the most likely destination.
However, thankfully, no such move materialised. This season has seen an even greater improvement from the 24-year old. No longer is Lucas getting pushed off the ball so easily, he is winning tackles and his passing is much more positive. In a season of many ups and downs, Lucas has been consistently excellent. Finally he is showing the abundance of potential Rafa Benitez saw in him.
Since the return of Kenny Dalglish, Lucas has been flying. In Dalglish’s first five games, Lucas’ pass completion rate hasn’t dropped below 80%. A statistic to rival even the best passers in the game, such as Xavi or dare I say it, Xabi Alonso.
Lucas’ performance against Manchester United summed up his season. He dominated the midfield with passion, determination and composure. He out-battled Scholes and Carrick in the centre, and when in possession, some of his passes were Alonso-esque. A phrase I wouldn’t dream of using two seasons ago.
The pundits praised the likes of Suarez, Kuyt and Meireles, who no doubt rightfully deserve their applause. However, Lucas was the important cog which made the Liverpool wheels turn, he won possession and then fed the ball to the likes of Suarez, Kuyt and Meireles. The Brazilian had a pass completion rate of 84% yesterday, no mean feat in such a fast paced, physical fixture.
For a long time I thought Lucas was just another lightweight ‘playmaker’, destined to flop in the Premier League. However, to his credit, he has become a combative central midfielder, one of which I’m pleased to say is a Liverpool player. I’ve not always been Lucas’ biggest fan, but in this case, I am more than happy to have been proven wrong.