Scapegoat; ‘a person or group made to bear the blame for others or to suffer in their place.’
Every team has a scapegoat for when things aren’t going particularly well. Sometimes the tag is justified, born out of consistently poor performances and being the symbol of the team’s ineptitude. More often than not though, the scapegoat is merely misunderstood, a hugely underrated cog in the machine.
In Liverpool‘s case, the title of scapegoat for the past three years has been given to Lucas Leiva. Joining from Gremio in 2007, he was first introduced in the derby and was instrumental in the winning goal, hitting the shot which Phil Neville handled on the line. However, he struggled to find any form as he tried to adjust to a new country having left his native Brazil for the first time. He was lightweight, regularly losing out in tackles and losing the ball in key areas. His passing was poor and games just seemed to be passing him by.
While players would usually be given time by the fans to settle in and adapt to a new team and country, Liverpool fans have seen a player who had to be carried through games – something which had become far too frequent in recent years. Enough was enough and having seen foreign failures like Gabriel Paletta, Sebastian Leto and Mark Gonzalez come into the team and underwhelm in every sense of the word, fans just weren’t prepared to accept another poor signing, and why should they?
Lucas ended his first season in England as poorly as he had started it and save for a reasonable performance in the absence of Xabi Alonso in the San Siro, the writing seemed to be on the wall for the young Brazilian. His second season was worse than his first and the lack of confidence in his own ability was apparent with the crowd beginning to get on his back increasingly more. He played in the role of water carrier – fetching the ball from the back and passing it to the more technically gifted players like Alonso – only he was dropping the water before he realised he had it.
He came back for pre-season in the summer of 2009, claiming he had put on an extra few pounds and was now ready for the rough and tumble which the Premier League dishes out. Personally, I thought it was just one of those soundbites that players come out with but never actually come to fruition. Soon though, it was obvious he had been working on every aspect of his game. He was strong on and off the ball, his positional play had improved and he had become more economic with the ball (although he was still prone to the odd clanger). By the end of the season though, he was becoming one of Liverpool‘s more consistent performers in an admittedly disaffected team. The critics though, still hovered. Once a perception has been generated and the masses have seen enough, it is often difficult to change their minds and prove how much you mean to the team. First impressions are everything and Lucas had given a shambolic first impression. It seemed that he was destined to be the fall guy in a vastly underperforming team.
When Rafa Benitez was replaced by Roy Hodgson last summer, the writing seemed to be on the wall for Lucas. He was constantly being linked with moves away from Anfield and the common consensus seemed to be that ‘Rafa’s darling’ would be sussed out and shipped on. Hodgson though, seemed to appreciate the Brazilian too and what’s more, he brought in Paul Konchesky and Christian Poulsen – Lucas must have thought all his birthdays had come at once.
Poulsen was abysmal, and Konchesky was worse and with all the pressure being heaped on them and the troubled manager, Lucas seemed liberated. He was nearly twenty four and the three difficult years adjusting to the rigours of the English game had seemed to have helped Lucas immensely. His passing, now fantastic, his shadwoplay, spot on and the silly fouls that had plagued him for the past three seasons, had finally been eradicated. He was Liverpool‘s most consistent performer for the first half of the season, calmly going about his work dilligently and stylishly. His best game of the season came at Anfield against Chelsea in November where he thwarted almost every Chelsea attack making it difficult for their influential players to gain any momentum. This was the game that he won the remaining sceptics over. He had finally proved his worth to Liverpool Football Club.
The arrival of Kenny Dalglish on his 24th birthday just galvanised Lucas even more. In the first five games under Dalglish, his pass completion ratio did not dip below 80%, a statistic which a couple of years ago would have brought derision from the hordes. He’s not only carrying the water, he’s conducting the orchestra. I have championed Lucas Leiva‘s case for a long time now, arguing until I was blue in the face that he deserved to play for Liverpool. This caused counter argument, bemusement and mockery. I hope now that I and many others have been proved right.