With in-form midfielder Lucas Leiva facing a spell on the sidelines with injury, Jack Lusby discusses Brendan Rodgers options.
This represents a significant blow, and manager Brendan Rodgers must now decide how to reshape his tactical layout.
Lucas’ contributions have been vital of late, with his diligent, simple defensive style ensuring Liverpool aren’t dominated in the midfield, and as such will take some replacing.
There are two clear options for Rodgers in replacing the impressive Brazilian, in Joe Allen and Emre Can, but who should the manager select as Liverpool’s new defensive midfielder?
Arguably the most like-for-like replacement for Lucas in terms of natural position and playing style would be Allen, and the 24-year-old has expressed a determination in prove himself in this role if called upon in Lucas’ absence.
Allen replaced Lucas at Everton on Saturday and, on the whole, performed comfortably, helping the Reds to another clean sheet.
“When you are on the bench you always know there’s that chance that someone might pick up an injury and you need to come on,” Allen said on Sunday. “I’m confident that if I stay fit and get myself in this team I can help and show what I can do.”
The midfielder has struggled since returning from his own injury, with an anonymous showing against Bolton Wanderers in the FA Cup compounding his misery.
However, as Allen stresses, a run in the team can work wonders for consistency and form.
In terms of ability, Allen is capable of filling this defensive midfield role—he’s intelligent, he’s a tenacious tackler and he is adept in possession, particularly over short distances.
He has averaged at 2.2 tackles and 1.3 interceptions so far this season—a combined total higher than any other Liverpool midfielder, Lucas aside.
Defensive midfield is a role that Allen often assumes on international duty for Wales, and he is effective as Chris Coleman’s midfield base, as we outlined following the side’s 0-0 draw with Belgium in November.
— Andrew Beasley (@BassTunedToRed) November 16, 2014
If Allen was to replace Lucas, this would arguably be the least disruptive in terms of Liverpool’s current shape, as the backup would merely assume the role of the regular, but the ability of Can also offers Rodgers an intriguing option.
Deployed in an unfamiliar right centre-back role in recent weeks for Liverpool, Can has excelled, with his mobility, composure and strength suiting him to this malleable role, capable of dealing with the threat of Eden Hazard as much as he is threading a long pass through to the Reds’ attack.
A switch into the midfield in the 2-1 FA Cup win over Bolton, however, highlighted just where Can would be most effective.
Can was instrumental in Liverpool’s comeback that night, driving from midfield with persistence, and setting up Raheem Sterling’s equaliser with an exquisite lobbed ball.
Liverpool's equaliser tonight was all about the ball from Emre Can. pic.twitter.com/ytW1MVF0Bx
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 4, 2015
In that system, Can operated just ahead of the defensive line, dropping in between Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho when required, breaking up Bolton’s counter attacks and looking to move the ball forward when in possession—these are all qualities required in the defensive midfield role.
After that performance Rodgers praised Can, and hinted at his long-term future at Liverpool:
“He’s strong, aggressive and attacks the ball in the air. He gives good balance with the other two centre-halves. He can step in with the ball and create but he’s also aware of his defensive responsibilities. His composure is at a real good level. I still think his future will be in central midfield…[But] the demands of the game will determine where he plays.”
Rodgers clearly has no qualms with Can’s defensive ability, and injury to Lucas could offer the opportunity to introduce him into his long-term role.
If Can vacates his right centre-back role however, Liverpool would need a replacement—two options present themselves here, with a returning Kolo Toure and a promising Javier Manquillo both possible solutions.
Toure, fresh from his Africa Cup of Nations victory, would need time to readjust to the side, but has shown he is more than capable of performing in this role, as he did prior to his departure to the Ivory Coast squad. Note that Toure would not be available against Tottenham so this wouldn’t be an option until Crystal Palace in the FA Cup on Saturday.
Manquillo, as a primarily defensive full-back, may well be suited to this adventurous wide centre-back role, but would be more of a risk than Toure.
Can may seem the more attractive prospect in terms of his overall performance—in his box-to-box midfield style and his strong showings in defence so far—but is he the right option to replace an injured Lucas at this point?
With Lucas facing an extended spell out of this thriving Liverpool side, Rodgers is presented with an interesting quandary.
The manager could introduce Allen to the side and continue the stable, defensive midfield approach, or experiment with Can as a more progressive, fluid midfield base.
As Rodgers attests, Can’s long-term future at Liverpool is in this deep-lying, box-to-box defensive midfield role, and a partnership with the energetic Jordan Henderson is an attractive prospect.
However, logistically this switch may prove too hazardous at present.
Moving Can into midfield should be the long-term plan for Rodgers, but with Toure just returning from international duty and Manquillo an untested proposition at centre-back, it may be too much of a risk with testing Premier League clashes with Tottenham Hotspur, Southampton and Manchester City on the horizon.
Furthermore, while Can’s style could bolster Liverpool’s attack significantly from midfield, his inclusion could upset the side’s balance, which has heralded four consecutive league clean sheets.
Allen may not be the most exciting option but, at this point, the midfielder should be introduced as Lucas’ like-for-like replacement.
Who should replace the injured Lucas Leiva in midfield? Let us know in the comments below.