It's been a few seasons now since Lucas Leiva made the leap to become Liverpool's most important midfielder, but his journey from maligned spare part to integral cog remains a frequent subject for discussion. Whether it's used as a cautionary tale to give promising talent more time or to highlight the role of simply putting one's head down and working hard in any player's success, the uneven trajectory of Lucas' career continues to get plenty of attention.
He arrived at Liverpool with high expectations and an attacking reputation, the youngest player to win the Golden Ball as best in the Campeonato Gaucho. Never a frequent goalscorer but an effective creator, Liverpool fans saw a player who had won the same award as the likes of Kaka, Falcao, and Carlos Tevez and expected big things. Instead, Lucas struggled to adapt to the pace of the English game and showed little of the flash and flair many had expected.
"I was 20 when I arrived in English football back in 2007," said Lucas in an interview with FIFA.com. "I was coming from Gremio where I’d already had first-team football [but] I felt as if I was moving at 50 km/hour while everyone else on the field was at 100. I wasn’t prepared for that and needed to develop both physically and tactically.
"That’s why many players choose not to go directly from Brazil to England. In Spain and Portugal, and even in Italy, the pace of the game is different. So much so, in fact, that early on I performed better in Champions League games than in the Premiership. In terms of the speed of the game, it was like going from one extreme to the other."
In recent seasons the pace of the game has picked up considerably in Spain, driven by an increased focus on fitness and a need to keep up with a Barcelona side that under Pep Guardiola strove to match the endurance he saw in English clubs in the Champions League. The Bundesliga has also emerged as able to match the heights of speed and technique that for a time were seen as the exclusive domain of English football.
At the time, though, there was no other league in the world that could come close to the Premier League's combination of pace, power, and skill. And for Lucas, the learning curve was steep, made even harder by the lack of support he received from many in the crowd as he focused on building himself back up into a player who could hold his own in England by keeping things simple and focusing on the basics.
"With Gremio I carried an element of surprise, and on many occasions operated practically as a central midfielder," he added. "However, due to the pace of the Premier League, I changed positions. I couldn’t cope with the demands of joining the attacks and tracking back all game long. [Rafa] Benitez soon realised that I felt more comfortable playing in a deeper role, winning back possession and starting attacks.
"Nowadays I’m so comfortable with this position that it feels like I’ve always operated in it. I am, without question, a more complete player now because, should the match scenario require it, I can even play a more attacking role."
Liverpool fans saw something of the new, more attacking Lucas on Saturday against Stoke when he and Steven Gerrard took turns in the attacking third. While Lucas didn't provide the direct threat of Gerrard in and around the box—and with eight goals in 75 senior appearances for Gremio, even at his most attacking goals were never an especially prominent part of his game—he was effective at quickly recycling play from a more advanced position and even provided a few cutting passes to the players interchanging ahead of him.
And whether or not taking on a slightly more attacking role is part of the future for Lucas under Brendan Rodgers, after his struggles with injuries in recent seasons, these days the vast majority of Liverpool fans will simply happy to see him back on the pitch and back to something at least close to his best.