Much has been made this week--including around these parts--about the phenomenal displays by Liverpool's two young fullbacks on the road against Arsenal, as both John Flanagan and Jack Robinson had the sorts of sold, confident displays that could have left people thinking they were well seasoned veterans had the truth not been repeated every thirty seconds by the commentators. Though as with everything else in football, it's a team game. Everything is connected. Every player relies on another doing his job well in order to even have a chance to look good himself.
And here, the two young fullbacks owed an awful lot to the tireless running of midfielders Lucas Leiva and Jay Spearing to help create a platform for them to go out and impress beyond their years.
Defensive Actions v. Arsenal
Lucas: 1 int., 5/10 tackles; Spearing: 2 int., 2/4 tackles
This is one of those times chalkboards don't quite tell the whole story. Still, comparing the spread of defensive actions taken by Spearing and Lucas against Arsenal (right) to those seen against West Bromwich Albion (below), the later of which was a match that saw Liverpool on a similarly defensive footing--though it was a less assured outing, even with a pair of more senior players at fullback who in theory shouldn't have needed as much help--help to show the slightly wider area Liverpool's two midfielders attempted to cover on the road against the Gunners.
Against West Brom, too, that over a third of the defensive actions were interceptions made by Lucas in a small cluster right at the edge of the box reflect the tightly packed central duo's attempts to defend zone 14 instead of the wide areas. Meanwhile, early on against Arsenal their main priority became helping to cover the wide areas, doubling up on runs by Walcott and Nasri so that even if they weren't always credited with a tackle, interception, or block, their presence played a key role in allowing the young defenders to do so. With Kuyt and Meireles often up the pitch attempting to join the attack from narrow outside positions, there was hardly a break against Liverpool that didn't see one of Lucas or Spearing alongside whichever fullback's flank Arsenal attempted to attack down.
That Spearing managed to link up play with the attack so often under the circumstances, and that Lucas had the energy after nearly a hundred minutes to first win a free kick on the edge of Arsenal's penalty area and then the subsequent penalty kick that Dirk Kuyt converted to rescue a draw, in retrospect seems a minor miracle given how much running the pair did.
Defensive Actions v. WBA
Lucas: 5 int., 2/5 tackles; Spearing: 1 int., 1/2 tackles
In the circumstances, it would have been hard for either player to do any more than what they did. On the road, outnumbered in midfield, and needing to always be there to lend a helping hand to a pair of players regularly found plying their trade with the U18s.
It showed the kind of superhuman stamina people have almost come to take as a given when Lucas is playing against the top of the table, but that he both managed to help cover for Robinson and Flanagan while battling the Arsenal midfield trio to a draw and even providing occasional forward runs still deserves recognition. And if he deserves praise for the sort of excellence as a shielding midfielder that has perhaps begun to be taken for granted, Jay Spearing deserves it for a recent run of games that might be the start of shifting views on his long-term viability as a member of Liverpool's midfield.
The journey to acceptance, and perhaps even more than that, might be shorter for Spearing than it was for Lucas, both because of his status as a local and because the expectations for him were so much lower to begin with, but this was a player who a month ago many still assumed would end up with a comfortable career somewhere amongst the chaff of the Chamionship at best. While it still might be hard to know quite what Spearing's level will be in the end, with a solid month hardly securing long-term stardom, it seems at least a start on the road to becoming a valuable squad player for future Liverpool editions. And regardless of what the future holds--for Spearing as well as the two young fullbacks--Liverpool's midfield duo deserves a not insignificant portion of the praise for Robinson's success against Arsenal and Flanagan's success against both the Gunners and Manchester City.