When Brendan Rodgers first arrived at Liverpool, no player on the squad seemed more suited to his approach than midfielder Lucas Leiva. For many, a road demolition of Tottenham towards the end of 2013 with Lucas at the base of a midfield trio including Jordan Henderson and Joe Allen remains the high point of the possession and pressing approach Rodgers preached upon his arrival.
Soon afterwards the focus shifted. The return from injury of Steven Gerrard and a lighting attack led by Luis Suarez and Daniel Sturridge saw Liverpool embrace a quick-strike counter game in the second half of the season, and with that Lucas’ role was diminished as the manager began to measure success and suitability of any player in the holding midfielder role by how much that player contributed to the side’s pacy attack.
Steven Gerrard, for all his flaws as a holding player, helped Liverpool to regularly score four or five goals and in so doing made his flaws as a holding player immaterial. Lucas meanwhile was relegated to afterthought, and many expected him to be sold over the summer. When he wasn’t, many expected he would be in January. Now, though, he’s in the starting eleven again and key to Liverpool’s hopes of turning their season around.
"It wasn’t a perfect year for me, but I think it’s ending in a good way," reflected the 27-year-old Brazilian. "I missed the chance to play at the World Cup and the last three or four months I wasn’t playing so much here, but for the team, it’s a different season and a different moment. We just have to be together as a team and I think we have shown in the last few games that we are capable of achieving what we want."
With Luis Suarez in Barcelona and Daniel Sturridge having missed almost the entire season, the attack has gone from incisive to insipid this season. Unable to regularly score four and five goals , Steven Gerrard has become a near complete liability when played as the deepest midfielder in a single-pivot system. After last season’s fever dream attacking football, a more conventional holding midfielder is necessary.
It took Rodgers nearly half of the season to admit it and return to something closer resembling the approach he arrived at the club with, and that stubbornness may mean that Liverpool’s hopes of remaining in the top four for another year are already dashed. Yet now that he belatedly has, it is again clear just how necessary Lucas—or at the very least a player like him—is to a team looking to play a possession game.
Last season’s second half saw Liverpool embrace a new look, the side focusing wholly on attack. This season’s second half looks set to see them refocus on a pressing and possession game while overloading the midfield. To succeed with it, they will need Lucas, who after spending most of 2014 as an afterthought is once again one of the side’s most important players and, at least in the short term, likely irreplaceable.
"We have a long run of games now, and we just need to focus on that," said Lucas. "Hopefully this busy period will be a positive one."