If I’ve noticed one thing about Lucas Leiva, it’s that a lot of Liverpool fans hate the guy. I am an avid Liverpool fan and mostly a reasonable guy. I like to give people a chance, and I have time for most people in a Liverpool shirt (there are exceptions, El Hadji Diouf), and I think that Lucas has the ability to be a great Liverpool player.
No journalist, writer or fan can claim to know exactly what goes on in training, but the Liverpool coaches and Rafa Benitez must know something the general public does not, because they keep picking Lucas and showing faith in him. And likewise, his teammates show remarkable respect for a player who many have already written off as useless; a waste in a red shirt.
Every player fills a certain role in the squad. In my opinion Lucas’ role is currently to be a suitable fill in for Xabi Alonso. He will never be Alonso, and he can never be fully compared to him either, but there are qualities that both players share. Alonso is not a completely defensive minded player, and neither is he attack minded. He plays deep, collecting the ball from the defence, and moving it up field. He keeps possession ticking over, making short simple passes to move the ball around the field. Lucas does the same, and he does it well.
Alonso’s attacking prowess, apart from his skill on the ball and impressive shooting and free-kick abilities, is due mainly to his vision and ability to pass the ball long distances. Few players can pass a ball as far, as accurately, and with as much purpose, as Xabi Alonso. Lucas is never going to emulate that unique skill, but he doesn’t have to, because he is not the same player.
Lucas’ attacking ability comes further up the field, in his touch and direct passing and his dribbling. Lucas is a Brazilian, and like most from the Samba nations who have chosen football as their profession, he is attacking minded and blessed with skill and flair on the ball. He doesn’t have the silky ball control of Lionel Messi, or the mesmerizing step-over ability of Cristiano Ronaldo, but he can hold his own in the box of the opposition – something we have not seen nearly enough of.
Defensively, Lucas’ midfield counterpart is Javier Mascherano, a completely defensive minded player who specialises in breaking down the opposition possession, turning over possession, and keeping the ball moving by passing it on to his teammates. He is full of heart, pace and aggression, and loves throwing his body around for challenges that some players shy away from. He loves nothing more than a crunching challenge, and we have seen him unleash a beast of a long range shot on one occasion, something he needs to work on.
Lucas, in comparison, works hard defensively and does well in breaking up possession. He aggravates players (though, to be honest, no-one can compare to Xabi Alonso’s ability to get opposition players sent off in the last season) and is tenacious when tackling – enough to turn over possession often. Having said that, he gives away far too many unnecessary free kicks.
On his own, he is excellent in the air, far better than most players in the squad, and he can also spot a pass. He is young and open to suggestion – something he will get plenty of by playing with characters like Carragher, Alonso and Gerrard – and so I think with some confidence and hard work, he can grow into his own as an important player in the Liverpool squad.
He has his flaws. He loses possession more than a central midfielder should. He tends to lose possession when attempting those special passes to find Torres or Gerrard or one of the wide players, but only marginally more so than Alonso or Gerrard, and certainly less so than Jamie Carragher and Pepe Reina, who both play a large part in many mishit long range passes in every game. His shooting is wayward and needs a lot of work, and we have not seen nearly enough of his ability to beat players on the ball.
However, I am confident that Lucas will mature into a sure, consistent and reliable player on the ball. Having worked on his physical strength in the off season, he will be more confident on the ball, and this will only help in his decision making going forward into attack. The last season has been a difficult one for him, with the fans not pleased with his performances and writing him off as a failure. He has shown resilience, and put in some assured displays (particularly against Manchester United), and he has worked hard to repay the faith shown by his manager and team mates.
This is a vital season for him, and it could be make or break for his Liverpool career. With a squad growing and becoming an almost unbeatable presence in Europe, and launching a serious challenge for the Premiership title, Liverpool Football Club cannot afford to carry any players. Lucas has to overcome the adversity and negative attitude of some fans and put in some good displays to earn his right in the team, and if he is to remain, he needs to prove that he is not one of those being carried along.