“I think the last couple of years, every transfer window my name is linked with a move. Of course there are times when you think you might have to move on and I was very close to moving but one thing I will always have is commitment to this club. I’ve been here so long and I always said if I had the choice to be here and be happy, I would always choose Liverpool” – Lucas Leiva, September 2015
From exiting stage left to central defending in the space of five months; the surprises keep on coming with Lucas. With Kolo Toure rested ahead of the Capital One Cup final on Sunday, Jurgen Klopp chose to continue with the defensive experiment he trialled from the start against West Ham in the FA Cup. Liverpool kept their third consecutive clean sheet for the first time since their opening three games of the season.
The scoreline may have been tight, but the pattern of the game was far different. This was only the third time the trio of Daniel Sturridge, Roberto Firmino and Philippe Coutinho have started a game for Klopp, and they buzzed around the final third, interchanging positions and causing overlaps at regular intervals. In the first half an hour, Augsburg were outclassed on their first trip to England.
It was Liverpool’s lack of ruthlessness that caused them late twitchiness, with Sturridge in particular guilty of profligacy before his early substitution. Marwin Hitz also showed why he has recently been named the best goalkeeper in the Bundesliga. As ever with Liverpool, nails were bitten down to the base.
It was Lucas’ performance that was most striking. Liverpool may have lost at Upton Park in the Brazilian’s only start as a central defender, but Jamie Carragher saw enough to be impressed: ‘Couldn’t understand Klopp using Lucas at CB in the last few months but looks like he was right.’
In his column for the Liverpool Echo, former midfielder Jan Molby offered his own praise: “It’s not a long term solution by any means, but the Brazilian showed that if he is needed to step in any time soon, he is more than capable. I think Liverpool are playing what I would call ’emotional football’ at the moment, and so having a calm head at the back is no bad thing.”
Against Augsburg, Lucas again demonstrated his flexibility. As a defensive midfielder, his strengths lie in an ability to read the game, anticipate danger and make tackles. He is not quick, but instead relies on positional sense to account for that flaw. During the first half, Lucas made four interceptions, more than any other player on the pitch. By the end of the game, no Liverpool player had made more tackles either.
Rather than try and alter his style to fit the central defensive role, Lucas instead plays like an old-fashioned libero, sweeping up attacking moves and stepping forward with the ball. He completed 47 of his 49 passes, demonstrating both his tidiness and preference for simple passes rather than the killer ball. There are plenty better candidates in this Liverpool team to pick the opposition’s lock; Lucas needs only to make sure their own front door is kept closed.
As with any player in an unfamiliar role there were moments of concern, not least the weak backpass that gave Caiuby an opportunity to equalise, but Liverpool are not a team for which defensive perfection is ever expected, and certainly not from a non-specialist.
Lucas’ defensive role is only likely to be a short-term option, with necessity the mother of Klopp’s invention. Martin Skrtel and Dejan Lovren will return from injury in the next month, and Joel Matip will join from FC Schalke in the summer. Toure will surely return at Wembley on Sunday, but again that’s absolutely fine.
“I need to feel comfortable, I wouldn’t just be here for the sake of being here, I don’t think it’s my profile,” said Lucas last month. “That’s why I think I’m still here because I show I want to fight for the club.”
The Brazilian need not worry; it is impossible to doubt his significant use to his manager. Klopp may only call on him at a time of need, but Lucas has proven himself capable of being Liverpool’s fourth emergency service.