The Lucas Role

Yesterday we got our first glimpse of how Hodgson’s Liverpool would line up, even though only one of the players on the pitch was brought to Anfield by Woy. I was impressed with the creativity in the starting XI, with the manager choosing to play Gerrard in the “Alonso” role next to Mascherano. It was vintage Gerrard, with crushing tackles, sublime long passes and the box-to-box play that was so typical of him earlier in his career.
More importantly, though, I was happy he chose to play Lucas as a defensive midfielder rather than along with one. We saw the lack of creativity in midfield last year when the infamous Lucas-Masch partnership started, and that was one of the major factors in Liverpool’s dour performances. Hodgson thus used Lucas in the same way as his current national team and former Gremio coach, Mano Menezes, used him in the friendly against the US a few days back.
With Masch’s seemingly imminent departure to Barca, we’ll be left with 2 defensive mids – Poulsen and Lucas. How will Lucas’s inclusion affect the team? Lets take a look.

There are 3 things a defensive midfielder is required to do today, as excellently covered by Zonal Marking – tackling, distribution & interception.
In all three areas, Lucas has improved vastly, although his tackling still isn’t up to the level of Masch’s (but then again, whose is?). A lot of Liverpool fans were moaning last year about the number of sideways and back passes he made, expecting him to replicate Alonso’s passing range despite the fact that he was never meant to replace him, but what they were forgetting is that when trying to keep possession, one of the most important things is to be patient and knock the ball around until one can actually make a through-ball that is effective. What Lucas will be very useful for, is helping Liverpool maintain possession, which he did excellently for Brazil against the US. I reckon it will be a tactic used more against the “lesser” teams and you can thus expect to see Poulsen starting ahead of him for the big games. While it is too early to judge the way Hodgson will set up his teams, he has a history of giving up possession to the better ones (like Mourinho did with Inter v Barca) in order to have an upper hand in position. As Egil Olsen once noted, there’s almost always a trade-off between position and possession.
Considering that Lucas will probably be paired with Aquilani or Gerrard in the centre, he can afford to focus more on the defensive side of his game and opt for safety rather than creativity when dealing with the ball. Although he has shown that he can make those game-winning passes on occasion , I would be surprised if Hodgson plays him alongside Poulsen and expects him to be a creator.
You can see in the videos below (which I created) how important Lucas is in a team trying to retain possession. In fact, his exchange of passes indirectly led to the goal, creating space for the player on the left to exploit and cross the ball in. (1st half – 3:15) Another one of his tackles allowed a forward run which led to a chance on goal. (1st half – 5:00)

We see more of his defensive side in the 2nd half, with no less than six successful tackles (at 0:08, 0:19, 0:22, 1:36, 2:11, 2:19) and a couple of interceptions (In the game against Arsenal he made 3 successful tackles out of 4 in the space of 11 minutes). He also made a really nice pass towards the end which led to a goal-scoring opportunity.

The game against the US was one of Lucas’s better performances. Lets hope he can give us a few more of those this year and the Anfield faithful can finally give him the respect he deserves.


A matter of knife and depth

(the “knife” in the headline refers to the surgeon’s knife, and nothing dangerous)

With the signing of Aurelio, Liverpool now finally have a starting left-back. While I would also love Insua to stay, it would be hard to argue that he’d start over Aurelio if both stay fit. Aurelio, of course, was excellent for Liverpool whenever he played, and was especially noticeable by his absence last year when we looked considerably weaker on the left with the young Insua starting. He was also statistically the most attacking left-back in the league in terms of goals and assists in 2008-2009. Additionally, with either Jovanovic, Babel or Cole possibly starting on the left for Liverpool, we will have a right footed player on the left wing, so Aurelio can give us the width on that side. He also gives us options with set-pieces. However, the elephant in the room is starting to make some noise and I will have to get to it – INJURIES!!!

Injury record of the most likely starting XI for Liverpool

XI: 25 starts, 3 subs
Outfield: 23.7 starts, 3.3 subs

(I have only taken Lucas’s last season into consideration because he wasn’t a starting player in the 2 previous seasons)

XI: 24.7 starts, 3.3 subs
Outfield: 23.4 starts, 3.6 subs

Aurelio has only started 40 games out of a possible 114 in the last three years, a very low number for someone who has been the best player in his position for the team. Unfortunately, that can be said of a lot of our team – Aquilani, Agger, Cole and Torres are all very injury prone. Those 5 have an average of ONLY 15.6 starts a season and 20.3 appearances overall, not very encouraging numbers considering the lack of depth in the squad. Add to that the fact that Glen Johnson and Gerrard have had their share of injury problems as well, and you are looking at a very unstable squad.

Our new Head of Sports Medicine and Sports Science, Peter Brukner, will have his job cut out for him, but I’m sure he’ll be up to it. How much of it is in his hands, however, is to be seen. You can take measures to ensure the players stay fit, but an injury-prone player will remain injury-prone, especially with the kind of recurring injuries Torres (hamstring), Aquilani (ankle) and Aurelio (every single part of his frickin body) have.

Roy can also do his bit to help the problem, and that is increase squad depth at the cost of first-team quality. Manchester United had a terrible injury crisis last year, with Carrick and Fletcher playing in defence at one point, but when you have utility men like John O’Shea and other squad members more than capable of filling in the boots of the first-team players such as Wes Brown, the Da Silva brothers, Anderson & Michael Owen, you can still get the results against “lesser” teams.

So what positions will we need to strengthen the most? A lot of fans want to see a new striker, but I believe we have sufficient cover for that position. If N’Gog isn’t good enough to stand in as cover for Torres, then Jovanovic and Dirk Kuyt can do the job in his absence. What is more important is a quick winger who can also play in the middle. Ryan Babel is the only one in the team who has the pace and ability to make a difference on the wing, but whether he has the consistency to do that is questionable. Not only will such a player provide us the width we’ve been lacking for so long (under both Benitez and Houllier), he can give us a Plan B. It is also important that any wide player that we sign can also play in the middle because all three of our attacking midfielders – Cole, Aquilani and Gerrard – are injury-prone.

The second position where we seem to be lacking depth is the full-back position. Whether Insua is staying or not, we will need a cover for left-back considering the amount of time Aurelio will inevitably spend on the bench. Our other option is Johnson playing on the left, but that leaves the right side short of cover. The ideal player in this situation would be someone who can play on both sides, and possibly at defensive mid as well, like a two-footed Mascherano. I would’ve said across the back four and defensive midfield, but we have six centre-backs, so that is a position that is sorted.

Lastly, I think we need someone who can play in either a central or a defensive midfield position. Lucas is the only person who can do that right now, and even he was converted from a somewhat attacking player to a slightly defensive one.

Who comes in is up to Roy, but this much is for sure – our squad at this moment requires a lot of luck in terms of fitness for us to contemplate a top four finish. I’m not saying it’s beyond Liverpool’s ability to bounce back, or that we will have an injury crisis as strong as last season, but Arsenal, Spurs & City all have deeper squads, and the battle for fourth will be even more heated than last season.

Likely starting XI