The tale of the ugly duckling is a timeless tale of searching for one’s identity. The animals tell the ugly duckling that if he wants to be taken seriously he must behave accordingly. Despite the hindrance, this ‘ugly duckling’ continued to seek his heritage by doing the one thing he loves most: playing football.
From the ugly duckling to the most beautiful swan in the pond, Lucas Leiva has evolved into one of Liverpool’s shining lights and one of the Premier League’s prominent holding midfielders.
For all this, we have Rafael Benitez to thank. There could have been few people in Britain who were sure of Lucas Leiva and his ability when he came to these shores in 2007. Captain of the Brazilian youth side as well as former club Gremio, he had a reputation to live up to as well as a £5 million price tag; a package he struggled to match in his first two seasons.
November 22nd 2008 was the defining day in Lucas’ Liverpool career.
After a home encounter with Fulham in which the Brazilian was picked ahead of fan favourite, Xabi Alonso, and the crowd and critics let their feelings known following a disappointing performance.
Those were the days, that LFCTV’s Peter McDowall revealed, when Lucas would leave the field and shed tears in the dressing room, shed tears at his underwhelming performances, his unpopularity amongst the Anfield faithful but most of all, letting himself down time after time. It was these times when football fans’ short sightedness shrouded their sight of Lucas’ potential, a potential of which Rafa was convinced.
Unlike many, Rafa leapt to his defence, claiming, “People just don't know how good Lucas is”, and he wasn’t wrong. Since then, Lucas has made Alonso’s departure to Madrid a distant memory, proving numerous sceptics wrong along the way. The vast chasm left by Alonso afforded Lucas the game time and day by day he grew bigger and better. The parallel passes disappeared, ill-timed tackles waned and a real player was emerging.
Poor team showings did little to aid his cause, the frustrating days of Roy Hodgson and early days of Kenny Dalglish saw Lucas’ admirable showings slip under the radar due to Liverpool’s failings as a team. However the specious depreciation began to subside, proven by Lucas picking up Liverpool’s player of the season during 2010-2011 after winning 40% of the 129,774 votes cast; he was beginning to turn the rabble.
Lucas has gone from the flat tyre to the stabilizers on the Liverpool bike and it’s no surprise that his return from injury coincided with Liverpool’s return to some kind of form despite the defeat to Aston Villa.
We’ve always known Lucas has more splice than samba, something we’re maybe not inured to in Brazilian’s but every top side needs a ‘Lucas’: the regista – pass, pass, pass, intercept, pass, tackle, pass – so simple yet so effectual; an unyielding wall of defiance in front of the back four.
History tells us football is not won on paper but when you look at Liverpool’s stats with and without Lucas, they offer a lucid pattern.
Since the start of last season, Liverpool have played 38 league games without Lucas, amassing 45 points compared to 29 points in 16 games in which Lucas has played a part. Chelsea currently stand on 29 points after 16 games this season – third place. A look at his figures after his pleasing performance against Aston Villa depicts the man in a nutshell: 42 of 46 attempted passes completed, an exceptional 91% despite only spending 59 minutes on the field. Four interceptions and no fouls rounded off his afternoon.
Lucas offers more than just an imposing set of statistics; other aspects of his play are non-quantifiable: effortlessly reading the game as if it was a picture book, the ability to sweep across the pitch with relentless energy; composure to rival that of James Bond, the cool head in melancholy madness as Charles Dickens would say – the imperturbable figure of reliance during Liverpool’s Hard Times. We’ve heard him branded many things: metronome, pivot; but what about leader?
There’s no denying that Lucas’ presence on a football pitch gives Liverpool added confidence both offensively and defensively - he is the insurance card in the Reds back pocket. A footballing brain filled with complex simplicity, transforming a simple attacking five yard ball into a game changing pass, converting defence into attack within a matter of seconds, Lucas is fillip to push Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool onto the next level, bridging the gap from mid table mediocrity to Champions League contenders.
For years, Lucas has been the heart lynch-pin of Liverpool’s midfield trio – a persistent character while the remaining two midfield slots were filled with varying players: Rodgers’ menu consists of Steven Gerrard, Nuri Sahin, Joe Allen, Jonjo Shelvey and latent new member of the Lazarus club, Jordan Henderson. Lucas’ solidity frees up the remaining midfielders to bomb on forward, as well as the full backs, but when Lucas has been absent, Liverpool have failed to produce a sufficient replacement. Christian Poulsen and Alberto Aquilani never ventured farther than being Anfield’s boo boys and with Allen showing signs of fatigue in recent displays; Lucas will grow ever more significant in Liverpool’s bid try to climb the table.
After lengthy layoffs, it’s now time for Lucas to shake off the cobwebs and return to previous heights and beyond. The comeback act has been done; let’s not have to do it again, Lucas.