How will Liverpool cope without Lucas?
Lucas Leiva's rise from underappreciated bit-part player to widely acclaimed midfield destroyer is rare in football. In a world dominated by knee-jerk reactions and stubborn opinions, first impressions are important. The first impression of Lucas from many was that, well, he wasn't very good.
It took rather too long for Lucas to receive the praise he deserved. It was akin to an underground band breaking through into the mainstream -- a sudden, surprising bout of appreciation for a previously niche act. His original fan base -- Liverpool supporters, naturally -- were keen to point out that they had been heralding him before he went big-time, before the headline performances. The next stage, presumably, would have been him "selling out," maybe by joining a big Spanish club.
There is some justification to the newfound appreciation. Compared to the past two seasons, statistically Lucas has improved in key areas, according to Opta, a sports database. He was making more passes per game; his passing accuracy was better; he was making more interceptions per game; and his tackles were more frequent and more successful. It was a widespread improvement, even if the 2011-12 sample size is small at just 1,045 minutes, compared to more than 2,800 in each of the past two campaigns.
Unfortunately, the sample size will not increase. Lucas' cruciate ligament injury puts him out for the season, a huge blow for a club that depended upon him in its most impressive performances this season. The club seemed to have a plethora of central midfielders back in the summer, but after the departures of Raul Meireles and Christian Poulsen -- plus another loan spell in Italy for Alberto Aquilani and another injury for Steven Gerrard -- it's suddenly struggling.
So how does Liverpool replace him? The obvious answer is to look to the transfer window for a direct replacement. This will be problematic for various reasons. Lucas won't be replaced easily. He's made more tackles per game than any other player in the Premier League and the joint most in Europe's major five leagues alongside Wolfsburg's Josué. Other than bringing in Josué -- at age 32, unlikely -- manager Kenny Dalglish won't be able to replicate Lucas' raw ability for winning the ball.
There's the problem of funds in raw terms; does Liverpool have enough money to buy a top-class holding player? More importantly, Liverpool must consider the allocation of however much money it has. Lucas will be out for just more than five months of Premier League action. What do you do when he returns and Liverpool has two top-class holding players on the squad, both wanting to play, both on big wages? You could play both -- but if the other is identical to Lucas, it won't work. Liverpool is building for the long term, as shown by the recruitment of its players in the past year. That isn't compatible with panic purchases.
Dalglish has faith in the youth system at Liverpool, the department where he was working for 18 months before his appointment as manager in January. A little like Pep Guardiola's situation with Pedro Rodriguez and Sergio Busquets, two stars when he was in charge of Barcelona B, Dalglish knows the club's youngsters well. Jack Robinson, Martin Kelly and Jon Flanagan saw first-team action last season, rather than Roy Hodgson's signings, all of whom left. The Barcelona theme continues with the highly rated duo of Jose Segura and Rodolfo Borrell in key roles at the academy.
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Dalglish's first move after Lucas' injury was to recall Jonjo Shelvey from his loan spell with Blackpool, but it's Jay Spearing who is the immediate replacement. Against Fulham on Monday night he played that deep-lying role ahead of the back four, allowing Charlie Adam to spray passes across the pitch and Jordan Henderson to get forward. Spearing lacks anything like Lucas' positional sense -- Fulham played two wide players looking to come inside and frequently created chances between the lines. When Liverpool had the ball, too, he wasn't lively enough in the center of the pitch. Too often Spearing stood still rather than making subtle lateral runs to get the ball in space. A couple of simple passes were overhit, and suddenly, all those apparently easy things Lucas specializes in seem more difficult.
Regardless of whether you think Spearing's red card was correct, it certainly showed his inexperience. He made unnecessary contact with Moussa Dembele -- his follow-through was unnatural and looked reckless to referee Kevin Friend, who instantly dismissed him. You wouldn't have found Lucas making the tackle in that fashion. Against the strength of Yaya Toure this past weekend, he always stayed on his feet and won the ball cleanly. He also dominated in the air during that match, winning all four of his aerial battles, which Spearing will never do. The Brazilian, inevitably, was missed.
Yet Liverpool surely must make do with what it has. This move will say a lot about what it wants to be under Dalglish, under John W. Henry -- a club that reaches for the checkbook or a club that turns to the academy? Only one of those options is "The Liverpool Way." Whether Spearing is good enough for the first team is questionable -- and at 23, he's no spring chicken -- but then people said the same about Lucas.
Liverpool isn't in the hunt for the title, and it isn't a disaster if it doesn't finish in the top four. The Reds should persevere with youth, set an example to the other young players at the club and bring back the tradition of blooding young players -- establishing a chain from the current side to the future first team. If Spearing isn't quite good enough, it doesn't really matter for half a season. Upholding the tradition and character of the club is more important.
In the meantime, an old star might be the best stopgap measure. Gerrard is no longer assured of a first-team place, and he knows that he's already been replaced in the long term. "Let's hope he is the next Steven Gerrard," he said upon Jordan Henderson's arrival. "Liverpool needs a new Steven Gerrard, and it will need a new Jamie Carragher."
Despite appearing a tough-tackling defensive midfielder in his youth, Gerrard never really embraced the position. His lack of positional discipline meant Rafael Benitez shunted him out to the right, and then he played his best football just behind Fernando Torres in a 4-2-3-1 in 2008-09.
Now 31, Gerrard has spent almost all of 2011 out with injury and, when he returns, might not be able to provide those trademark runs from midfield. Dropping back into a deeper position could be the best option to elongate his career, à la Paul Scholes, even if they are very different types of player.
But Lucas won't be forgotten. As Liverpool scrambles around to replace him, his importance will only be underlined. Both dedicated fans and recent converts are eagerly awaiting his comeback tour.
Michael Cox is a freelance writer for ESPN.com. He also runs zonalmarking.net.