Following the rather embarrassing showing in a 3-1 away loss to Crystal Palace on the 23rd November, a lot of things threatened to severely worsen Liverpool’s already poor start to the season. A shock Champions League exit from a group in which they were widely expected to qualify came soon after, immediately initiating rumours that Brendan Rodgers’ time was about to expire – and then appeared the concrete news that club legend Steven Gerrard’s had. Followed by a League Cup exit in the semi-finals when they were so close to Wembley just a few days ago, you could be forgiven for thinking that the mood around the Anfield camp was lower than ever. And yet, for all those negatives, they’ve lost just one league match since the defeat at Selhurst Park.
In the 12 games up to and including that loss against Crystal Palace, Rodgers’ side had picked up a lowly 14 points, leaving them 12th and only four points above the relegation zone. That rate of 1.17 points per game has shot up though in the last 10 fixtures, earning 21 points in that time; the fourth best record in that period in the league.
Despite the level still being some distance away from the same peaks which were enjoyed last season, when watching Liverpool the amount of progress which has been made since the closing days of November is obvious to see. The thing that has been credited the most for their recent upturn is the shift to a different system, a 3-4-2-1 type shape, which was first employed in a 3-0 loss against Man Utd – where there were a lot of positive signs despite what the scoreline suggests at first glance.
In that system, one which has been most often led by Raheem Sterling up top, some of the fluidity which served Liverpool so well last season has returned. Philippe Coutinho and Lazar Marković in particular have thrived thanks the additional space between the lines, drawn from both the system itself and the movement of Sterling drawing opposition players out of position, whilst Mamadou Sakho and Emre Can playing as the wide centre-backs have enabled a much greater development of possession from the back with their progressive passing.
With those and a few other contributing factors all packaged together, the improvement in Liverpool’s attacking output can be evidenced by their increase in the amount of goals they’re scoring per game: at 1.60 in the last 10, compared to 1.25 before that. Whilst that’s still some way off the 2.66 per game of last season though, when Daniel Sturridge and Luis Suárez in particular were scoring for fun, the defensive record has actually been significantly better than last season at 0.90 goals conceded per game as of late.
Whilst the formation change (allowing three centre-backs and two very energetic wing-backs to feature in the side, meaning more protection) has certainly contributed to that improvement, perhaps the most influential decision with regards to that came a few games before the systematic switch at Old Trafford – in the game which immediately followed the embarrassment suffered at Crystal Palace. Undoubtedly the biggest talking point of the line-up at Anfield against Stoke was the exclusion of an out-of-form Steven Gerrard, but the inclusion of Lucas Leiva that day can be looked upon as a vital moment in Liverpool’s season.
Up until that game, the Brazilian had played a largely limited 123 minutes (spread out over three separate games) of league football. Since then, in the last 10 matches, it’s been a very different story; and he’s missed – very coincidentally – just 123 minutes. Much less of a coincidence than that, though, is that there’s only been one league game in which he’s not started (or featured in at all) since being brought back into the first team picture – the only game they’ve lost since, the 3-0 loss at Old Trafford.
That’s not to say Liverpool would have gained something in that match had he played or anything, especially given a combination of abysmal finishing and a top goalkeeping performance by David de Gea on the day, but the greater level of defensive stability with him in the side is indisputable. As mentioned, the rate of goals being conceded is now at 0.90 per game now, down from 1.50 in the first 12 league fixtures as well as from the rate of 1.32 over the whole 2013/14 season.
Where their attacking output has vastly declined in comparison to last season, being able to call on somebody of Lucas’ ilk holds enormous importance this campaign. A change of focus has been necessarily implemented as of late, drifting away from it purely being on attacking impetus, with greater need being placed upon being more solid at the back. Having the Brazilian as Liverpool’s deepest midfielder, rather than Gerrard, is possibly the best indication of this shift in mentality.
Instead of having the club captain in that position, very much a playmaker that was previously favoured for his prowess in possession, Lucas’ game is much more orientated around what he can do without the ball. His basic passing role with the ball (thus offering very little in terms of incisiveness and progression up the pitch) means that he doesn’t offer much offensively, but he’s much more naturally suited to breaking up play and protecting the backline – something which, given the change of focus with their decreased attacking output as mentioned, is of greater necessity.
A comparison of Gerrard and Lucas’ off-the-ball statistics demonstrates both the differences in their specific role when playing as the holding midfielder and the clear contrast in their defensive capabilities. Gerrard’s weaknesses in this position and his absence of mobility are evident, with him offering just 1.8 tackles and 0.6 interceptions per game on average, significantly lower than Lucas’ figures of 4.0 and 2.0 respectively.
Having Lucas in the middle, whether alongside Gerrard or Jordan Henderson (at times Gerrard has been playing as one of the two attacking midfielders, whilst Henderson has also operated as the right wing-back / midfielder), also means that the other one is granted greater freedom to get on with the rest of their game and keep them less restricted – as well as allowing the wing-backs to get forward in the knowledge that the Brazilian will be able to cover them. That freedom, in combination with the switch to a more fluid system which suits their personnel better, could certainly be a factor in their increased attacking returns in the last couple of months.
Given that last season’s defensive record was the worst ever (in terms of goals conceded, 50) for a team which finished in the top two of the Premier League, work clearly needed to be done on the unit as a whole. The new signings still settling in as well as a lack of attacking threat (which would mean teams are less confident about attacking Liverpool and thus reduce the pressure on them) meant things were even worse in the early stages of the season, but the introduction of Lucas and the instant improvements which have been undergone with him in the side really help to demonstrate the galvanising effect which a proper defensive midfielder can have on a backline.
Even the best defences would struggle without adequate protection, with space – or a lack of it – often proving so important in how good a defender looks, but Lucas is the best and most suited player available to Rodgers in terms of cutting off the gaps in midfield. He’s been hugely influential as of late, and in his form he should be considered an absolutely vital player for Liverpool right now.