It’s been five years since Lucas Leiva signed for Liverpool from Brazilian club Grêmio. He’s lasted longer at Anfield than most of Liverpool’s current squad, three managers, and an entire ownership group. Brendan Rodgers will be Lucas’s fourth manager in as many years, but through all four of them, he’s been a first-choice option through and through. From Rafa to Rodgers, he’s been one of Liverpool’s most frequent members of the starting XI. He’s won the hearts of Liverpool’s endearing supporters (fans voted him as the Player of the Year in 2011), the trust of management, and the recognition of his country. Lucas is arguably Liverpool’s most important player, if not their most consistent.
It hasn’t always been this way though. Only three years ago, if you asked most of the Liverpool fan base whether the words “Lucas” and “Player of the Year” would ever combine in a sentence, they’d laugh you across the English Channel. Before his breakout 2010 season, Lucas was vilified. In a 2009-2010 season which saw Liverpool—a side that had nearly edged out Manchester United for the Premier League title the year before—crash out of the Champions League, Europa League, FA Cup, Carling Cup, and out of the Top 4, Lucas was consistently blamed for the team’s poor performances. Rafa got the boot at the end of that season, and there would’ve been cheers across Merseyside if Lucas had too.
I participated in the public bashing of Lucas. On my YouTube channel, I blamed Lucas for everything that had gone wrong tactically. 2009 was the year Xabi Alonso departed for Real Madrid, leaving a gapping hole in midfield. Lucas was inserted to pair with defensive destroyer Javier Mascherano, and Liverpool struggled to score goals. In Rafa’s 4-2-3-1, Lucas and Mascherano were charged with holding down the fort defensively, allowing Steven Gerrard to link up with Fernando Torres up front. I only saw Lucas’s faults. Gerrard was leaving Torres isolated, seemingly to make up for Lucas’s inabilities in midfield. Any time Lucas received the ball, the pass was always either side-to-side, or back to the center back. He seemed nervous on the ball—an unsure dribbler. Or at least that’s all I remember of him—memories that are probably flawed. The Lucas-Mascherano axis proved to lack any eye in the attack, but instead of questioning the tactics of the partnership, I, along with many Liverpool fans, lay the blame at Lucas’s boots. It didn’t matter that he was in the starting XI every match as a 22 year old—fans had already passed judgement on a player before his time.
Alonso was gone, Lucas was in his place, and Lucas wasn’t Alonso. Fans joked that he was the “only Brazilian who couldn’t pass the ball.” Lucas had been signed in 2007 as an attacking, box-to-box midfielder. When the words “attacking,” “midfielder,” and “Brazilian” come to mind, people instantly think of Kaka—the best Brazilian midfielder the past decade. Lucas was no Kaka, no Alonso, and offered nothing going forward. So what was he?
It took Mascherano’s sale the next summer for Lucas to blossom. Although he featured in midfield with a rotating cast of either Raul Meireles, Jay Spearing, Christian Poulsen, or Steven Gerrard—whoever didn’t happen to be injured or ineffective at the time—Lucas was a beacon of light during Hodgson’s pitiful reign, and a straight-up superstar during Dalglish’s return. Lucas certainly got better from the previous season, but he wasn’t playing much differently. Lucas took Mascherano’s role in defensive midfield and made it a position of strength in his departure. Without Mascherano flying all over the park to foil the opposing offense, Lucas filled in, and did the same job with less recklessness and less yellow cards. He lacked Mascherano’s insane desire to fire at least one shot from 30 yards every game, while also possessing an intelligence in the passing game. He would single-handedly steal the ball, hold it, and spray it accurately to a more creative player all on his own. Last November, against an unbeaten Manchester City side, Lucas man-marked David Silva (the league’s most unstoppable creative threat) better than anyone had that season in a 1-1 draw that should’ve gone Liverpool’s way.
In 2009, people didn’t realize that Liverpool was playing with two defensive midfielders, neither of which had the passing ability to make up for Alonso’s loss. Instead of allowing Lucas to play his game, he was bemoaned for not playing Alonso’s. Our need for a scapegoat in a very trying season was filled by Lucas, who was unfairly casted as something he wasn’t. The blame cannot be placed on Rafa, who was simply making due with what he had given Liverpool’s dire financial times, and it cannot be placed on Lucas. Blame for that season can be placed upon Hicks and Gillett for running the club into the ground economically, but blame for the nasty, unwarranted scathing of Lucas lays at my feet, and the feet of many other fans. We unfairly judged Lucas, and all he’s done is go out and become a world-class player and a popular choice for the captain’s armband whenever Gerrard is injured. The mettle and drive of Lucas to prove fans wrong is admirable to say the least, and he’s been rewarded with love.
Fans would do well to learn from Lucas. Liverpool players like Stewart Downing and Jordan Henderson have received the bulk of the criticism after their expensive fees netted an 8th place finish last season. Downing didn’t have the gaudy goal or assist numbers one expects of a £20 million player (he finished with an ugly zero in both categories), but he did finish top 5 among all Premiership wingers in “clear cut chances created” and top 3 at Liverpool (among remaining players) in “chances created.” As a team, Liverpool had a very poor chance conversion rate and finished with less goals than Norwich, Blackburn, Fulham, and Everton. Scoring was a team-wide problem, not just a Downing problem. Henderson was shunned out to the right side of midfield where he struggled for most of the season, eventually coming on strong once Lucas and Gerrard got injured, taking a spot centrally—his strongest area. There, he thrived in his role as a poised pivot player and a fine recycler into the attack, never really having the creative freedom he had at Sunderland.
In the case of Downing and Henderson, both have been scapegoated because fans weren’t satisfied on the surface. Eyes can be deceiving. They saw Downing’s lack of goals, assists, and man-beating pace as a “lack of confidence.” The same was said about Henderson’s lack of creativity in midfield, even though he was never tipped tactically to get forward. A “confidence” issue for a young player. (How “young” can Henderson be? He has the most starts of any 22 year old in the Premiership.)
Liverpool fans should learn from their mistakes in the handling of Lucas, and support Downing, Henderson, and the rest of the squad. It just takes a little bit of perspective to turn a “Lucas” into a “Leiva“—into “there’s only one Lucas.” To turn a scapegoat into a GOAT. From jeers to cheers. It’s easy to misjudge players when they’re misplayed, but it’s the Liverpool Way to dig deeper and encourage greatness in whoever wears the Red shirt. The same can be applied to any fan in any sport.
They hate what they don’t understand.
Follow Justin on Twitter @jblock49