Anfield’s faithful may have breathed a sigh of relief upon hearing the news that Lucas Leiva’s latest knee injury will keep him on the sidelines for 8 weeks, as opposed to the rest of the season. However, there should be some genuine concern about Brendan Rodgers’ failure to buttress the Reds’ midfield and defensive capabilities during the January transfer window; a move that may impede the club’s pursuit of a top four finish and ultimately scuttle what’s left of their slim title chances.
Rodgers has strengthened his squad significantly since he took over two years ago but the one glaring position with no cover is defensive midfield, and with the stop-gap options of Shelvey’s brute but sometimes effective clumsiness or Jay Spearing’s pugilistic like tenacity no longer available, the vacancy is even more glaring.
Lucas was not an initial favorite of many Liverpool fans when he arrived at the club. With his slow start, both he and Rafa Benitez, took a lot of vitriol from sections of Anfield’s impatient peanut gallery but with Javier Mascherano off to Spain, Lucas’ importance to the club grew with every solid performance, to where he was arguably Kenny Dalglish’s most important player, until he injured his knee at Stamford Bridge two years ago.
The absence of an in-form Lucas, as devastating as it was for Dalglish’s more conventional side, is even more of a liability for Rodgers’ passing and transitional philosophy. Lucas’ defensive presence allows Liverpool’s full backs to go forward and press, their attacking midfielders more freedom to roam, and their center-halves more time to take up positioning against a counter-attack.
Even with his strike partnership back up to their pre-holiday form, in their decisive demolitions of Everton and Arsenal, Rodgers must be concerned that without Lucas his side lacks tempo or energy, they struggle to keep and hold their shape, especially when they lose possession.
Rodgers’ decision to rest the Brazilian at home against an under-achieving, semi-potent Aston Villa, should have been a deserved luxury. Instead it turned out to be an un-mitigated disaster. The Reds were ripped apart, as Villa peppered The Kop with balls over the top, knock downs and diagonal passing, ruthlessly exploiting the space left open by Liverpool’s out of position full backs. Rodgers’ lethargic midfield, together with their hapless and exposed centre-halves, had no answer for Villa’s devastating pace up front. The Merseysiders were lucky to be down by just one goal at the half, thanks only to some wayward Villa finishing. Rodgers’ tactical changes in the second half, including a brief cameo by Lucas, salvaged a point of course.
However, any thought of Liverpool’s arguably undeserving draw against Aston Villa being an aberration, was quickly put to rest with the Reds’ uneven performance against Bournemouth a week later in the F.A. Cup. Liverpool, at practically full strength, struggled to keep a dynamic and ambitious Bournemouth out of their own half for large swaths of the match early on. Credit to Bournemouth’s talented young manager for taking the match to Liverpool but it was painful to watch Jordan Henderson run around like a headless chicken in his attempt to cover defensively.
As he did against Everton, in Lucas’ absence, Gerrard can play a more defensive role if asked but he does not consistently have Lucas’ defensive awareness, and over a stretch of matches, his discipline to resist going forward inevitably falters.
Joe Allen, who replaced Lucas in the Villa match, has nowhere near the physical presence or the form he had at Swansea, to be trusted as a holding midfielder, must less a defensive one.
Rodgers’ ability to successfully drill his footballing philosophy into his squad while ruthlessly sieving out players he deems not able to adapt, has resulted in the most cohesive, potent, and improved side Anfield has seen for years but this has come at a price. Liverpool knows only one way to win – push forward and outscore their opponent. Defending a close lead, especially against confident and technical sides, even at home, has become uncomfortably burdensome, as witnessed against Swansea last Sunday.
If Liverpool are to mount an even more serious title challenge next season or avoid floundering in their near certain return to Europe, Rodgers must turn his gaze towards finding cover for Lucas this summer, together with the daunting task of finding a long-term replacement for Gerrard. Failure to do so and Rodgers’ Anfield revolution, as entertaining as it is, will eventually flatter to deceive. And like Wenger, the Northern Irishman will experience the limits of “20th century” football and the empty trophy cabinet that comes with it.
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