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.