It seems to have gone completely under the radar in recent times, but Liverpool have turned a very strong corner. Just three months ago the pressure was building rather vociferously on manager Brendan Rodgers.
There were calls for his premature sacking from the usual brigade of myopic idiots, who have since vanished into the social media stratosphere on the back of this impressive run of form.
Their 2-0 victory over Aston Villa last weekend was their third away premier league clean sheet and victory in a row. In fact, the writing of this stark turnaround has been on the wall since their 2-2 draw at Ludogorets back in November, where they played with a competence unseen until that point in the season.
Since then, they’ve lost just once, and that was away at Old Trafford in a game that (genuinely) could have been a different story.
A multitude of variables have played their part in this change: a switch to three at the back in parts, Steven Gerrard’s removal from a defensive-laden role or even the evolution of Raheem Sterling to a spearheading striker, replacing the stuttering Mario Balotelli. But the common denominator that sticks out most though are the performances of their midfield destroyer, Lucas Leiva, whose return to the side has made a marked impression. Inconsistent runs with injuries has seen him become a marginalised figure in recent years, devoid of being able to lay down a guaranteed place in Rodgers’ ongoing tactical changes and innovations.
Watch the eye-opening and informative documentary ‘Being Liverpool’ on channel Five to see how, at the start of Brendan Rodgers’ Liverpool reign, Lucas was viewed as an essential figure in the Liverpool squad. But their remarkable, all-guns-blazing attacking philosophy last year, coupled with Gerrard’s contribution to that movement, made the use of a defensive destroyer redundant.
Now though, in the post-Suarez-age, where they are unable to rely on their offensive measures to mask their defensive shortcomings, Lucas’ tactical value has become indispensable.
Partnered with Jordan Henderson in front of a back three, Liverpool have looked more defensively stable than they have in a long, long time. In fact, when Lucas has started, Liverpool have only lost one Premier League game this season – that was back in September against West Ham.
He averages an impressive four tackles per game, which is significantly more than anyone else in Liverpool’s squad, more than Chelsea’s Nemanja Matic, and second to only Southampton’s Nathaniel Clyne in the entire division. It’s had a stabilising effect around the club, both on and off the pitch. It’s allowed Rodgers to successfully implement a back three with Emre Can, a ball playing unit, adapting to that system with ease. Martin Skrtel has looked more defensively assured in recent weeks than he did for all of last season, while Mahmadou Sakho looks like the player Liverpool actually bought, not the disappointment he’s slowly become.
The key, clearly, will relate to whether Rodgers can count on Lucas to stay fit. The Brazilian’s been injured for large parts of his Liverpool career, and an injury now would dampen the rising spirit within.
With a fit Lucas and a returning Daniel Sturridge, there’s still plenty to be positive about at Anfield this season, and that’s not something you would have asserted with confidence two months ago.