The missing piece of the Liverpool jigsaw?

Liverpool midfielder Lucas LeivaLiverpool’s 1-0 win at Anfield at the weekend over a Southampton side previously unbeaten in their last four games, saw Brendan Rodgers’ side recover from their disappointing result against Tottenham in mid-week and move to within seven points of fourth place, but the biggest point to take from the game was the long-awaited return of midfielder Lucas Leiva; the missing ingredient to help the side climb the table.

The 25-year-old Brazilian has been out injured with a thigh complaint since picking up the problem in the first five minutes of the club’s 2-2 draw against Manchester City at home back on the 26th August. Liverpool have played 20 games across all competitions since then, on their way to 11th place in the league and while for the most part the supporters have been patient, the first murmurs of discontent have refused to go away in the last few weeks. Nevertheless, Lucas’ return completely changes the balance of the side and for the better.

Rodgers told reporters in his post-match press conference after the win over Nigel Adkins’ side that he was pleasantly surprised by his display on his return to first-team action: “All of a sudden, you put the right profile of player in the right position, and it frees up your offensive threats. He gives us great stability when we haven’t got the ball, he intercepts, his transition is good, he gets the ball back quickly. He knows the game, and he can read the game.” Before later going on to hail the team’s overall performance: “Today, especially in the first half, was probably the first time it was really there systematically and relentless.”

In that role just in front of the back four, Lucas is without peer in the top flight, with only Sandro or Cheikh Tiote coming close to what he can offer with concerns to his consistency and the amount of work he gets through in the tackle, but it’s his positional discipline which means he’s absolutely essential to Rodgers’ plans and his injury last term hit Kenny Dalglish and the rest of the team very hard.

He was offered a standing ovation after being withdrawn, in stark contrast to the criticism he received from Liverpool fans during his first couple of years in England after being brought to the club by Rafa Benitez from Gremio back in 2007 as a raw, holding midfield player with a burgeoning reputation having already represented his country at senior level. There were signs back then of the player he would go on to become, but they were few and far between and he struggled with consistency, under the burden of expectation and a lack of a regular rhythm behind the likes of Gerrard, Xabi Alonso and Javier Mascherano in the pecking order.

However, now he sits right at the top of the food chain and the balance of the side revolves around him. Rodgers’ preferred system sees three central midfield players in the middle of the park but they take on a staggered nature, with one sitting in front of the other as they work their way up the pitch. The knock-on effect of Lucas’ time on the sidelines with injury is that Joe Allen has had to occupy a role about 10-15 yards deeper to compensate and it’s had an impact on his influence higher up the pitch, while also forcing him to try do things outside of his comfort zone, namely a lack of aerial ability and physical presence just in front of the back.

Few players close down the ball with such intensity as Lucas does and it’s no coincidence that Southampton were reduced to strikes from range, but he can also play a bit too; attempting more passes (88) and more tackles (eight) than any other player on the pitch from either side during the game and winning possession back for his side on nine separate occasions. The team just look a lot more dynamic and more difficult to play through with him sitting at the base of the midfield.

Club captain Steven Gerrard also looked as if he enjoyed his afternoon against Southampton in a slightly more advanced role at the tip of the three, linking up play well with Luis Suarez and Raheem Sterling throughout the game. The 32-year-old has sacrificed himself to an extent for the sake of plugging a gap in the side, which has meant that he’s scored just once in the league in 14 appearances and twice in 21 across all competitions, but without quite the same amount of pace that he used to possess, attacking the ball from deep no longer suits him and he needs to be pushed higher to carry a goal threat.

The result of this is that Luiz Suarez has had to almost carry the team single-handedly up until now. Moreover, having Lucas in the side, with his defensive awareness, frees up the full-backs to attack higher up the pitch, which Glen Johnson and Jose Enrique did to good effect during the game.

You sense his team-mates recognise the importance of having a player like Lucas within their ranks, with Joe Allen waxing lyrical after the win, stating: “You’re always going to miss quality players like Lucas and it’s great to have him back in the side. His return, with the steel and quality he brings, is only going to help the team going forward. It’s a very important role. If you look at the top teams, they all utilise that position and have a quality player there and it is for a reason, it is vital for the way we want to play. With him back playing, I’m sure we’ll get the benefits of that in terms of points and our position in the table. We’ve closed the gap (to the top four) a bit and for a club like Liverpool, that has to be our target. We have got a run of games now where we want to pick up points and further reduce that deficit.”

Moreover, it was what Allen followed that reasonable assertion up with that told the full story, talking about the influence his return has had on his natural game and his starting role: “That’s more my natural position. I haven’t played there for a while so I found myself trying to get back into the swing of things. I had that security of knowing that Lucas was there. It gives you the chance to express yourself further up the pitch, and try to get involved in creating and scoring goals.”

While the club’s fans are finally start to look upwards rather the nervously behind them, they are caught exactly seven points between the relegation zone and fourth place. Nevertheless, with just one defeat in their last nine league games, a 2-1 loss at White Hart Lane to a Tottenham side that they played off the park, things are clearly heading in the right direction. It seems like the entire team and the manager have been waiting for his comeback, though, knowing full well that it had the potential to unlock the rest of the team’s attacking threat.

The return of Lucas cannot be understated and he helps provide the platform for a more cohesive, solid and balanced side, while also making those around him feel more comfortable in their own roles. The majority of the club’s fans would have taken a top six or even top eight finish at the start of the campaign, with the top four probably just out of their reach, but with the return of such a key player and a run of winnable fixtures to contend with over the course of the next month, they may allow themselves to dream, just a little at least, about a rapid rise up the table.