I was at Anfield on Saturday for the final warm up match before the 2011-2012 Premier League season begins. It was a competent win against a good Valencia side. Agger was my man of the match yet others such as Downing impressed. Lucas was fantastic when he came on with a patient, intelligent and exciting performance within just 45 minutes of playing time – surprisingly sharp considering he’s only just back at training after his break following Brazil’s Copa America exit.
While newspapers and magazines have been predicting every result, outcome and formation this coming season, I’m surprised how much I’ve seen our best player last season left out of speculative starting 11s. Lucas Leiva was voted Liverpool’s player of the season and I expected him to be the first name in everyone’s ‘perfect’ team.
I’d like to draw your attention to a fantastic article on Lucas from a while ago on level 3 football. Roy Henderson outlines here the underrated magnificence of our Brazilian “steering wheel”. Noone in our team can anchor the midfield as well as Lucas.
Against Valencia, we started of with a sort off 4-3-3 with Adam, Spearing and Aquilani making up the central midfield trio, although there was a lot of rotation and movement. Spearing and Adam were the deeper of the two, both faithfully making themselves available to the back four and starting off attacks. Yet neither of them provided the same cover Lucas does.
Many have named Adam as an inferior version of Alonso. He’s got good long range passing yet his intelligence, patience and short passing is nowhere near Xabi’s level. Where Alonso is happy to pass the ball 5 or 6 times to the same few players before penetrating, Adam will prefer to go for the spectacular (and often unnecessary) long, searching ball to a forward. The typical Spanish v British comparison.
Spearing, though he is a great little midfielder, isn’t there yet to be controlling Liverpool’s midfield like Lucas. Spearing was passing the ball very well on Saturday yet he doesn’t read the game well enough to anticipate and cut out danger from the opposition. He’s more of a box-to-box midfielder with lively and dynamic movement, rampaging runs to track back and a thunderous slide tackle to top it off. A disciplined and more conservative role wouldn’t suit his style of play.
The rest of the midfield army consists of more attack minded players who are best in more advanced positions than Lucas. Aquilani (who I really hope we keep hold of) is an excellent playmaker, similar to Modric, but too weak defensively. Meireles’ off the ball movement is superb and it would be wrong to lock him up in a restricted role like Hodgson did. And despite many attempts to put Gerrard in CM he has always been at his best in a free role where his lack of discipline and lapses of concentration can’t cause any damage (saying that, with his age he may be asked to play more conservatively like his performance in Liverpool’s mauling of Man Utd in March). Henderson is very versatile and I only see him playing on the flanks or an attacking central role, not holding midfield.
Jonjo Shelvey is a fantastic young prospect in my eyes and reminds me of Stevie G with his roaming of the pitch with super through balls, a good shot and he’s exciting to watch. Again, too attacking for a holding position. And then there’s Poulsen who’s as much use as a brick.
This leaves only Adam to rival Lucas as “steering wheel”.
I found some stats using the limited resources I had from two games last season. For Lucas I chose our 1-0 win over Chelsea – some consider Chelsea a better team than Liverpool but I think they’re quite even teams for the sake of this comparison. For Adam I chose Blackpool’s 3-2 loss to fellow Championship promotion team, West Brom. Again, quite even opposition.
Straight away we see the defensive superiority of Lucas with three times as many tackles won and five interceptions to Adam’s none. The only area Adam wins in is shots. Though one of these shots was off target and the other blocked; both were from long range. He has one less unsuccessful clearance but this is irrelevant as the situation of the clearance is unknown – a booted clearance under pressure which ends up with the opposition anywhere outside the box is often deemed as a good clearance.
Passing is what I really wanted to look at and see if there was evidence in my claim of Adam’s tendency to hit it long. From the stats above, he has over three times as many unsuccessful passes as Lucas. Both completed forty each. So Adam attempted a greater number of passes but also conceded possession more often. To see where all these passes went, let’s look at some Chalkboards.
Adam’s clearly got a longer range of passing and has a lower success rate.
If we look at the ‘Heatmap’, Lucas actually covers more ground across the midfield where Adam makes a massive 32% of his passes in one area. Adam also shows up in the final third much more than Lucas, backing up my point about him being more attack minded and less disciplined. Obviously team tactics and management can have an influence on the players but we get an idea for the general style of play.
We’ve yet to see the best of Adam. I see him playing with another midfielder behind him – Lucas. So when the season get’s going and everyone is available, he can become a very good asset for Liverpool. One of Adam’s strengths is in set pieces which are generally few and far between in pre-season friendlies which are meant to be more laid back than intense league and cup matches. He can also add some much needed balance with his sweet left foot. In my opinion, no one can rival Lucas in our midfield for what he does. He’ll be one of the first names on the team sheet this coming season, though he may not be match-fit yet to start against Sunderland.