By Joe Kilty
Follow me on Twitter @joescouse_LFC
“And so you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high.” Ayrton Senna.
Mental toughness is a key attribute for any young player to possess, as Rafael Benitez alluded to when unveiling the 20 year old Lucas Leiva in 2007, “We believe he has the mentality and the character you need to do well in England” said Benitez. Looking at his competition for a starting place, Lucas was going to need it.
His first challenge as a Liverpool player was to break into a team blessed with the finest central midfielders in England, Spain and Argentina. His youthful mistakes were benchmarked against the often superlative performances of those around him, and so it was inevitable that the critics would start to hone in on him.
In the 7th minute of his first big test, replacing Mascherano in the starting line up against Arsenal, Lucas made a terrible blunder that set Adebayor racing towards goal. Luckily, Liverpool got away with it, but first impressions last.
Following his performance in a dire 0-0 draw against Fulham, one journalist wrote, “The scouts who found him need to be seriously quizzed – it must be hard to find a Brazilian footballer with such limited ability”.
Things went from bad to worse from here. He gave away a penalty and was sent off against Everton as Liverpool were knocked out of the FA Cup. The following week he gave away another penalty, against Wigan, which cost Liverpool two vital points in the race for the title. At this point in time, most reds would have been happy if he had never pulled on a Liverpool shirt again.
On a sunny Saturday lunchtime in March 2009, Lucas started his fight back against the critics. Liverpool were at Old Trafford to play their title rivals in the biggest game of the season. With star midfield playmaker Xabi Alonso injured, Benitez called on Lucas, offering the 22 year old an opportunity to come of age.
Lucas rose to the occasion. He partnered Javier Mascherano in a midfield that completely outplayed Carrick and Anderson in the 4-1 win. He doubled up with the full-backs superbly well, rendering Ronaldo ineffective from the wing for the entire game and snuffing out Rooney’s infiltration of the midfield.
Lucas was at the centre of everything Liverpool did well. He had an 83% pass completion rate (against a Liverpool average of 75%) with an impressive 54% of these passes in the attacking half of the field. He won 77% of the tackles he went in for and won 54% of his 50-50 midfield duals. On top of this, he made no defensive errors in the entire match. All this against a Manchester United team who, up until this game, had been running away with the title.
Interestingly, Lucas received mixed reactions after the game. The Guardian described his performance as “lacklustre” whilst The Telegraph reported that he played “superbly well”. Like many players of his ilk, the subtle brilliance of Lucas can often be missed by the untrained eye.
The 2010 season started with Rafael Benitez coming out in the media to defend Lucas against the harsh treatment he had been on the receiving end of, “He is so good but still he was criticised. I do not understand why they do not criticise other players, more senior players, when they do not play well. But he will have a big season.” Lucas said of the criticism, “I have confidence in myself – you need that in life, not just football. So no matter what, I believe in myself and the manager does too.”
The prediction from Benitez that Lucas would have a ‘big season’ was correct. He started it by playing 6 games consecutively for the first time since joining the club and went on to play in 35 out of the 38 league games. His pass completion rate for the season of 84% was amongst the highest at the club, with a very impressive 72% of his passing inside the opponent’s half of the field.
At the end of the season, he was voted “Young Player of the Year” by the fans, an accolade that would have been unthinkable back in 2008.
By the 2010/11 season, with the departure of Javier Mascherano, Lucas had made the holding central midfield role his own. He made 33 appearances in the league, a total only bettered by the ever present players Reina and Skrtel.
It was the best season Lucas had enjoyed in a Liverpool shirt. He had a pass completion rate for the season of 83%, with 66% of his passes going forwards and just 6% going backwards. In comparison, Liverpool’s total stats for the season show that they had a 77% pass completion rate, with 57% forward passes and 16% backward. Lucas, therefore, was significantly above average in terms of his passing accuracy and his ability to play penetrating passes forward.
His performance in the away win against Chelsea is the perfect example of why he was voted the fan’s Player of the Year. He ran the game from start to finish in a ‘man of the match’ display.
Lucas has started the 2011/12 season in the same manner that he ended last year. After a solid display against Sunderland he was pivotal in the win against Arsenal. His passing chalkboard shows just how often he penetrated the Arsenal danger areas:
The improvement Lucas has shown over the past two years has been phenomenal. The critical voices are almost mute, with just a few misguided murmurings from those sections of the crowd with untrained eyes. Benitez was right about his mental toughness, and he has become a certain starter under the new Dalglish era.
It is easy to forget that Lucas is still only 24 years old. His best years are ahead of him and the great news for LFC fans is that they will be enjoyed at Anfield.
This article has been translated into Portuguese and can be found here http://liverpoolbrasil.com/colunas/2011/lucas-leiva-o-caminho-para-redencao/ (thanks to @LFCBrasil on Twitter for the translation)