Word came out on Thursday, December 1st, that Lucas will miss the remainder of the season with an anterior cruciate ligament injury. The damage in Lucas’ left knee is sufficient that he is set to undergo surgery and will not play again for the Reds this term. For Kenny Daglish this presents a difficult task as replacing Lucas with a single player currently available for Liverpool may not be possible.
He arrived at Liverpool from Gremio in time for the 2007/08 season and made 18 appearances in the English Premier League that year. Starting in 2008/09 season Lucas began to cement his place in the starting XI, first for Rafa Benitez, then Roy Hodgson and currently Kenny Daglish. With the departure of Xabi Alonso to Real Madrid following the completion of 2008/09 campaign, Liverpool shifted to rely more on the Brazilian than any time in the past.
Already early in his career, Lucas was proving to be an ample player playing in a similar role to Alonso in the center of the pitch. Lucas was considerably more active in making both ground and aerial challenges. Given that he was winning them at a similar rate, this increase in productivity is notable. Further, he continued to display an endless motor in making tackles and interceptions. While the per minute statistics are not as good for Lucas on dribbled past (he would be looking at about 46 over an equal number of minutes to Alonso) this would be the only aspect of his defensive game that was markedly worse.
Given their respective reputations at the time there should likely be some surprise that Lucas was actually every bit as good passing the ball as Xabi. Further, their respective rates of dribbles were nearly identical on a per minute basis as Lucas played almost exactly 1/2 the minutes of Xabi that season. Where the Spanaird excelled was in his volume of passes. The 2142 accurate passes in 2561′ is a pass every 1:12. Lucas passes just 716 times in 1282′ or a pass every 1:48. Alonso was also far more involved in the final third than the young Brazilian creating a chance at nearly a 2:1 ratio to Lucas. As we look farther into Lucas’ career as a Red we’ll see that this one aspect of Lucas’ game is still absent, though he makes up for it by excelling in every other aspect of game.
Lucas has played regularly in the EPL for the past three seasons being named Liverpool’s Player of the Year last term. In each of these years he has maintained a rate of tackles and challenges that is unmatched by the rest of the squad. In addition to the frequency which he makes challenges – either tackles or for 50/50 balls – his winning percentage is exceptional.
To consider that Michael Essien played 2801′ last season and made just 48 tackles, winning 41; was involved in 321 ground 50/50′s winning 180 (56%) and 53 aerial 50/50′s winning 29 (55%). In each of these categories Lucas significantly out produced the Chelsea man. In that same season Scott Parker played 2737′ for West Ham making 122 tackles and winning 94 (77%). Parker was winning tackles at a better rate than Lucas but Lucas attempted 50 more tackles in just 80′ more. Further, Parker was involved in just 386 ground 50/50′s and 24 aerial 50/50′s winning 206 (53%) and 8 (33%), respectively. Lucas won at a higher rate and contested 513 and 123 or 127 more ground 50/50′s and 99 more aerial 50/50′s than the former West Ham player.
In the passing game Lucas was also a very good player, improving upon his 2008/09 statistics:
Lucas’ OPP is exceptional against any standard set in the English Premier League. We have in the past noted that Luka Modric is considered by many to be the preeminent passing midfielder in the EPL. In 2010/11 he played 2800′ and attempted 1999 OPP (205 more than Lucas) while completing 1729, or 86%. Those numbers are only slightly better than the 84% and 83% that Lucas has completed in the last two seasons and the volume, though nearly 10% more last term was less than 10% the season prior. In addition, Lucas was on pace to attempt about 1850 passes in 2800′ this season. While the edge still goes to the Croatian play-maker at Tottenham, the gap is minimal and Modric does not contribute to Lucas’ level on defense having won just 38 of 60 tackles and 193 of 360 ground 50/50′s last season. (Editor’s note: Others would point out that Lucas does not contribute creatively on the level of Modric either.)
One additional set of statistics not covered in the charts presented here are the Long Passes that Lucas attempted and completed as they relate to the number of Final Third Entries that Lucas made. I find these two statistics to be very telling when taken in the overall context of the players numbers as well as looking how they balance against one another. In the 2011/12 Lucas had already played 133 Long Passes. These are passes from the defensive end to the attacking end. He has connected with 102 – 77%. This is compared to 122 Final Third Entries. This is an excellent balance (nearly a 50/50 ratio) and illustrated exactly how prevalent Lucas was in the the build up to the attack though missing out on credit for the final touches.
The year before, 2010/11, Lucas attempted 378 Long Passes, completing 285 (75%) while also making 288 Final Third Entries. In comparison Frank Lampard played 2026′ last term and attempted 184 Long Passes, connecting on 135. Lampard also had 193 Final Third Entries. Because there is an 800′ gap between the two last term; rated per minute Lampard would have attempted just 259 and completed 190, nearly 100 fewer Long Passes than Lucas. His Final Third Entries would have been closer,with 272, but still 16 fewer than the Liverpool man. Clearly he has great value to the attack in both the defensive and attack thirds of the pitch despite poor counting numbers like chances created, assists and goals.
One player we have failed to mention so far is Javier Mascherano. Here is a quick comparison (taken from EPLIndex’s excellent Statistical Comparison area, available on subscription) between Javier and Lucas from 2009/10 when they both filled the central midfield roles. You can see on which player Lucas is basing his game.
The comparison between Mascherano and Lucas is very telling. They are pretty close in a statistical manner in terms of the amount of tackles and duels they are completing on the pitch. Mascherano attempting more ground duels and tackles (whilst also winning more tackles) however Lucas performed very well in comparison and continued this in his absence last season. Mascherano attempting a ground duel every 5.63 minutes to Lucas’ 6.17 and then attempting a tackle every 15 minutes in comparison to Lucas’ 19. It’s just not easy to replace either of these players but Liverpool were fortunate that Lucas filled this void and did it very, very well.
In short, Lucas can not be replaced easily (where do Liverpool find another Mascherano?). When we compare him to Liverpool players the only two in recent memory who compare are the departed Xabi Alonso & Javier Mascherano. There is another excellent piece currently on EPL Index by Scott Stewart discussing the best replacement for Lucas within the current squad, with Jordan Henderson and Jay Spearing touted as the two best candidates. While the article defends Spearing over Henderson for the holding/defensive midfield role, the Editor’s Note at the bottom is the most telling:
Look at the sheer number of ground and aerial duels in the table above by Lucas. It’s just an unbelievable number which will leave a big gap in the Liverpool side in our opinion.
I would add that this is not just the Stewart’s opinion, or mine, but rather fact. The fact is Liverpool do not have a player who is currently capable of filling Lucas’ boots though they may try many in his role. Better options would exist but for The Purge of Raul Meireles, in which Ed Ames discusses one of the departures, and Liverpool’s inability to recall Alberto Aquilani, as discussed in Stewart’s piece.
However, regardless of the history, LFC have left themselves short in a position. As the value that Lucas provided from that position can not be matched from within the current squad, Liverpool will need to consider altering their tactics in order to compensate for the void created by his absence.
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