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When almost any football fan hears that their club is investing in a young Brazilian starlet, they would inevitably be looking forward to the new arrival being a flair player, full of tricks, flicks and dazzling Samba skills. The sort that ignites the Jogo Bonito spirit and has the crowd on the edges of their seats in excitement. When, in 2007, Liverpool manager Rafa Benitez spent £5 million of The Reds’ money on Grêmio midfielder Lucas Leiva, that’s not precisely what they got. A decade and almost 250 league games later though, when he moved on to Lazio, there would have been very few Kopites complaining about having received full value for the club’s money.
Lauded Brazilian football aficionado Tim Vickery illustrated the point, describing Lucas as, “an exciting player of a type that Brazilian football hasn’t produced too many of recently.” Going on to define him as, “a big, blonde figure whose power and physical strength comes with attacking ability. He can pass well and loves to rumble forward.” The latter characteristic may have dwindled over time as, in those 247 games, he would only find the back of the net once. His contribution to the success of the Reds however, simply cannot be measured by such a number.
Here was a player who did the hard, often unglorified, job in midfield. Of course, he prompted and probed for the players in front of him, but his best work was at the coal face. Such labour is often described as the ‘dirty work’ but, as the old adage goes, ‘someone has to do it’. It’s somewhat obvious that, for such players, earning the fans’ acclaim can be a difficult and long-term task. Not for them the glory of goals, dizzying dribbles or acrobatic goalkeeping. ‘Get the ball, move it on’ is never going to top the bill.
Such being the case, Lucas’s early days with Liverpool were something of a trial to convince and persuade. Indeed, a year into his career at Anfield, he was booed by the Reds’ fans who considered his low-key performances were hardly the required solution following a particularly turgid goalless draw with Fulham. In typical downbeat and empathetic manner, Lucas understood the frustration. “You have to understand the supporters,” he later stated. “They were expecting Xabi Alonso that time and he was on the bench.” Lucas Leiva was never, and would never have pretended to be an ‘Alonso’ type of player. What he was, however, was an exceptional ‘Lucas Leiva’ and two years later, when he was acclaimed as the club’s ‘Player of the Season’ he had won over his critics.
As well as earning the acceptance of the fans, Lucas’s quiet effective efforts, both on and off the field, also saw him considered as a bedrock of the squad, a reliable member of the team, and a positive example sought out by new players arriving at Anfield. Current skipper, Jordan Henderson illustrated the point. “Any person joining Liverpool Football Club, regardless of age, status or experience, who is looking for a role model, for me, you look no further than Lucas Leiva. It doesn’t matter to Lucas whether you’re from Runcorn or Rio, he’ll make time for you and look to offer his experience to help individuals or the team when it’s needed.” The acclaim and respect of one’s peers is something truly worthy of merit, and Lucas Leiva clearly had that in abundance.
That ability to “rumble forward” acclaimed by Vickery was quickly restrained by Benitez who saw much more value in his Brazilian midfielder being deployed in a holding role. Not quite a ‘Makelele position’, but stationed in front of the Liverpool backline, his game intelligence enabled him to snuff out dangers before they emerged and play the ball forward to the more creative elements in the team. Such was his ability in the role, that later, he would fill in even further back, slotting into the centre of defence with just as little fuss and just as much success.
Andy Carroll, that most rumbustious of central strikers, even ranked the Brazilian alongside Gary Cahill as his most combative opponents. “He played centre half against us,” The Daily Mail quoted the big Geordie as relating. “I don’t know what it was. Every time I went for the ball, he gave me a little nudge. The referee was never going to give a foul and I never wanted a foul, but he did me every time. Just judging me so well and knocking me off balance. I couldn’t play against him.”
His consistency on the field made him a regular selection for the team, often regardless of other changes in personnel or tactics. Only in an injury-hit 2011-12 season, did he play less than 20 Premier League games in a season, and only twice less than 30 across all competitions.
As time went on, that respect, hard-earned from the fans became increasingly widespread, and despite playing under five different managers during his time on Merseyside, and any number of them seeking to bring in a replacement for him, Lucas saw off each and every one of those selected to usurp his position. Understandably, other clubs sought to acquire his services, but so long as he was playing regularly for his beloved Liverpool, there was little chance of seducing him away from the club.
That injury however, did put a break on his progress. Having agreed a new deal ahead of the season, it was an anterior cruciate ligament injury following a seemingly innocuous clash with Ryan Bertrand in a League Cup game, that deprived the club of his services. Some would argue that following the inevitable lay-off, Lucas never truly recovered the dynamism that had been a key part of his game, and when Brendan Rodgers arrived as he recovered in the following summer, complete with another proposed replacement in Joe Allen, the sands of time were running out. In July 2017, he finally left the club, as Lazio offered Liverpool the same amount that they had paid for Lucas ten years earlier, and the move was agreed. Post-war, only one other overseas player had been at the longer. His legendary status was assured.
Talking to The Independent in 2008, Lucas was understanding about how people judged his ability. “Here in England when people think of Brazilian footballers, they think Robinho or Ronaldinho, doing skilful tricks,” he readily confessed. “But we cannot forget we have good players in Brazil who do different things. I am a midfielder. I cannot do tricks and things like that.” Perhaps he couldn’t but that didn’t stop him earning the respect and adoration of Liverpool fans for their very Un-Brazilian Brazilian.