The news that Lucas Leiva has been lost for the season with a torn ACL (something with which I can empathize as I am five weeks out from surgery to repair my own torn ACL, it sucks – best wishes to Lucas) will really test Liverpool’s squad as there is not a natural replacement for the Brazilian. The importance of the defense midfielder is one of the tactical evolutions of the last fifteen years. Charlie Adam is too slow, Jordan Henderson and the also injured Steven Gerrard are too attack minded, and Jay Spearing (who will probably get the job) has yet to prove himself. But Liverpool have a player with all the qualities you want in a defensive midfielder – quickness, energy, endeavor, discipline, and the willingness to put in tackle after tackle – he just isn’t thought of for this position because he’s nominally a striker: Dirk Kuyt.
It’s hard for me to say this, as I have long been down on Lucas – even last season when he was named the team’s player of the year, but Lucas has really come into his own and is one of the main reasons that Liverpool enter this weekend as the joint best-defense in the Premier League. He learned from a master when Javier Mascherano was at the club, and Lucas can now be seen breaking up play from sideline to sideline. He still struggles with his distribution, especially going forward, and he at times can get caught ahead of the ball. But there is no question that Lucas has emerged as one of the top defensive midfielders in the league and his presence in the Liverpool XI will be missed.
The position has grown in significance with the evolution of attacking play away from the static 4-4-2 into formations that favor more movement from the advanced players and tries to take advantage of the space between the midfield and defense and the gaps between defenders. It’s vital to have a player that can help break up attacks higher up the pitch and mark advanced players sneaking into space.
But it is also a position unlike almost all others on the pitch in which the marginal advantage gained for a squad with one of the top five defensive midfielders over a team with a merely adequate one is far less that it is for central defenders, creative midfielders, or center forwards. Yet, the difference between having an adequate defensive midfielder and not having one at all is huge. So, if Liverpool can find a merely adequate replacement for Lucas, his loss won’t be crippling. But if they fail to find a player that can do enough of what is necessary, then they are in trouble.
Of the players in Liverpool’s first team, Dirk Kuyt is the one who possesses the qualities to fill in for Lucas. Kuyt came to the club as a center forward, but has since more often filled in on the wing or as one of a group of attacking players rather than as a central striker. Former manager Rafa Benitez would deploy him as a defensive winger to nullify an opponent’s attacking full back or wide player. Regardless of where he plays, he can always be counted on to harass and pester when Liverpool are not in possession and his work rate is phenomenal. He’s never been a great passer, but he can play with the ball at his feet, so he can do what needs to be done from a position that doesn’t demand that its occupant pass with fluency.
The one question about Kuyt would be his positional awareness, as he’s not had any experience screening the back four. But when measured against the others competing to be Lucas’ replacement, he is still the best option. Adam has had his best two games in a Liverpool shirt against Chelsea and Manchester City, but he won’t be able to cover enough space. Henderson or Gerrard will have to fight hard to avoid racing up the field to join the attack, leaving big gaps which would easily be exposed by opposing attackers. Spearing may be the safest choice but I haven’t seen him display the same tenacity, quickness, or energy as Kuyt.
Coming off two wins against Chelsea and a draw against Man City in which Liverpool were the better team, they are poised to make a run up the table into the Champions League positions. The loss of Lucas hurts, but if Dalglish can find the right replacement, it will only be a blip. You may think I’m crazy, but that replacement is Dirk Kuyt.