RAFAEL Benitez signed Lucas Leiva on 26 July 2007, for £5m from Gremio in Brazil. Just 20 years old when he arrived at Anfield, Lucas was a former captain of the Brazil under-20 team and came with a seemingly impressive pedigree – a number of top European teams were chasing him and Reds fans were excited at the prospect of a young player with such a CV joining the first team set-up. At the time of Lucas’ signing, Rafa said that all of the staff were convinced that Lucas had “the mentality and the character that you need to do well in England”.
However, Lucas’ Liverpool career did not begin well – he featured in only 18 league games in his first year (mostly from the bench) and struggled to adapt to the pace and dynamism of the English game.
Competing for places in a midfield that featured Alonso, Mascherano and Gerrard, fans saw very little of the young Brazilian that had joined the club with apparently huge potential.
The 2008/09 season started even worse for Lucas. A number of poor performances early on eventually culminated in a match against Fulham at Anfield, where Reds fans who attended that day should remember that the home fans booed Lucas as the team struggled to a 0-0 draw. I can count on one hand the number of players in a red shirt that I have seen booed by the home fans, and it is not a pleasant experience. Benitez responded with a staunch defence of his young player, but it seemed that the fans had turned against him, doubtful that his potential even existed.
Radio phone-ins, websites, discussions in the pub before and after Liverpool matches were almost all battering Lucas at that time – I remember one fan at that time describing him on a radio show as “one of the worst midfield players that I’ve seen play for Liverpool”. To me, even at the time, this seemed a harsh reckoning for a player that was still only 21 and learning the game, but many fans around that time were voicing the same sort of view.
Fast forward two seasons, to 2010/11, and Lucas had comfortably beaten off competition from Pepe Reina, Steven Gerrard, Luis Suarez and Dirk Kuyt to be crowned Liverpool’s Player of the Season. Incredibly, of all of the top four European leagues that season, Lucas made more tackles – and more successful tackles – than any other player, and was consistently given Man of the Match awards for his consistent performances across the year. Able to read the game, stop attacks and get Liverpool going again quickly and without fuss, his classy performances in the holding role were drawing rave reviews from fans and pundits alike – many of the same fans and pundits that had written him off as nowhere near good enough two years earlier.
Such was his new found importance to the team, most Liverpool fans will agree that much of the damage done to the second half of Liverpool’s 2011/12 campaign was due the fact that Lucas sustained a serious knee injury and didn’t feature for the first team after 1st December. Suddenly the balance of the side was upset, opposition forwards found time and space in the hole between Liverpool’s back four and their midfield, and the team conceded more and more goals as their season imploded. Some even argued that if Lucas had been fit for the whole season, the improvement in consistent league form that would have brought might have been enough to save Kenny Dalglish his job.
Why is this important? For two reasons – first, that Lucas turned his own fortunes around at Liverpool, no-one else did it for him. He deserves credit for this, but young players across the club should also be learning from his example. He knew that he hadn’t started as well as he could, so he went away and worked hard at his game, adapted his style to curb some of his attacking play and moulded himself into a superb holding midfield player. As Lucas himself reflected when he was announced as player of the season:
“I wouldn’t have expected this (in my first season). The way I started my career at Liverpool wasn’t the easiest, but as I have said before, I wouldn’t change anything. The difficult times just made me stronger and stronger and I tried to improve all the time. That’s what I am doing now”.
The second reason that Lucas’ example is so important is that it should serve to remind all of us as Liverpool fans that sometimes you have to show patience with young players and allow them to develop, before you rush to judge them and write them off. We are watching a young Liverpool side – yes, one with talent, but it will take time for some of those players to reach their potential.
Lots of Reds fans are already posting on forums and websites about how Fabio Borini (21 years old) is not good enough for Liverpool, and how they aren’t impressed by or are frustrated with the likes of Suso (18 years old), Shelvey (20 years old), Allen (22 years old) and Henderson (22 years old) in their first team outings. If these players haven’t scored 25 goals a season yet or they aren’t producing 5 assists every game, then just remember that all of those players will take time to reach their potential, and will do so in different ways.
For everyone that wrote off the 20 year old Lucas, you will know by now that the faith shown in him by Benitez and others is now being handsomely rewarded, and whilst not every young player will hit the same heights, we as fans need to at least show some patience before we rush to write off young players, who have to be given that time and space to learn and develop.
Find me on twitter @rossco1981