Up until the last four games, Jay Spearing's rarely looked liked having a long-term future at Liverpool. Admittedly, he also hadn't gotten a consistent run in the side until Gerrard's season-ending injury, only once playing more than two consecutive games: earlier this season against Steaua and Northampton. He didn't stand out in cameos against Real Madrid and PSV in 2008-09, three starts in 2009-10 (the two league cup matches and at Sunderland), or seven appearances under Hodgson. Happily, with Liverpool's hand forced by injuries, he's shown remarkable improvement since the 2-0 win at Sunderland.
Since Xabi Alonso left, fans have alternated between cries of "Gerrard's not an orthodox central midfielder" and "Lucas and X are too defensive." And there's truth in both statements. Lucas/Mascherano was too defensive at times. Lucas/Poulsen was definitely too defensive, with the added bonus of Poulsen being so far over the hill he's on flat ground. Two managers have been mostly unwilling to play Meireles in a central midfield pairing with Lucas, aside from a two-week stretch against Spurs, Villa, and Newcastle. But the Lucas/Spearing partnership hasn't as defensive as initially feared.
Spearing's passing chalkboards and heat maps from the last four games illustrate his development and abilities well.
Unsurprisingly, the home match against City was his most-attacking performance of the four, if not the all-around best. It also happened to be Liverpool's largest win. He completed 18 more passes than against West Brom – his second-highest total of the four – and was more active according to the heat map. Liverpool bossed that game; it's no surprise to see Spearing's so influential.
But we can also see progression from Sunderland to West Brom to City to Arsenal. Despite his won penalty – another example of how he can get forward – the away match against Sunderland was his most "defensive" performance, evidenced by the heat map which shows his focus on the center circle area. Out-numbered in midfield against West Brom, in what was easily Liverpool's worst performance of the four, Spearing still attempted to prod Albion's defense down the left, shown in the passing chalkboard.
But the heat map and chalkboard from City and Arsenal show a player who's looking to link midfield and attack, highly-mobile and almost always on the run. Against both clubs, despite Liverpool's different strategies in the two matches, Spearing's heat maps show as much time spent in the opposition half as Liverpool's own – even against Arsenal, where Liverpool were frequently pegged back, but Spearing could have won another first-half spot kick.
I've been fighting the "Lucas is too defensive" stereotype since 2007. But Lucas is the defensive midfielder these days, and that's the area of his game which has most improved. He does rarely get forward, although still doesn't get enough credit for when he does – scoring against Benfica last year and Steaua this year, among others. No matter how he was billed when joining the club, the fact is that Lucas has become unarguably better when deployed deeper.
However, Spearing is more of a link player, and has become important to Liverpool's attack over the last month. Bustling, busy, and full of running, but still willing to get forward. These traits make him an ideal partner for Lucas.
The pairing still limits Liverpool in certain regards. Spearing doesn't have huge range of passing – Liverpool's weakness in this area explains Dalglish's January pursuit of Charlie Adam – while neither he nor Lucas score with any semblance of regularity. But intelligence and endeavor go a long way. And Spearing's dramatic improvement since earning his starting place bodes well.