18 July 2017

On Lucas Leiva

The inevitable finally happens. After 10 seasons at the club – Liverpool's longest serving player by some distance – Lucas is moving to Lazio for a rumored £5m. It's a day long in coming, a day filled with happy memories, but also a day filled with regret. And sadness.

And with a couple of what-ifs.

What if Lucas Leiva scores on his league debut, coming on as a substitute for Steven Gerrard in a Merseyside Derby at Everton with the score 1-1? A goal-bound shot in added time, saved on the line by Phil Neville's handball. Dirk Kuyt scored the resulting penalty for Liverpool's win, but I still wonder if Lucas' career would've turned out differently had he been the hero.

More meaningfully, what if Lucas doesn't blow out his ACL in a League Cup match against Chelsea in November 2011? He's in the best form of his career after nearly being sold in the summer of 2010 by Roy Hodgson, notably dominant in the previous match, a 1-1 draw against eventual league winners Manchester City. He's the linchpin of Liverpool's midfield under Kenny Dalglish, a side finally returning to form after the Hodgson horrors. And it wasn't a stepped-wrong, would-probably-have-eventually-happened-regardless injury. It came from contact: first, a bad foul from Ramires, then a collision with Mata less than a minute later. In a League Cup match, more than an hour in, with the tie all but won. And Liverpool's medical staff sent him back on to play for three more minutes before he finally came off, unable to get off of Chelsea's pitch under his own weight.

That season, and the season before, Lucas might not have been Liverpool's best player, but there was a case to be made that he was Liverpool's most important. Gerrard had been dealing with injuries, and would do so off and on for all of 2011-12. Lucas' back-ups were Charlie Adam and Jay Spearing. Jordan Henderson, signed that summer, was used as a tucked-in winger as often as an orthodox central midfielder. So, unsurprisingly, Liverpool are notably worse without him, for the rest of the season. Liverpool end the campaign as League Cup winners and FA Cup runners-up, but finish eighth in the league. And Kenny Dalglish gets fired.

And, honestly, Lucas is never the same player again.

Lucas played more than 2800 Premier League minutes in each of the two seasons before that ACL injury, making 32 league starts in both campaigns. He never played more than 2000 league minutes in a season again.

Nevertheless, Lucas ends his Liverpool career with 346 appearances, the 46th-most all-time. He's 6th in Premier League appearances – behind only Carragher, Gerrard, Hyypiä, Reina, and Fowler.

Since World War II, there have been only four non-British or Irish Liverpool players to last at least 10 years with the club. Lucas Leiva is one. The others are Bruce Grobbelaar, Jan Mølby, and Sami Hyypiä. Grobbelaar, Hyypiä, Pepe Reina, and John Arne Riise are the only non-British or non-Irish players with more Liverpool appearances than Lucas Leiva.

Lucas has made the most Premier League appearances of any Brazilian player. Nobby Solano and Antonio Valencia are the only South American players with more than Lucas.

That's some company.

And no one could or would have predicted it ten years ago.

Incidentally, Lucas made his debut in the same match as Sebastian Leto: a 4-0 win over Toulouse in the Champions League qualifying round. Leto started. Lucas came on as a substitute, replacing Momo Sissoko. Leto made just four appearances for Liverpool, none in the league, mainly due to work permit problems. I'm fairly certain most would have expected Leto to do more in a Liverpool shirt than Lucas Leiva would.

Lucas would have to wait three months to make his first Premier League start.

There are some fun names in those two sides. And some very good players. It is safe to say he's seen quite a bit of change over the last 10 seasons.

It has been an eventual 10 seasons. As I suspect you remember.

Lucas has played alongside just shy of 120 different Liverpool players. For five different managers. Five very different managers: Rafa Benitez, Roy Hodgson, Kenny Dalglish, Brendan Rodgers, and Jürgen Klopp.

He came billed as a Bola de Ouro-winning box-to-box midfielder – taking the Brazilian league award a year after Carlos Tevez won it – then grew into an at-times-dominant defensive midfielder after a period of adjustment, and finished his tenure as a reserve splitting time between holding midfielder and center-back.

From young golden hope, to scapegoat, to under-appreciated internet darling, to one of the first names on the teamsheet, to useful squad player, to cagey veteran, to cult hero.

From this:

To this:

Time makes fools of us all.

He remains a still-valuable member of the squad, if only for his presence in the dressing room and institutional memory. Sure, he's still more than capable of putting in good games, even if it's mixed with poor ones and mistakes. One week, he'd stuff Harry Kane in his pocket. The next, he's being beaten all ends up by Jamie Vardy. He'd become serviceable but not great at both defensive midfielder and center-back, and he's probably not good enough to play more than a few games at either position in a side being built to compete for the Premier League title.

But, at this point in his career, it seemed the legacy that mattered more. He was the last player signed by Rafa Benitez still at the club. He made it through both Hicks and Gillett, and Roy Hodgson. He played a fairly substantial role in two of the best Liverpool sides in the last 25 years, and played for the side which tallied Liverpool's lowest points total in a league campaign since the switch to three points for a win (which, coincidentally, was Lucas' ACL injury season). He'd become a Liverpool fixture, wholly understanding both club and city. At the absolute least, I suspect he was crucial in helping Coutinho and Firmino adjust to life at Liverpool. And, I mean, the man did this. "Unluckeeeeeeee" will live long in the memory.

Liverpool's longest serving player is now Liverpool's captain: Jordan Henderson, who joined the club in June 2011. Who has made 107 fewer appearances for Liverpool than Lucas Leiva. Who is still only 27 years old. And who also embarrassed himself in all sorts of ways in that "Unluckeeee" video, but that's not really here nor there.

For better and for worse, one of the youngest sides in the league has gotten even younger.

To be fair, it's time for Lucas to move on. Long past time if you believe some, but the right time in my opinion. That doesn't make it any less sad. But I'm still proud that Lucas Leiva played 10 seasons for Liverpool. I'm still delighted that Liverpool didn't sell him in 2010, or 2014, or 2016. Lucas Leiva still is, and will always be, one of my favorite under-loved Liverpool players from the last 15 years, alongside Agger, alongside Kuyt.

Also, hey, Liverpool, when's the testimonial? You really need to get on that. It's embarrassing that it hasn't already happened.

Obrigado e boa sorte, Lucas.