Monday, 22 August 2011

Lucas Leiva: The Road to Redemption

"And so you touch this limit, something happens and you suddenly can go a little bit further. With your mind power, your determination, your instinct, and the experience as well, you can fly very high." Ayrton Senna,

Mental toughness is a key attribute for any young player to possess, as Rafael Benitez alluded to when unveiling the 20 year old Lucas Leiva in 2007, “We believe he has the mentality and the character you need to do well in England" said Benitez. Looking at his competition for a starting place, Lucas was going to need it. 

His first challenge as a Liverpool player was to break into a team blessed with the finest central midfielders in England, Spain and Argentina. His youthful mistakes were benchmarked against the often superlative performances of those around him, and so it was inevitable that the critics would start to hone in on him.

In the 7th minute of his first big test, replacing Mascherano in the starting line up against Arsenal, Lucas made a terrible blunder that set Adebayor racing towards goal. Luckily, Liverpool got away with it, but first impressions last.

Following his performance in a dire 0-0 draw against Fulham, one journalist wrote, “The scouts who found him need to be seriously quizzed - it must be hard to find a Brazilian footballer with such limited ability”.

Things went from bad to worse from here. He gave away a penalty and was sent off against Everton as Liverpool were knocked out of the FA Cup. The following week he gave away another penalty, against Wigan, which cost Liverpool two vital points in the race for the title.  At this point in time, most reds would have been happy if he had never pulled on a Liverpool shirt again.

On a sunny Saturday lunchtime in March 2009, Lucas started his fight back against the critics. Liverpool were at Old Trafford to play their title rivals in the biggest game of the season. With star midfield playmaker Xabi Alonso injured, Benitez called on Lucas, offering the 22 year old an opportunity to come of age.

Lucas rose to the occasion. He partnered Javier Mascherano in a midfield that completely outplayed Carrick and Anderson in the 4-1 win. He doubled up with the full-backs superbly well, rendering Ronaldo ineffective from the wing for the entire game and snuffing out Rooney’s infiltration of the midfield.

Lucas was at the centre of everything Liverpool did well. He had an 83% pass completion rate (against a Liverpool average of 75%) with an impressive 54% of these passes in the attacking half of the field.  He won 77% of the tackles he went in for and won 54% of his 50-50 midfield duals. On top of this, he made no defensive errors in the entire match.  All this against a Manchester United team who, up until this game, had been running away with the title.

Interestingly, Lucas received mixed reactions after the game. The Guardian described his performance as “lacklustre” whilst The Telegraph reported that he played “superbly well”. Like many players of his ilk, the subtle brilliance of Lucas can often be missed by the untrained eye.

The 2010 season started with Rafael Benitez coming out in the media to defend Lucas against the harsh treatment he had been on the receiving end of, "He is so good but still he was criticised. I do not understand why they do not criticise other players, more senior players, when they do not play well. But he will have a big season.” Lucas said of the criticism, “I have confidence in myself - you need that in life, not just football. So no matter what, I believe in myself and the manager does too.”

The prediction from Benitez that Lucas would have a ‘big season’ was correct. He started it by playing 6 games consecutively for the first time since joining the club and went on to play in 35 out of the 38 league games. His pass completion rate for the season of 84% was amongst the highest at the club, with a very impressive 72% of his passing inside the opponent’s half of the field.

At the end of the season, he was voted “Young Player of the Year” by the fans, an accolade that would have been unthinkable back in 2008.

By the 2010/11 season, with the departure of Javier Mascherano, Lucas had made the holding central midfield role his own. He made 33 appearances in the league, a total only bettered by the ever present players Reina and Skrtel.

It was the best season Lucas had enjoyed in a Liverpool shirt. He had a pass completion rate for the season of 83%, with 66% of his passes going forwards and just 6% going backwards. In comparison, Liverpool’s total stats for the season show that they had a 77% pass completion rate, with 57% forward passes and 16% backward. Lucas, therefore, was significantly above average in terms of his passing accuracy and his ability to play penetrating passes forward.

His performance in the away win against Chelsea is the perfect example of why he was voted the fan’s Player of the Year. He ran the game from start to finish in a ‘man of the match’ display. Here are the best bits:

Lucas has started the 2011/12 season in the same manner that he ended last year. After a solid display against Sunderland he was pivotal in the win against Arsenal. His passing chalkboard shows just how often he penetrated the Arsenal danger areas:

The improvement Lucas has shown over the past two years has been phenomenal. The critical voices are almost mute, with just a few misguided murmurings from those sections of the crowd with untrained eyes. Benitez was right about his mental toughness, and he has become a certain starter under the new Dalglish era.

It is easy to forget that Lucas is still only 24 years old. His best years are ahead of him and the great news for LFC fans is that they will be enjoyed at Anfield.

Twitter: joescouse_lfc

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Sunday, 21 August 2011

Jordan Henderson - The First Six Games

Part One

As Jordan Henderson left the field in the 61st minute against Sunderland, Lucas Leiva would have been excused for breathing a sigh of relief. The heat is off, a new whipping boy is in town.
Henderson has received some harsh treatment on radio phone-ins, message boards and on Twitter since his first competitive hour in a Liverpool shirt.
In assessing whether this criticism is justified, the first place to look at is his distribution. His pass completion rate against Sunderland was 88%, the highest in the team. Here is where stats can be deceptive. Henderson only made 31 passes in the entire game. As a point of reference, Charlie Adam made 63. Of his 31 passes, just 8 were played forwards (24%).  To use Adam as the reference point again, of his 56 passes 33 were played forwards (59%). This is a remarkable difference. The high pass completion rate emphasises where things went wrong for Henderson: he was so afraid of making a mistake that inertia set in.
His ineffectiveness with the ball proven, let’s look at how he performed when we were chasing the game. Henderson was involved in just 4 50-50s. In comparison, Adam was involved in 17. Adam won 47% of his possession duals whilst Henderson won none. This adds weight to the rants about Henderson being a bit frigid when it comes to getting stuck in. It would be great to see how Henderson performed in aerial duals, but he was not involved in any. The same goes for shooting: he had no shots on or off target. Tackling? One, and it was unsuccessful.
The verdict watching the match was that Henderson did not do a great deal against Sunderland. The verdict from the statistical analysis proves this point conclusively
Kenny Dalglish is the type of manager who will put his arms around the shoulder of a player who is struggling. He understands better than most the importance of confidence. Dropping Henderson after that display could have set him back months. It was no surprise, then, that Henderson got a chance to redeem himself against Arsenal.
An analysis of his first full game for Liverpool helps us understand whether Kenny was right to stick with Henderson despite his abysmal display against Sunderland.
Henderson made a total of 59 passes against Arsenal, double the amount he managed against Sunderland. Impressively, his pass completion was 90% and importantly 24 of his passes went forwards. The improvement here is exponential and shows that Henderson has the ability to understand his development areas and make positive changes.  This is a very important attribute for a young player to possess.
Henderson’s all round display was better against Arsenal than it was against Sunderland. He created 2 chances, made 2 successful interceptions and even managed a shot on target.  
However, Henderson still has a long way to go if he is to become the complete midfield powerhouse. He lost all 5 of the 50-50s he went in for, meaning that he now has a record of attempting 9 50-50 challenges and losing every single one of them.
He was not involved in any aerial duals meaning that, astonishingly, he is still to attempt to jump for a header against an opponent in a Liverpool shirt. He failed to make a single successful tackle in the entire match and was responsible for conceding 12 chances.  Henderson again offered plenty of ammunition for those fans looking for a new whipping boy.
Part Two
Against Bolton, Henderson started his third consecutive league game for Liverpool. To his credit, it was comfortably his best performance in a Liverpool shirt. It was a day of firsts for Henderson. He managed to break his “Aerial Duel” duck, attempting to jump for two balls and even successfully heading one. He also got stuck in a bit, contesting an impressive eight 50-50 battles and coming out on top in four of them.
Another first for Henderson was his goal. It was taken very well and offered us a glimpse of the player he could develop into. As well as his goal, he also created four goal scoring chances from open play. His performance was impressive but limited. He has a deft touch but no grit, more Lampard than Gerrard.
Liverpool followed up their excellent performances against Arsenal and Bolton with two poor defeats away from home. The first was against Stoke. Henderson’s stats for this game show that he failed to win a tackle, he lost all three of the 50-50s he went in for and he again failed to win an aerial duel.  Back to square one.
Against Tottenham the whole team had a car crash of a performance. It was a game so farcical it is hardly worthy of an analysis. It is fair to say, though, that making one tackle in a whole match is not good enough for a midfield player. With two players sent off, we needed the rest of the team to work extra hard. Henderson’s one tackle suggests that he did not even do the job of one man, never mind doubling up for those who were red carded.
His sixth consecutive league game, making him an ever-present this season, came against Wolves. With only one good performance so far, Wolves at home was Henderson’s chance to prove to the fans why he is keeping Maxi, Bellamy and Kuyt out of the first team.  A close look at this performance helps us to understand whether he is truly justifying his place in the first XI.
Passing is a key indicator of a good midfield performance. On the face of it, Henderson’s passing was decent yesterday. In the 72 minutes he was on the pitch he only attempted 25 passes, about one every three minutes, not exactly prolific. However, a total of 22 of them found their intended target, so one thing you cannot accuse Henderson of is being wasteful in possession. He was replaced by Dirk Kuyt, who made 9 passes in the 18 minutes he was on the pitch, which is one every two minutes. A 90% pass completion ratio shows that Kuyt, too, is very good at keeping possession.
A more in-depth look at the passing stats tells a different story. Only 28% of Henderson’s passes against Wolves went forwards. Given that we were attacking for most of the game, this is a very significant statistic. Rather than driving play forward, Henderson was holding things up. Kuyt’s play was far more positive. 66% of his passes went forwards during a period when Liverpool were basically playing out time for a 2-1 win. On top of this, 90% of Kuyt’s passes were made in the Wolves half of the pitch. He was a much more consistent threat.
Another really key indicator of how much a player contributes from midfield is the “touch” statistic. This shows how many times each player touched the ball. In 72 minutes, Henderson touched the ball a total of 31 times, once every 2.3 minutes. Kuyt touched the ball 12 times in 18 minutes, once every 1.5 minutes. This is a really clear indication that Kuyt offers more than Henderson from the right side of midfield. He gets involved more, he makes more penetrating passes and his all round contribution is better.
After six games in a Liverpool shirt, Henderson has shown potential, but not much more. He has shown that he has a great first touch, he is an intelligent footballer and he has a sweet right foot. All the indicators are there. He should develop into a really good player.
However, he is not there yet, and he is keeping players out of the team who contribute more than he currently is. In my opinion, at this stage in his career Henderson should be starting from the bench and coming on for Kuyt after 70 minutes, not the other way around.
Against Manchester United and Everton it is vital that we put our strongest XI out. We cannot risk having passengers. Tackling well and playing penetrating balls from midfield are vital. Getting on the ball is vital.  At this moment in time, Henderson is not doing these things often enough. He has simply not done enough in his first six games to warrant a starting place in either game.

Looking further forward, Jordan Henderson will come good, but he is a million miles away from his full potential.

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