Sunday’s visit from Aston Villa provided another hint at how important Lucas Leiva is to Liverpool, with the Reds struggling to control the middle of the park with only Steven Gerrard and Jordan Henderson in midfield. Unfortunately, having suffered a knee injury after coming off the bench, Leiva’s now set to be sidelined until March, the 27-year-old having damaged his right MCL.
According to various reports (this one from The Independent), Lucas is scheduled to miss six to eight weeks, an absence that would leave the Brazilian sidelined until March 18, at the latest. During that time, Liverpool’s most notable games will be against Everton (Jan. 28), Arsenal (Feb. 8), and at Manchester United (Mar. 15). Should he take the full eight weeks to recover, Leiva will miss eight league games, with Liverpool also still alive in the FA Cup.
Given Liverpool’s lack of options in defensive midfield, Leiva’s absence could be a major blow to the team’s Champions League hopes, particularly in the face of a Merseyside Derby next week. Already hard-pressed to protect an injury-stricken and exploitable defense, the fourth place Reds will have to find another player to protect Martin Skrtel and Kolo Touré, with Leiva the only player who has regularly been used in the defensive midfielder’s role. With Everton averaging 55 percent possession (sixth in the Premier League), Liverpool’s midfielders will be challenged to get the ball away from their rivals.
Against Aston Villa, captain Steven Gerrard averaged a slightly deeper position than Jordan Henderson, position that led contributed to a two-goal deficit after 36 minutes. The team soon changed their approach, bringing on Leiva for Philippe Coutinho at halftime. In the 66th minute, after Leiva suffered his injury, Joe Allen was brought on.
Without a true holder, Liverpool may be forced to stick with that three-man midfield over the next two months, the extra man in the middle helping to offset the absence Leiva’s defensive. Though neither Allen nor Henderson are traditional holders, they may be able to do enough work around Gerrard to mitigate their captain’s short comings, allowing the England international to settle into the distributor’s role some have speculated as his future.
More than anything, Liverpool may not have a lot of options. Any two-man midfield selected from Allen, Gerrard, and Henderson is going to be outplayed by three-man units or pairs from better teams. Given Brendan Rodgers’ stylistic preferences and the deficiencies Liverpool has along the back, that’s not something that can happen if the Reds expect to win games. Perhaps the Reds can go out and get another midfielder over the next 10 days, but with Leiva coming back in March, it’s difficult to justify a major expenditure.
Regardless, Liverpool needs to win the midfield battle to play the style Rodgers wants. Without Leiva, they’ll have to think of a new way to do so.