There was a lot of online bemusement regarding the selection of Lucas Leiva to face Southampton in the opening match of the season on Sunday, so I thought I’d take a quick look at his stats to see how he performed and what the trends are, particularly with regards to his tackling.
Firstly, a quick word on why I think he might have been selected to play. It’s important to note that Lucas was one of only four players who played in all eight of Liverpool’s pre-season games. Granted, Joe Allen, a definite rival for that spot, did too, but clearly the Brazilian appears to be one of the Reds’ more suitably prepared players at this point of the campaign, and that’s before you consider the things that we as fans aren’t privy to, namely how “fit” the players actually are.
However, when looking at the match stats after the game, one thing stood out to me like a sore thumb; Lucas didn’t attempt a single tackle. In the 159 league appearances he has made since the start of the 2008/09 season, Lucas has only failed to make a tackle on twelve occasions, and as he spent sixty-three minutes on the pitch against the Saints, this was his longest appearance without a tackle. I should also point out that for eight of the other eleven games, he was on the field for thirteen minutes or less, so it shouldn’t be a surprise that he didn’t make a tackle in those games.
At this point it’s important to remember what Opta’s definition of a tackle actually is:
A tackle is defined as where a player connects with the ball in ground challenge where he successfully takes the ball away from the man in possession.
A 50/50 where two players challenge for a ball that neither of them have under their control is considered to be a duel, and Lucas appeared to be involved in at least one of these against Southampton, but he didn’t make any (statistically defined) tackles.
Back in the days before his ACL injury, Lucas was a tackling machine though, averaging 5.3 per ninety minutes played in the Premier League (from summer 2008 until his injury in 2011); indeed I have written about that previously.
Yet in the time since, this figure has dropped to 4.9 per ninety, and if you exclude Liverpool’s 6-0 win at Newcastle in 2013 when he made a remarkable eleven tackles, Lucas’ post-ACL figures drop to 4.7 per ninety.
That may not sound like much of a difference, so perhaps a more focussed look will illustrate the point better. Lucas averaged 5.6 tackles per ninety minutes in the fifteen months prior to his serious injury, as he got better and better to the point that he was Liverpool’s player of the season, but his tackle rate is down to just 3.1 in the year 2014. Here is a breakdown of his tackle stats:
Notice how Lucas has been dribbled past almost as many times since his injury as he was before, despite only playing a little more than half as many minutes. In fairness to the Brazilian, this downturn in tackling hasn’t been entirely negative; this table shows his ratio of tackles to interceptions.
We can see that Mr Leiva makes a tackle or an interception at a consistent rate either side of his ACL injury (albeit 2013/14 was his least productive season on this front), and more importantly, the proportion of those that are interceptions has risen.
This makes sense given a common sense check; if you’d been out with a cruciate ligament injury, would you want to risk your knee in a tackle if you could regain the ball a different way? Perhaps this also explains why he gets dribbled past more, as maybe he is less willing to engage in a physical challenge since his long spell on the sidelines? This is pure speculation on my part, but it doesn’t seem beyond the realms of possibility.
However, if we look at the tackles to fouls ratio below, which is a stat I also used in my assessment of Emre Can, we can see that Lucas has declined over time to the point where he committed a foul for just under every two tackles he made last season. Not all fouls will be as a result of attempted tackles, but the majority will be and so this can provide a decent guideline.
His tackling is far most costly than it was, when it used to be his greatest strength, and if Lucas’ previously best asset is not there to a great extent any more, then it’s almost impossible to see a place for him in the team in the future. This is a shame considering the service he has given Liverpool, and the tremendous amount of criticism he managed to overcome in his early years, but there’s no room for sentiment at Anfield in the pursuit of their goals this season.