Moving to a new country and a new club is never easy for a 20-year-old footballer. And when the youngster in question has just been voted the best player in the Brazilian league, only to find himself well down the pecking order at a European heavyweight and with world-class performers ahead of him, the adaptation process becomes more difficult still.
The player in question is Lucas Leiva who, after joining Liverpool from Gremio back in 2007, battled in vain to live up to fans’ high expectations of their club’s young Brazilian signing. All that appears to have changed this season, however, with the now 23-year-old midfield man flourishing as a first-choice starter for both the Reds and A Seleção.
“When you’re young you think you should be playing all the time. I had to be very patient,” he told FIFA.com. “But I can honestly say I’d go through it all again, because you get your reward sooner or later. I just kept believing I was on the right track, and I’ve still got that belief today.”
New bosses bring new start
Hailing from the city of Dourados in the state of Mato Grosso do Sul, Lucas has been an influential figure in Liverpool manager Roy Hodgson’s plans since the experienced supremo took charge in the summer. And despite the Anfield outfit’s shaky start to their Premier League campaign, the hard-working midfielder’s displays appear to have helped his team turn a corner and begin to win over his doubters among the club’s demanding support.
This seemed almost unthinkable just a year ago, when Lucas was initially struggling to nail down a place in midfield alongside Javier Mascherano despite the departure of Xabi Alonso and the sequence of injuries suffered by the latter’s intended replacement, Alberto Aquilani. And without Alonso’s craft and guile, the Reds’ league form was paying the price.
For Lucas, however, a much-needed run of games ensued, thus giving him the confidence to evolve and improve as a player. “I wasn’t a first-choice starter in my first two seasons. I was getting opportunities, but only every so often. Last season things changed. As a team we didn’t achieve the objectives we’d set, but on an individual level it was a vital year for me.
“It’s important to note the progress I made, not just physically but also in terms of adapting to English football. The way they play in Brazil is very different to over here,” continued Lucas, who eventually helped Liverpool finish 2009/10 in seventh spot and secure a place in the UEFA Europa League qualifying rounds.
“Our biggest challenge is to try and find consistency, particularly away from home. We’re obliged to win when we play at home, but when we’re the visitors we need to start nicking more points,” said Lucas, whose team have already lost six Premier League games on the road in 2010/11 and lie in ninth position, 12 points behind leaders Manchester United.
“We’re doing better now than at the start of the season. We had some players come and go, and a new coaching staff arrived and brought new methods with them. Sometimes these things take time to gel, but we’re on the right path,” added the player, who has looked particularly impressive when partnered by fellow Portuguese speaker and ex-Porto star Raul Meireles in midfield.
“We’ve clicked really well, and become great friends,” said Lucas, usually charged with screening the Liverpool backline while Meireles enjoys a more forward-thinking remit. “It turns out we complement each other. He’s a more attacking player but I never feel like I’m left all alone in the centre of the park. The fact that we share a similar culture (and language) is a big help too.”
Bringing balance to Brazil
Meanwhile at international level, Lucas has looked right at home ever since Mano Menezes, who coached him at Gremio, took the helm of A Seleção. A starter in each of Menezes’ first four games - friendly wins over United States, Iran and Ukraine and a narrow defeat to Argentina - Lucas has made light of the pressure of playing for the five-time world champions.
Keen to instil in Brazil a more vibrant approach, employing a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 formation including the likes of Robinho, Pato and Santos starlets Paulo Henrique Ganso and Neymar, the success of Menezes system relies greatly on Lucas’ steadying presence. “It’s a really light and quick team, with full-backs who push on a lot too. That means the midfielders have to do their share of covering back. But Mano always makes it clear that while he wants his team to attack, we mustn’t leave our defenders exposed.”
As a player who thrived in a more box-to-box role when bursting onto the scene at Gremio, is he not tempted to throw caution to the wind when surrounded by such rich attacking talent? “I’m still capable of playing like that,” said Lucas, as the interview concluded. “But given the way things are going, it’s probably just as well that I’m more used to playing further back.” And on the evidence of his recent form for Liverpool and Brazil, who would disagree?