In the 51st minute of Liverpool's pulsating 5-3 win over Stoke at the weekend, Steven Gerrard stepped up to the penalty spot with the opportunity to put the Reds back in front. The Potters had pegged the Merseysiders back from 2-0 down courtesy of a Peter Crouch header- Stoke's first headed goal of the season - and a long distance Charlie Adam strike.
The home crowd may have been furious at how the penalty had been awarded, Raheem Sterling going down easily under a Marc Wilson challenge, but Gerrard kept his nerve to put his side in front on his first league start since returning from injury. Along with Luis Suárez and Daniel Sturridge, Gerrard left the field of play to the adulation of the travelling support, with all 3 netting in the victory.
However, while fans were quick to praise the trio, one performer than has seen his input overlooked as the result of his teammates' exploits is Lucas Leiva. The Brazilian, charged with shielding the defence, has seen his stock rise considerably in recent campaigns on the back of a number of stand out displays with Liverpool, with this term arguably his best in his last 5 seasons, highlighted in his average WhoScored rating of 7.4.
While his outing against Stoke wasn't necessarily his best in a Liverpool shirt (rating of 7.2), Lucas still made the most tackles in the encounter (4). This facet of his game is what he is renowned for and it's little surprise that the 27-year-old has developed a WhoScored strength of 'tackling', with no player making more tackles (74) in the Premier League this season.
His importance to the team is perhaps highlighted best in his aforementioned WhoScored rating. The 7.4 he's attained means only Suárez (8.76), Gerrard (7.63), Sturridge (7.53) and Philippe Coutinho (7.43) rank higher than Lucas in the Liverpool team this season. When taking into consideration that the quartet are more attack-minded, Lucas' rating shows how pivotal his performances have been.
This has allowed the offensive four to flourish under Brendan Rodgers, with Suárez and co. able to focus their efforts on attacking. With Lucas covering and providing the necessary shield to the backline, there is less onus on the 4 players, amongst others, to track back, safe in the knowledge that the Brazil international is limiting the attacking influence of the opposition.
Unfortunately, his style of play means he's likely to land himself in hot water with officials from time-to-time. With a WhoScored style of play of his being 'commits fouls often', it's little surprise that only Leroy Fer (40), Ramires (38) and Fernandino (37) have committed more fouls than him (36) this season. With 5 yellow cards accumulated, Lucas has already been made to sit out a game through suspension, though fortunately for Rodgers' side, that came against a Crystal Palace team that was in the middle of a 7-game losing streak.
This approach means he runs the risk of inciting referees, though Lucas has looked to curb this indiscipline of late, avoiding being booked in any of his last 8 Premier League fixtures, having received all 5 in his first 10 league games.
A player of his ilk is a requirement in the modern game, though, especially when taking into consideration the growing need for full-backs to get forward. In Liverpool's case, Lucas' marshaling of the midfield in front of the defence allows for Glen Johnson, Jon Flanagan and Aly Cissokho to support the attack, with the heatmap of the Brazil international showing just how much ground he covers in his own half and how deep he sits.
Lucas' role means the full-backs aren't forced to return to their starting position instantaneously, thus permitting Liverpool to maintain a strong presence in the final third. With Raheem Sterling and Coutinho often tucking inside when attacking, the excess space benefits the full-backs and gifts them the time on the ball to create a potential goalscoring opportunity, safe in the knowlegde that Lucas is covering for them.
With a pass success of 91.3%, only Martin Skrtel and Mamadou Sakho (91.8%) have found a teammate more regularly of every Liverpool player, so Lucas is able to match Liverpool's style of play of 'short passes' while aiding the attacking fluidity that Rodgers encourages. Permitted more time on the ball, it's unsurprising that the defensive minded trio boast a high pass success, but his ability to recycle possession means Liverpool can control the game in their own half and the simplicity in his passing helps alleviate pressure on the backline.
Lucas' approach to the game, it can be argued, has allowed for Liverpool to become a more coherent team, with his performances contributing significantly to the 42 points the Reds have gained and 51 goals scored after 21 games this season. If the Merseyside outfit are to maintain their quest to land their first Premier League title, Lucas will undoubtedly play a critical role in the club's attempts to turn this from a dream into a reality.
All statistics courtesy of WhoScored.com, where you can find yet more stats, including live in-game data and unique player and team ratings.