There was a collective groan from Liverpool fans when the confirmation came in that Lucas Leiva was going to start at centre-back against Tottenham Hotspur on Saturday afternoon.
Lucas is widely considered by the fans to be past his best and many think that he has no future at the club, particularly at centre-back, where he has been, at times this season, a liability.
However, Lucas proved his doubters wrong, on Saturday evening at least, with an excellent defensive display as Liverpool beat Spurs 2-0. But does that mean Lucas can be relied on to fill in at centre-back? Or was it a one-off?
The role of sentiment in the assessment of Lucas' reliability and quality is an important one to consider. As many fans of the club will rightfully point out, Lucas has been a servant of the club for many years, and deserves the utmost respect.
However, that sentiment can only go so far. Should it spare Lucas from scathing accusations of “Get out of my club!” from individuals on social media? Yes, in this writer's opinion.
Should it spare him from the criticism that he simply isn’t good enough to currently be playing for Liverpool? Well, frankly, no.
Should Lucas' time at Liverpool be up?
One of Liverpool’s greatest assets as a club is their sentimentality, but it also undermines progress. Look at Chelsea, a club where players have been ushered out the door, or removed from the starting line-up, as soon as they showed any indications that they were past their prime. This is a model that Liverpool could stand to learn from.
So moving onto Lucas’ performance. Against Spurs, Lucas was excellent, there’s no undermining that fact. Lucas made the biggest defensive contribution on the side with his six clearances, five interceptions, four aerial battles won and two tackles unmatched by any player in the team.
However, it would be fair to say both that Lucas benefitted from playing alongside Joel Matip, who has easily been Liverpool’s most promising central defender in years.
Moreover, Spurs were very poor, rarely dragging Lucas out of position or testing his pace in behind, something that he has struggled against multiple times this season, most notably when Oumar Niasse simply outran him to score for Hull City as Liverpool lost 2-0.
So overall, is Lucas good enough to be playing regularly? It is a complex question, with some easy answers to components of it. Pointing out the obvious - No, Lucas should not be in Liverpool’s starting 11. Matip and Dejan Lovren are clearly Liverpool’s best defensive partnership, conceding just nine goals in 10 starts together.
Moreover, it would be fair to make a case for Ragnar Klavan to be comfortably Liverpool’s best third choice centre-back. Klavan has started ten league games for Liverpool this season, nine times with Lovren and once with Matip. His one game with Matip led to Liverpool conceding once, with three clean sheets and twelve goals conceded in his nine game partnership with Lovren.
Lucas meanwhile, has struggled at centre-back overall, conceding eight goals in five Premier League games. Whilst he has played reasonably well there when partnering Matip there (conceding four goals in four league games), what will be worrying is the quality of opposition that Lucas has conceded goals against.
As well as shipping four goals when starting alongside Lovren against Bournemouth, Lucas was awful against Hull and heavily at fault as Liverpool crashed out of the FA Cup to Wolverhampton Wanderers.
So the question is, if we assume that Lucas is to be used as at best a fourth-choice option, used when two of Lovren, Klavan and Matip are out of commission (as they were against Hull and Spurs), does that make him automatically a fourth-choice option there?
What about Joe Gomez?
Many have been clamouring for Joe Gomez to start instead, and Gomez is an exciting young defender, who Klopp refused to send out on loan. Why refuse to loan Gomez but not play him?
Well, for starters, Gomez has never started a Premier League game at centre-back, having played only five league games for Liverpool, all at left-back.
Moreover, he also hasn’t covered himself in glory in the three FA Cup games he’s played, including the humbling at Wolves. Truthfully there is no evidence to suggest Gomez is capable of stepping up to the top level just yet.
So how does that lack of evidence stack up against the evidence we have on Lucas? Well Lucas has demonstrated that he is capable of stepping up at centre-back in big games, but he has also demonstrated that he absolutely, categorically, should not be playing centre-back against a team capable of running in behind.
Neither option sounds particularly fanciful and many Liverpool supporters will hope this is a conundrum that Jürgen Klopp doesn’t have to face again this season.
But at this stage, the game against Spurs would suggest that Lucas has done enough to keep his place as the fourth choice centre-back, at least until the summer.
I confess that I’m one of the individuals who thinks we should have sold Lucas in the summer. And I still think that we should have. Sentiment is one thing, and I - like many other supporters - love and respect Lucas immensely, but in my opinion he simply doesn’t have a role to play at this football club any longer.