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Rational Expectations: A Tale of Two Lucases

January 20th, 2012 SB Tang No comments

Saturday the 22nd of November 2008. Liverpool lie second in the league, behind Chelsea only on goal difference. The afternoon’s fixture is a home game against Fulham, a side sitting mid-table who have collected just one point on the road all season. Thirty-five minutes pass and it is still 0-0. A young Liverpool midfielder receives the ball, plays a poor pass and loses the ball. His name is Lucas Leiva. The crowd’s response is instantaneous: a chant of “Xabi Alonso” rings out across the ground. The match finishes 0-0. Lucas, just 21 years of age, trudges off the pitch to a most peculiar sound — a chorus of boos. The Anfield faithful, famed for their patience and loyalty, are booing one of their own.

Sunday the 15th of May 2011. Liverpool’s final home game of the season ends in a 2-0 defeat to Spurs. After the game, Lucas is presented with a Golden Samba by the influential fan site Red All Over the Land to commemorate his victory, with an extraordinary 75 per cent of the vote, in their player of the season poll.  A packed Anfield cheers at the very sight of Lucas. After accepting the award, Lucas, with his baby boy cradled in his arms, walks along the edge of the packed stands to graciously accept the adulation of the delirious crowd, like an American President working a rope line after a glorious, landslide election victory. Nine days later, Lucas is crowned Liverpool’s official Player of the Season for 2010–11 after winning an astonishing 40 per cent of the 129,774 votes cast in the official fan poll.

It is the most remarkable of turnarounds.

But why was the Anfield crowd booing Lucas in the first place and was it justified? How did Lucas manage to win a seemingly impossible case in the once hostile court of fans’ opinion? What is the explanation for such a radical change in collective opinion?

The answers to these questions have as much to do with expectations as actual performances.

When Lucas arrived at Liverpool in the summer of 2007 for £5m, he was arguably the best-credentialed young midfielder in South America. As a 20 year old, he had just led Gremio to the final of the Copa Liberatores and become the youngest ever winner of the Bola de Ouro award for the best player in the Brazilian National Championship. The four preceding winners of the coveted award read as follows: Carlos Tevez, Robinho, Alex and Kaka. Lucas captained a Brazilian U-20 side containing Pato to victory at the 2007 South American U-20 Championship, scoring 4 goals, including the opener in the title-clinching 2-0 win over Colombia, along the way. With a CV like that, it was little wonder that Liverpool had to beat the likes of Inter Milan in order to secure his signature.

Naturally then, the general expectation amongst Liverpool fans was that Lucas would be an attacking force. At the very least, he was expected to deliver assists and goals. Moreover, as a highly-rated young Brazilian attacking player moving to an English club, he was subject to the perception, widespread in the English-speaking world, that he would play in a style similar to that exhibited by the likes of Kaka, Robinho and Ronaldinho who are distinguished by their exquisite touch and technique, and their ability to dribble at pace and beat defenders.

However, the reality is that at Gremio and for the Brazilian underage national sides, Lucas played as a box-to-box central attacking midfielder with a licence to rumble forward. He had many virtues: he knew when to time his forward runs; he scored goals; and like all modern Brazilian central midfielders, he had a phenomenal engine and a terrific work-rate. Technically, he was solid, but he was never a playmaker or a dribbler. He was a completely different style of player to that which many Liverpool fans expected. Bryan Robson would have been a more appropriate analogue for Lucas than Kaka. The trouble is that many fans expected the latter.

Accordingly, even before Lucas had kicked a ball for Liverpool, he was subject to the expectation that he would be something that he is not and never was, namely, a Kaka/Robinho style player. Once he arrived at Liverpool, this gap between expectation and reality was widened by his deployment in a position in which he’d never previously played, requiring him to both change his style of play and learn new skills, all whilst taking the place of one of two regulars who had spent a lifetime in that position.

For the bulk of Lucas’s early Liverpool career, Rafa Benitez favoured a 4-2-3-1 formation. In such a system, there were only three positions which a career central midfielder such as Lucas could conceivably fill — the two deep-lying midfield berths (occupied by Alonso and Mascherano) in front of the back four and the central attacking midfield position (occupied by Gerrard) in the bank of three behind the lone striker.

The problem for Lucas was that each of those positions was occupied by a world-class player with a particular style and peculiar strengths which Lucas did not necessarily share. Mascherano was one of the best pure stoppers in the world. Alonso was a deep-lying playmaker with the technique and tactical awareness to both elegantly stroke 30 yard passes and diligently perform his defensive duties. Gerrard was an all-out attacker with a scoring record which put most strikers to shame.

Lucas did not have the technique and passing ability required to function as an Alonso-style regista. Having spent his career up to that point as a box-to-box attacking midfielder, he did not yet have the tackling technique or positional know-how required to effectively play the Mascherano pure stopper role. He was probably best suited to the central attacking midfield role but he could not play there because, well, that’s Gerrard’s position. And he most certainly could not occupy one of the two wing positions — he was born and raised in a country where wingers are long extinct.

On the infrequent occasions when Lucas did get the chance to start, it was typically as a holding midfielder in place of Mascherano or Alonso — that was the case that chilly November afternoon against Fulham as Benitez opted to rest Alonso, a man in the form of his life. Lucas struggled in a new and unfamiliar position. He did not seem to know how and when to tackle or where to position himself as a holding player. He picked up a lot of yellow cards and gave away unnecessary free-kicks in dangerous positions. He struggled to move the ball out of defence, often passing the ball sideways and/or backwards rather than forward.

During this difficult early period in Lucas’s Liverpool career, it was difficult to see what, exactly, his strengths were, but, even then, they were visible if one looked hard enough — pace, stamina, work-ethic, mental fortitude, reservoirs of self-belief and crocodile-thick skin. Unfortunately, much of the time, he employed these abilities to run around like a headless chook making poorly-timed and awkward-looking challenges.

So, yes, some of his early performances in a Liverpool shirt were objectively poor and, like any player who delivers such performances, he was fairly criticised as a result. But the criticism of Lucas, as the Fulham game example above illustrates, went much further than this. Even at a club as successful as Liverpool, there have been many players who have performed poorly — it happens, even when players giving it their all. Names such as Djimi Traore, Igor Biscan and Jan Kromkamp spring to mind as obvious examples. None of them were booed by their own home fans like Lucas was.

So performances alone, no matter how objectively poor, cannot fully explain the vehemence of the criticism directed at Lucas.

The answer can be found in the theory of rational expectations — the simple-sounding but powerful idea that people’s behaviour is determined by their present-day expectations of the future and those expectations are formed by people constantly updating and reinterpreting all available information.

When Lucas first arrived at Liverpool, many fans expected the new Kaka; instead, they got what initially looked like an undersized, wannabe Gattuso trying to fill the boots of the world’s best deep-lying playmaker. Hence, the depth of their disappointment which in turn fuelled the vehemence of their criticism. By contrast, with respect to the likes of Traore, Biscan and Kromkamp, the fans never expected very much in the first place and hence were not especially disappointed when they delivered very little.

So, with respect to Lucas, what’s changed between then and now?

The short answer: newly available information has caused fans’ expectations to adjust in a rational fashion.

Initially, fans had very little empirical data on Lucas (because Brazilian football is not widely televised in the UK), therefore, mistaken expectations, perhaps better described as stereotypical perceptions, were formed. People acted on the basis of these mistaken expectations: this explains the Fulham game. However, as time has passed, Lucas has played more and more games as a holding midfielder in a Liverpool shirt following the departures of Alonso and Mascherano, allowing the fans to gather more empirical data on him. They have seen him improve as he has learned to adapt to a new and unfamiliar role by both applying his pre-existing strengths (for example, his mobility and work-rate) to that role and working to acquire the additional abilities required to excel in that role, most notably, a vastly improved tackling technique and quicker, more incisive distribution. All this new information has been taken into account by the fans and expectations have adjusted accordingly.

Now, rational expectations align with reality — the fans expect and receive one of the most effective holding midfielders in the Premier League. Fittingly then, it was another Lucas, a Professor Robert E Lucas Jr of the University of Chicago, who won the Nobel Prize in Economics for “for having developed and applied the hypothesis of rational expectations”.

Looking forward, the rational expectation now is that Lucas, already an outstanding stopper, can and should get even better once he recovers from his knee injury. In acquiring the defensive steel required to succeed in the holding role he now fulfils with such distinction for both Liverpool and Brazil, Lucas had to shed the goal-scoring prowess he showed in his youth. If Lucas can somehow marry the defensive steel he has learned in England to the attacking powers he showed in Brazil (assuming that Kenny Dalglish and/or Mano Menezes give him the tactical freedom to do so), then he has the potential to become, not just one of the most reliable stoppers in England, but one of the best all-around midfielders in the world, a box-to-box colossus who combines the defensive acumen of Busquets with the attacking verve of Gerrard.