LONDON, ENGLAND - MAY 05: Juan Mata of Chelsea and Jay Spearing of Liverpool battle for the ball during the FA Cup with Budweiser Final match between Liverpool and Chelsea at Wembley Stadium on May 5, 2012 in London, England. (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Jay Spearing has a high workrate and hasn't yet shown an ability to make a positive contribution in the attacking third. Because of this, there has been a tendency to pencil him in as backup to Lucas Leiva almost by default. The problem is that despite being a willing runner, a lack of positional discipline and tendency to single-mindedly chase after whichever opposition player has the ball means he isn't actually any more effective as a defensive shield than he would be providing support to a striker.
Despite Spearing's shortcomings without the ball, shortcomings that make him entirely ill-suited to operating as the lone or primary holding player, some still persist in declaring it his role at the club. As much as anything, this does a massive discredit to the job Lucas Leiva does, reflecting a belief some still cling to that his is a job anybody can do—and do well. Spearing quite obviously isn't capable of driving ahead in attack like Steven Gerrard, he can't beat an isolated opponent and has a history of poor shot selection when he does get into the final third, and so quite rightly nobody suggests the club should shove him into a role as the oft-injured Gerrard's backup by default.
After two years of regular action that suggests he isn't capable of filling in for Lucas any better than he would be able to fill in for Gerrard, though, there remains a persistent belief that he should be able to. Since he can't provide the side with anything particularly useful in attack, the line of thinking goes, he might as well help out in defence. As though defence is an afterthought; as though the ability to read, diagnose, and put a stop to the opposition's attacking threat takes no particular talent.
None of this has to damn Spearing as a player, but rather it reflects a need for a more widespread acceptance—including amongst those at the club itself—of who he is as a player and what he's capable of, as well as of just how important and difficult the role Lucas fills is. Yet with Brendan Rodgers sending Spearing out as the primary holding player against Hearts on Thursday night, yet another manager has seemed to shoehorn him into a role he clearly cannot play. This is, to put it mildly, a disappointment.
Some will point to a lack of depth behind Lucas for the holding role in midfield, but it has long been obvious that Spearing is not and cannot be the answer, and surely at some point an unproven option must be tried when the only thing the preferred option has proven is that he isn't up to the task. Ignoring this fact was key to the downfall of Kenny Dalglish, who persisted with Spearing long after it became clear the young academy graduate wasn't capable and, even worse, passed on the chance to upgrade the position in the transfer market following Lucas' season-ending injury. It will be interesting to see if Brendan Rodgers similarly defies common sense and sticks with Spearing as a kind of Plan B in the holding role for the coming season.
Spearing quite clearly is not capable of filling in for Lucas any more than he's capable of playing in the most attacking midfield role in a 4-3-3. Still, at times he has seemed more than capable when asked to do a job between the two extremes. With a player ahead of him to do most of the heavy lifting in and around the box and one behind to cover for his wandering ways, Spearing is free to chase the ball and snap at heels to his heart's content.
In fact, when filling just such a role alongside Lucas shortly after Kenny Dalglish took over for the second half of the 2010-11 season it appeared as though he might even be able to flourish as the second midfielder in a short passing game, providing intelligent distribution with the ball and good movement without it while immediately harrying the opposition whenever the ball was turned over. All of these attributes would seem to make him well suited to fill a role in Brendan Rodgers' system—just not the role he still mystifyingly seems to be considered primary backup for.
Whether there's any room for him as that second central midfielder at Liverpool is of course an open question with Joe Allen, Jordan Henderson, and possibly even Jonjo Shelvey ahead of him in the pecking order and Nuri Sahin's arrival imminent, but two seasons of evidence say this is the only role in which fans and the club can expect to see the best of Jay Spearing. Insisting he can—or, perhaps, that he should be able to—fill in elsewhere despite all evidence to the contrary is nothing but foolishness. It's a foolishness that continues to hurt the club, to hurt the chances for Spearing himself to make it at the club, and that moreover shows a lingering lack of respect for the job Lucas does—and that at times makes look so deceptively simple.
Accepting that Spearing under no circumstances should be thought of as Lucas' backup is a necessary step for the club if it's going to move forward. It's also the only chance Jay Spearing has of salvaging his fading Liverpool career. Unfortunately, it's still not clear if those calling the shots at Liverpool are willing to take that step.