Sunday 18 March 2018

Brian Kerr: Chelsea's redemption man proving his doubters wrong

There was a time when David Luiz was considered a joke - but under Antonio Conte, no-one is laughing now

David Luiz has been a key part of Chelsea’s upturn in fortunes in the Premier League. Photo: Getty
David Luiz has been a key part of Chelsea’s upturn in fortunes in the Premier League. Photo: Getty

Brian Kerr

He was once a figure of fun - mocked by Gary Neville, who compared him to a player "controlled by a ten-year-old on a PlayStation".

Never mind that he had played outstandingly well for Chelsea when they defeated Bayern Munich to win the 2012 Champions League, nor that he had also won the Europa League and FA Cup in his time at Stamford Bridge, the overriding feeling was that Chelsea had struck the deal of the century when they sold him to Paris Saint Germain for €50m in 2014.

"They must have snapped their hand off," one pundit said.

Now, though, the analysts have largely changed their tune. Whereas once there was a queue of people lining up to ridicule him, these days they point to his performances in Chelsea's eight-game winning streak and consider him a changed man.

Certainly, as a person, he has impressed, not just in the diplomatic way he spoke about the Brazilian plane tragedy, but also in the manner in which he defended Sergio Aguero's reputation, after the Manchester City striker had been sent off for fouling him at the tail end of last Saturday's game.

"Agüero is an amazing player," Luiz said. "It is better when you talk about Agüero to talk about good things rather than bad things."

Two years ago - indeed even as recently as two months ago - the majority of the things you heard about Luiz were bad. But all of a sudden the 'PlayStation player' has been given a new-found respect.

Is it justified, though? Let's have a closer look at what David Luiz Moreira Marinho offers Chelsea in his Second Coming.


The game has changed. Whereas once the stereotypical centre-half required the kind of physical attributes that would have allowed him to double-job as a night-club bouncer at a less than salubrious joint, these days a defender's technical ability is considered more important than before.

Nonetheless, you aren't likely to see too many 5ft 7in fellas lining up in the middle of a defence. Bigger is still better. And in this respect, Luiz fits the bill. While not the tallest centre-half to have ever lived, at the same time he is hardly likely to be auditioning for a pantomime role as one of Snow White's seven dwarfs.

He is a good size, is quick, mobile and athletic as well as being the possessor of a reasonable leap.

There is bravery there - witness that tackle he put in on Aguero in the dying moments of last Saturday's match, when he knew he was likely to take a boot to the body. He got more than just that.

Aguero could quite easily have broken Luiz's leg. But the Brazilian got up and dusted himself down.

But Luiz has history, too, of unscrupulously kicking players. Remember the World Cup quarter-final against Colombia? James Rodriguez will never forget it. Luiz targeted him that night. By the end of it, James knew it was a tough guy marking him.


All the assessments about this aspect of Luiz's game need to be placed in the context of where he is playing.

Stamford Bridge, home of John Terry, is used to their chief centre-halves possessing an instinct to be in the right place at the right time, tackling roughly, heading the ball bravely, doing the ugly stuff.

Luiz is a different type of player. Comfortable and composed on the ball, he plays the game as if he wants to be positioned further up the pitch. Certainly he has the skills to do a job in midfield, as a wing-back, possibly even as a No 10.

There's a good range of passing in his locker, which is crucial for how Chelsea want to play these days: they regularly seek to deliver long, accurate balls out of defence to the feet of their front three of Pedro, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa.

When you look at Luiz, you see certain qualities you want in a defender: pace, agility, close control, aggression.

Clearly he is more of a John Stones than a John Terry, and it's obvious that he doesn't share Terry's defensive discipline.

Yet he does have other qualities which are important to the game Antonio Conte is trying to develop.


When he was made captain for Brazil's World Cup semi-final against Germany in 2014, he seemed to get lost in the emotion of the moment.

Holding up (injury victim) Neymar's jersey beforehand, he passionately sang the national anthem and was clearly pumped for what must have felt like the biggest game of his life.

And then everything fell apart. Beaten 7-1, Luiz received the bulk of the blame, even though a collective guilt should have been shared by the entire team.

Within the dressing-room, he is clearly a popular fella - the news of his return from PSG was warmly received. Team-mates like his good nature.

Far from being insular, the positivity of his personality is reflected by his style of play.

And with Terry moved aside, Gary Cahill's lack of pace becoming obvious and Branislav Ivanovic a fading force, Luiz can become a main man in the Chelsea dressing room, especially as three other Brazilian-born players - Diego Costa, Oscar and Willian - are resident there.


His positioning and decision-making have always been a problem - flaws that led to him becoming a widely ridiculed figure in the wake of that 7-1 semi-final defeat to Germany.

Have things changed under Conte's tutelage? The statistical evidence would suggest so - as Chelsea have conceded just twice in the eight games since they switched to a 3-4-3 formation.

And yet, on closer examination, there is proof that he's still vulnerable to basic errors of judgement.

Against Tottenham two weeks ago, for instance, his mistimed challenge on Dele Alli allowed Christian Eriksen the space and time he needed to score impressively. By applying such a brilliant finish, most of the analysis focused on what Eriksen did right, as opposed to what Luiz did wrong.

On that occasion, the Chelsea man was too rash, whereas later in the game, he was guilty of indecision, allowing Harry Kane to have an effort on goal which Thibaut Courtois saved well.

A third mistake in that match - when Eriksen robbed him of possession - also nearly led to a goal. Again Courtois offered Luiz a safety net.

Similarly, a lack of decisiveness against City last week resulted in Courtois and the crossbar coming to his rescue, after he got dragged out of position in a spell when City were rampant.

It's obvious that unless he eradicates this casualness from his game that Conte will eventually look elsewhere, either within Chelsea - where Terry and Kurt Zouma offer alternative options - or further afield, possibly to Andreas Christensen, who has been farmed out on loan to Borussia Mönchengladbach.

It's worth noting that throughout his career, Terry has had an instinct of being in the right place at the right time.

By contrast, Luiz is often a viewer to where the danger, or the ball, is - standing in a central position looking back at events unfolding in his six-yard-box, when that is where he should be located.

The feeling remains, then, that he is prone to too many errors, yet against this, there is also the recognition that his creativity is a vital part of Chelsea's upturn in fortunes.

As the initiator of attacks, his job is to get the ball to the team's most creative player, or else to the wing-backs, Marco Alonso and Victor Moses. Last week he dispossessed Aguero which led to Alonso's long ball sending Eden Hazard clear to wrap the game up.

So the point is that Luiz has qualities. Conte's job is to get the right balance between him serving the team as a defender and an attacker and the feeling remains that having a five-man defence is essentially a cover-up for the various deficiencies among his personnel: Cahill's lack of pace, Luiz's lack of defensive instinct.


There is clearly a sense of adventure inside the Brazilian.

Whenever the space opens up in midfield, he's hungry to step up into it, and while this suggests that he is the ideal fella to have in your team as he moves so comfortably with the ball into advanced positions, forcing the opposition to redraw their game-plans to deal with the threat he poses, a reality remains that he is guilty of losing his concentration as well as the ball.

Conte evidently saw the flaws in his backline - especially Cahill's lack of pace and control, particularly when they lost 3-0 to Arsenal back in September.

Moving to a back three has plainly suited Chelsea - but also Luiz. Even though he is a 29-year-old seasoned international, he can still learn, especially from such a skilled and intelligent teacher as Conte, whose experience as a player and coach at the highest level in Italy taught him the value of having a balanced and watertight defence.

By continuing to pick him, it's clear the Italian rates Luiz - yet he won't be blind to his faults and unless the Brazilian eradicates those from his game, then there is an inevitability that he will lose his place in the Chelsea defence.

That said, a spot in their midfield may prove to be more than adequate compensation.

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