David Luiz featured in two of the most controversial incidents in Chelsea’s visit to Manchester City’s Eithad stadium last gameweek. First, a characteristic rush-of-blood-to-the-head moment, when he shoved off (not according to the referee though) a goal-bound Sergio Aguero. Second, when he drew an ugly tackle from Aguero, which resulted in a straight red for the Argentine, while also initiating a brawl which saw Fernandinho sent-off.
The charismatic player’s return to the Stamford bridge was supposed to be filled with these incidents –occasional brilliance (ask Chelsea fans about that night in Munich) and a lot of mediocrity. The potential was always there — brilliant control, combative in the air and a never-give-up attitude summing up the Brazilian on a good day.
But those good days were rare and his 50 millions transfer to PSG was seen as a big joke by the football fraternity. What a way to off-load a player who was seen a liability!
Yet, the ‘Geezer’ has been Chelsea defensive lynch-pin this season and barring the nudge on Aguero, is yet to do anything characteristically naive. It almost seems, after futile efforts from multiple managers, which includes Jose Mourinho’s attempt to play him as central defensive midfielder, the defender has found a new life, under the wings of Chelsea’s new coach Antonio Conte. Ever since Chelsea switched to the 3-4-3 formation after conceding three against Arsenal, David Luiz has played remarkably well, donning the role of a ‘sweeper’ in the three-man defensive-line.
So what are the reasons behind Luiz’s ‘coming of age’ in his second stint with the Blues?
Chelsea’s 3-4-3 formation allows David Luiz the freedom he craves for, with Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta behind him for cover his lapses. Luiz plays as the sweeper or ‘the libero’, tracking down forwards who move towards the midfield to receive the ball. He does not need the zonal awareness required while playing in a four-man defence. His ball-playing abilities, come into good use too, with Conte using a deep-lying playmaker, much like Leonardo Bonucci’s role for Italy in the 2016 EUROs.
With Andrea Pirlo omitted from the squad and both Marco Veratti and Claudio Marchisio missing out due to injuries, the Italian side was short of creativity in the midfield. But instead of accommodating Thiago Motta in the starting line-up, Conte handed over the play-making duties to Bonucci and played gritty box-to-box midfielders Emanuele Giaccherini and Marco Parolo alongside Daniel de Rossi. The non-fancied team went on to be the tournament’s dark horses and was eventually beaten by Germany in penalties.
In Chelsea, the Bonucci role has been handed over to David Luiz with creative midfielder Cesc Fabregas only finding a place in the bench. And the ‘Sideshow Bob’ has excelled. With wing-backs Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso falling back while not in possession, making a five-man defence, Luiz has the freedom to chase down loose balls or man-mark his assigned targets. The floating role also covers his biggest weakness — positional awareness.
Luiz has also formed a great relationship with N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic –both defensive-minded midfielders — which allows him to carry the ball into the opposition half. Either of the two midfielders fall in to occupy the area left vacant by Luiz thereby reducing chances of a quick counter-attack.
Pep’s Stones vs Conte’s Luiz
For a generation used to seeing dominant teams playing four in the back, Manchester City’s match against Chelsea was brilliant exhibition of how sweepers can be employed in football formations. John Stones was playing the traditional sweeper in the City’s back-three alongside Nicolas Otamendi and Aleksander Kolarov. This role, perhaps brought into limelight by German Franz Beckenbauer in the 1970s and the 1990 World Cup winning West Germany team he coached, requires the sweeper to be the last line of defence before the ‘keeper. Primarily his job is to close down the space left by his teammates. The sweeper should have a great awareness of the game and must anticipate the forward’s moves. While in possession he must also have the ability to pick the right pass and initiate the counter-attack. You could see Stones sitting back while Kolarov and Otamendi challenged Diego Costa. Whenever Costa won the duel, Stones would immediately rush to stop the Spaniard.
Pep Guardiola is a coach who relies on his defenders’ ball-playing ability. He made Javier Mascherano, a defensive midfielder, into a central defender at Barcelona while at Bayern his often used Javi Martinez in the role of a sweeper. In Stones, another defender who is good with the ball at his feet, Guardiola probably sees someone who can take-over the role at Manchester City.
Conte’s Luiz takes up a slightly more advanced role though. He is not the last line of defence like the traditional sweeper, with Cahill and Azpi playing further back. This allows Luiz more freedom. And Chelsea has a specific plan for him ever match. Against Middlesbrough, his duty was to stick with Alvaro Negredo who is intimidating in the air while his defensive-mates thwarted the threats of Gaston Ramirez and Adama Traore. In the City match, Luiz double-teamed with his partners, acting as an extra shield incase the attackers find their way past Chelsea’s relatively slow defenders. As mentioned earlier, the slightly more advanced position also allows him to make forays into the midfield and link up with Matic and Kante.
For all the criticism he received during his first spell, with former Manchester United defender Gary Neville even calling him a ’10-year-old on a PlayStation’, he was also seen by many at Chelsea, including owner Roman Abramovic, as the rightful heir to John Terry’s throne in the defence. But Mourinho did not find the Brazilian’s flamboyance to his liking and packed him off to PSG.
Now back at Chelsea, he finally seems to have the faith of the manager, who has also designed a tactic that best suits the defender’s skill-set. Luiz also brings a certain charisma into the team and is the perfect embodiment of the common saying – “playing football with your leg is one thing, playing with your heart is another.”
The Blues will face sterner tests in the League but after an eight-match winning run, in which it has conceded only two goals, the confidence must be high in the camp, as it prepares to host Tony Pulis’ West Bromwich Albion. Luiz, though, could miss out on the match, with the defender struggling to recover from Aguero’s horror tackle.