When David Luiz left Chelsea for Paris Saint-Germain in the summer of 2014 for a fee around the £50m mark, the French champions were the laughing stock of world football. They’d just broken the record fee paid for a defender and done so buying a player, that many believed, couldn’t defend at all.
Fast forward two years down the line and David Luiz made a £30m move back to West London, with Chelsea now the butt of many a joke. After a somewhat disappointing transfer window, and some serious defensive issues, Chelsea had spent £30m bringing back a player, that many still believed, couldn’t defend.
With just over half the season gone, the jokes have died and the punchline has been dulled. Under Antonio Conte, Luiz has gone from a much-ridiculed, almost cartoonish figure to arguably the best centre-half in the Premier League right now. But the question is, how has Conte done it?
It’s easy to suggest that the Italian manager is a magician, and the reality isn’t that far from it. Chelsea’s turnaround since making the switch to a 3-4-3, following their 3-0 loss at The Emirates to Arsenal, has been astounding.
For the first month of the season, Chelsea huffed and puffed their way past a selection of the smaller teams, that they should be beating anyway, and fell to consecutive back-to-back losses to Liverpool and Arsenal. This proved to be the final straw for Conte, who decided that he would utilise some old tricks in search of new success.
Since the switch, almost all of the Chelsea players have benefited, but arguably none more so than Luiz, who truly looks like a world class defender for the first time in his career.
Fitting into the centre of a back-three, sandwiched in-between Gary Cahill and César Azpilicueta, Luiz plays the role of a spare man and sweeper behind his partners, whilst also acting as the foremost ball-player of the three.
Able to hit pinpoint accurate long-balls, and maraud forward to break the lines and create space elsewhere, Luiz doesn’t just clear up at the back, he helps to create when Chelsea are on the ball.
Shown below are a few examples of Luiz’s ability to create from deep:
In Chelsea’s most recent game, Luiz even managed to get himself onto the scoresheet, as he fired in an audacious and clever free-kick against Liverpool. With Simon Mignolet seemingly still organising his defenders, and the referee’s whistle having already blown, Luiz surged onto the ball, that Willian look set to hit, and pinged it in off of the upright to give Chelsea the lead.
It’s unsurprising that Luiz has gelled in so well with Chelsea’s new look, also considering the players he has surrounding him. With N’Golo Kanté and Nemanja Matić sweeping up almost everything in front of the back-three, and Marcos Alonso and Victor Moses offering extra support out wide, Chelsea have ample cover for their central defenders, who act as a final barrier to the ever-impressive Thibaut Courtois.
It’s possible to see reflections of the past in this Chelsea team, with Serie A fans in particular possibly recalling how Conte helped to turn the once-average nomad Andrea Barzagli into one of the world’s best central defenders.
Although only just past the halfway point this season, looking at the statistics, it’s possible to compare Luiz’s current form with how he played in his previous spell at Chelsea.
According to WhoScored, Luiz is averaging 0.7 fouls per game in the league, which is half of what he was averaging (1.4) in the 2013/14 and 2012/13 seasons.
Along with this, Luiz also appears to be picking up fewer yellow cards. In the 2013/14 season the Brazilian notched up six in 19 appearances, whilst this season, with the same amount of appearances, he has picked up just three.
You could perhaps put this down with Luiz simply maturing with age and experience, almost like a fine wine. And much like in the case of Barzagli, it appears that Luiz may be a late bloomer, or did we all collectively underrate him in the past? Regardless, Luiz’s current form has meant that he has been an invaluable cog this season, in a Chelsea team that look dead set to win the league in Conte’s first season at the club. A case of déjà vu in more ways than one.