News analysis

Luiz rocking the new-look Blues defence

LONDON • What a difference five months make. How some of us laughed - or at the very least raised our eyebrows - when David Luiz was pictured bounding through St Pancras International on transfer deadline day in August to answer an unexpected SOS from Stamford Bridge.

How we nodded admiringly at Anfield on Tuesday as the Brazilian produced another defiant, inspirational performance at the heart of the Chelsea defence.

The transformation of Chelsea under Antonio Conte has been epitomised this season by the transformation of Luiz. His exquisite free kick to open the scoring in the 25th minute will live long in the memory, but his dead-ball threat is nothing new.

The real revelation is his defending. Once the subject of derision in the Premier League, he has developed this season into the leader of this Chelsea team - ebullient rather than impetuous, steadfast in his refusal to yield.

Of course Luiz is not the perfect central defender. He, like the rest of the Blues defence, was too slow to react to Jordan Henderson's clipped cross in the 57th minute, not quick enough to get to James Milner's header ahead of Georginio Wijnaldum.


PHOTO: EUROPEAN PRESSPHOTO AGENCY

As the rain came down, though, and as the pressure from Liverpool increased, the defender stood firm, a bandage on his right knee, his hair soaked through, his every act driven by a desire to win.

This was not the best night of his season but, against a forward line who swarm at you, determined to force mistakes, the new, improved Luiz performed in a way that the old Luiz could barely have contemplated, not just reading the game far better than before but cajoling and organising his fellow defenders.

Perhaps it is the extra security that comes from playing as one of three central defenders, but there is a maturity about him now. There is a focus that was previously not there.

Some will say we should not be surprised. After all, a player does not win 55 caps for Brazil, often as vice-captain, or spend his 10 years competing at some of Europe's top clubs without being highly competent. Certainly some of the criticism was excessive, and his distinctive hairstyle made him an easy target, but that infamous Gary Neville quote from 2011, about him playing as if "controlled by a 10-year-old on a PlayStation", rang true at times. He was far too rash, too unpredictable. He looked like he needed some kind of ballast.

Once the subject of derision in the Premier League, he (Luiz) has developed this season into the leader of this Chelsea team - ebullient rather than impetuous, steadfast in his refusal to yield.

Rafael Benitez and Jose Mourinho both felt that there was something to work with, as though hopeful that there was a top-class central defender lurking within, but ultimately that was the only thing they could agree on. Benitez preferred to play him in central midfield, while Mourinho, at the end of his first season back at Stamford Bridge, deemed him expendable and was as thrilled as everybody else at the club when Paris Saint-Germain offered £50 million (S$89 million) for him just before the 2014 World Cup.

Luiz summed up Brazil at that World Cup: Impassioned and inspired in the early stages but ultimately over-wrought and lacking in sophistication, particularly in that catastrophic 7-1 semi-final defeat by Germany.

A bad day at the office? There have always been too many of them for Luiz, even in a title-winning PSG team last year.

He was always a favourite of Roman Abramovich's first time around at Chelsea, but Conte did not initially share the owner's appetite for a reunion. Only on the final day of the summer window, after being priced out of moves for Leonardo Bonnucci and Kalidou Koulibaly, did he agree to sign Luiz.

It is interesting, looking back, to see what Luiz said then. "He (Conte) is a specialist in tactics and training in a tactical way," the defender said. "I'm excited to learn, especially with him and his Italian style in a tactical way. This can make the difference."

It has. For much of last season and the opening weeks of this term, Chelsea's defensive structure was flimsy. Then came those back-to-back defeats by Liverpool and Arsenal last September and the inspired decision to switch to a three-man central defence, with Luiz at its heart. Rather than driven by impulses, the 29-year-old now looks fully aware of his tactical responsibilities.

First time around, he seemed to spread panic among those around him. Second time, he is the player who brings security to Gary Cahill and Cesar Azpilicueta, who are both adjusting to unfamiliar roles.

His performance on Tuesday was typical of what had gone before. As he walked off the pitch, Luiz earned a bear-hug from Jurgen Klopp. He is the Liverpool manager's kind of player - whole-hearted, effervescent, irrepressible of spirit.

Under Conte, though, he has developed into a defender who can be relied upon. A deadline-day panic signing? Yes, he was, but, under a manager of Conte's expertise, he is flourishing and so are Chelsea.

THE TIMES, LONDON

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 02, 2017, with the headline 'Luiz rocking the new-look Blues defence'. Print Edition | Subscribe