Past actions form your present reputation and thus your future treatment. When Jurgen Klopp shouted at a fourth official and the instant response was ‘What if Jose Mourinho had done that?’, the obvious answer is that Mourinho has a lengthy charge sheet for touchline misdemeanours. When supporters ask if Granit Xhaka is being judged harshly by referees for his fouls, logic dictates that officials might well fear the worst when he dives into a challenge. Learned behaviour creates subconscious bias. Just as goodwill lingers, so too does bad.
So it is understandable that David Luiz did not exactly arrive back in English football to a hero’s welcome. Too many remembered his mistakes, his lapses in positional discipline, his flaws of temperament, to be truly impressed by Chelsea’s signing.
Yet Luiz hardly deserved the reaction that in some quarters bordered on vitriolic. Using Stan Collymore as a yardstick for majority opinion is ill-advised, but the pundit wrote that Luiz was ‘one of the worst central defenders in Premier League history’, while Paul Merson joked that he was surprised Paris St Germain hadn’t dropped him off themselves. On Sky Sports, Alan McInally offered a similarly cutting view: “It’s the best signing for 19 other Premier League teams, that’s how good it is.”
We must be wary of giving too much credence to those who use extreme opinions as an affectation of their character, but the general reaction to Luiz’s signing was underwhelmed. This was, should it be forgotten, a central defender named in the Ligue 1 team of the season in each of the last two years, and a player who started in Champions League and Europa League final victories for Chelsea.
Luiz was not Antonio Conte’s first choice. Chelsea chased Kalidou Koulibaly long into August, with Napoli’s asking price eventually placing the defender out of reach. At 29 and at a cost of £30m, Luiz’s arrival was hardly the cheap option, even if they have almost broken even during their five-year Brazilian hokey-cokey.
He was also a logical option. Chelsea enjoy a – let me phrase this carefully – friendly relationship with his agent Kia Joorabchian, and Conte saw the purchase of a first-choice central defender from another elite European club as a sensible move. With Eric Bailly, John Stones and Shkodran Mustafi moving to Chelsea’s Premier League rivals for fees totalling £110m last summer, buying centre-backs has become an expensive hobby.
More importantly, Luiz could instantly acclimatise to his new-old surroundings, vital for a defender arriving after the start of the league season. The Brazilian knew the club, training ground, stadium and many of his team-mates from international or previous Chelsea commitments. Luiz has always been a popular figure among his peers.
“It is fantastic to have a second opportunity to play for this club,” Luis said after signing. “It will be an amazing opportunity for me to show the fans again how I love this club, how I love to play for this club.”
N’Golo Kante, Eden Hazard and Diego Costa have understandably hogged the majority of the plaudits directed towards Chelsea’s players during this pursuit of an unlikely Premier League title (Chelsea were comfortable fourth favourites at the beginning of the season), but Luiz is the unheralded saviour of Chelsea’s season. The shift to a 3-4-3 formation that was used so successfully by Conte at Juventus and replicated in west London would not have been possible without Luiz.
With Kurt Zouma injured, Branislav Ivanovic and John Terry fading forces and Andreas Christensen on long-term secondment at Borussia Monchengladbach, Conte needed someone capable of playing as the central defender of three. Gary Cahill wins the headers, Cesar Azpilicueta makes the tackles and helps out Victor Moses on the right, and Luiz generally mops up the rest.
It would be unfair to sell his fine form solely on a formation, however, for Luiz has been sensational since returning to England. Gone are the lapses in concentration and in their place is a composure that belies his reputation. Gone too is the rashness in his tackling; only Eden Hazard has conceded fouls less often of Chelsea’s outfield players. In attack, Luiz displayed his free-kick taking ability with the opening goal against Liverpool; this was proof that the spark of difference still remains, but has been rationed appropriately. The truth is that David Luiz is not Antonio Conte’s ideal central defender, but he is playing the perfect part.
One interesting aspect of Luiz’s role is that he has hardly been the marauding central defender we remember, even in a formation that would allow him that licence. He has completed just seven dribbles in the league all season. Nor too is he the passing central defender in Chelsea’s team – he has completed almost 500 fewer than Azpilicueta and more than 300 fewer than Cahill. Luiz is the centre-back most responsible for playing longer passes forward (144 into the final third vs 92 for Cahill), but has actually been asked to carry out a role that requires both concentration and maturity. Neither were considered to be his forte.
And so the punditry worm has turned, with Jamie Redknapp and Stuart Pearce both labelling Luiz the best defender in the country this season. Those who were quick to deride him are now conspicuous by their unusual silence.
Part of Luiz’s reputation undoubtedly stems from his style and appearance. Some still have a hardwired image of what a central defender should look like. The frizzy hair, the mischievous grin and the lingering remnants of his Joga Bonito upbringing invite added scrutiny from those who perhaps hold a subconscious mistrust of difference.
Luiz’s words offer an alternate view, a dose of pragmatism to match the prettiness. “I have leadership qualities in my personality,” Luiz said to Sky Sports in December. “I like to organise and I try to be a leader in the dressing room too. I try to help my teammates and the club, and that’s why I came back.”
Week by week, the ‘clown’ is stopping the laughter in its tracks. Win a fourth league title in his third country and people might finally start taking David Luiz seriously. Chelsea’s comedy sidekick has become one of their award-winning leading men.