With his tight-ringed curly mop of hair and propensity for tarnishing displays of rare skill with clown-like mishaps, Chelsea’s David Luiz never really looked cut out for a role as a defensive rock in one of England’s meanest rearguards.
Yet nine months after re-signing for the club after two seasons with Paris St Germain, that is exactly what the elegant Brazilian has become — so much so that without him the Premier League title they clinched on Friday might have gone elsewhere.
The 30-year-old can still deliver some Samba moments — like the precocious free kick he planted past befuddled Liverpool keeper Simon Mignolet during a 1-1 draw at Anfield in January.
But since making his ‘second’ debut for the club, also against Liverpool in September when Chelsea lost 2-1 at home during a time of teething problems, Luiz has largely concentrated on the unglamorous arts of covering, marking and, when necessary, kicking the ball into Row Z.
Being Brazilian, the Row Z option is rare.
As the most natural ball-player in Antonio Conte’s back three alongside English yeoman Gary Cahill and Spain’s Cesar Azpilicueta, Luiz has been a model of calm, composed defending — manna from heaven for the Italian coach who was brought up on the basic principles of keeping the ball out of your net.
Luiz, signed minutes before the August transfer window closed, has been so effective, so free of the kind of rushes of blood that once made him a liability and, in the words of TV pundit Gary Neville a “PlayStation footballer”, that Chelsea’s defensive stalwart John Terry has barely had a look-in.
Luiz has appeared in 32 of Chelsea’s 36 Premier League fixtures this term and says he is a far more effective, if “boring” defender than during his first spell from 2011-14 when he won the FA Cup, Champions League and Europa League.
“They want to make it boring for me in England, because everybody knows I love to play,” Luiz said in an interview with the Daily Mail. “But I know more about football now. “I have to play for my team. Before maybe I got frustrated if my team was not controlling the offensive side, and I would lose my position. I would try to do it myself. “I know you cannot always play this way. If they don’t want me to play football, I will find space to touch the ball and try to make the difference another way. Now I manage my game.”
Former Chelsea manager John Hollins says Conte’s influence over Luiz has been huge.
“He was one of those players who follows the ball thinking he will always end up on the end of it,” Hollins, who played nearly 600 times for Chelsea, told Reuters. “For Conte it’s position, position, position. Luiz has matured a lot and found another level of form. “Conte has told him, ‘If it’s not working, get back and stay back and get the job done on the centre forward. “He’s not done anything silly this year.”