Thanks to his instantly noticeable hairstyle, David Luiz always stands out on a football pitch. But he stood out even more than usual on Wednesday night as Chelsea welcomed Roma to Stamford Bridge for a crucial Champions League clash.
Starting in a defensive midfield berth, the Brazilian charged around relentlessly, determined to involve himself in a difficult game; while his team-mates squandered the majority of ball possession, he worked tirelessly to win it back. He tackled, fouled and snarled. He also scored a goal of astonishing beauty.
With the ball breaking to him outside of the Roma penalty area, Luiz set himself and curled an unstoppable shot beyond his compatriot Alisson in the opposition goal to give Chelsea the lead. And he continued to try and assert himself in the attacking phase throughout, making driving runs into advanced areas.
Then, upon completion of yet another forward foray, he was substituted on 56 minutes. He cursed his manager, gesticulating and point-making, before wandering off. At that point the Premier League champions held a 2-1 lead; without him they fell to 3-2 down before salvaging a point thanks to an Eden Hazard strike.
Luiz’s performance was not met with universal acclaim, but he showed enough to suggest that he can fill a vital hole in Chelsea’s midfield, starting with their league game against Watford this weekend.
CHELSEA’S KANTÉ-SHAPED HOLE
Since arriving at Chelsea in 2016, N'Golo Kante has grown into one of the team’s most influential players alongside Hazard. His work without the ball is an essential element in forming the platform that allows the Belgian to thrive with the ball.
His importance is highlighted statistically by the fact that he has made more tackles and interceptions per game than any of his team-mates. Indeed, in the whole of the Premier League only two players average more than his 3.9 tackles and only nine average more than his 2.3 interceptions.
The bad news is that Kanté is out for a few weeks with a thigh problem. The last match he featured in for Chelsea was the 1-0 defeat at home to Manchester City. Since then, Conte’s side have failed to win in two matches and have shipped five goals along the way. The loss at the previously goalless and pointless Crystal Palace was particularly shocking.
Without their dynamic French ball-winner in midfield, the champions lack the same stability. And the problem of his absence, along with Danny Drinkwater’s simultaneous injury woes, is only extrapolated by the team’s complete lack of flexible options in the centre.
Cesc Fabregas possesses plenty of technique but lacks defensive nous, while Tiémoué Bakayoko is still settling – confirmation of this comes in the form of his inconsistent performances. Playing this duet within Conte’s preferred 3-4-2-1 is, therefore, a risk.
It makes sense, then, for the Italian to switch to 3-5-2, as he did for the meeting with Roma. In this system the above twosome can be made into a trident, thus reducing the issues associated with their starting together. And Luiz is the ideal choice for the holding role.
LUIZ CAN MIMIC FERNANDINHO
The benefit of playing Luiz in a holding role within a 3-5-2 structure is that he is able to cover the space between Bakayoko and Fàbregas and the defensive line. He undertook this responsibility for what was – other than the superb 2-1 win away to Atlético Madrid – Chelsea’s best performance of the season in the 2-1 win over Tottenham Hotspur at Wembley.
Against Roma, the Brazilian reprised the defensive midfield position and played aggressively. Not only did he mark the space in front of defence well, but, generally speaking, he made good decisions when shifting and closing down the opposition.
Overall, he finished the match with seven completed tackles to his name, which was only three fewer than the rest of Conte’s starting XI combined achieved. He also made one interception and committed four fouls, showcasing a desire to break up play at every given opportunity.
Perhaps the one aspect of Luiz’s play that remains underrated his ability in the early stages of his team’s possession. In the build-up, he is a technically sound presence capable of controlling and retaining the ball under pressure. He is also resistant to the opposition press thanks in large part to his physicality.
At the base of midfield, he could be to Chelsea what Fernandinho is to Manchester City. When the league leaders play their diamond shape in build-up situations, their Brazilian defensive midfielder plays at the tip and combines well. His passing his simple but assured, and his mere presence makes the team harder to press.
Luiz may not have the intelligence of his compatriot, but he does have good technique, a fine passing range, and plenty of muscle. He also presses well, albeit he could improve on the timing of his pressing – occasionally he will move to pressure the opposition ball player at the wrong time, leaving a gap behind him to exploit.
Switching to a 3-5-2 shape may not be Conte’s preferred solution – to borrow one of his favourite words – particularly when the next opponents are Watford. But it does offer the team a level of solidity that is required during a period some might term a mini-crisis.
Chelsea need to get back to being hard to beat, and they need to do that without Kanté, their one-man ball-winning machine. Luiz can be a sound, if temporary, replacement.