WHEN DAVID LUIZ WAS CARTED OFF TO PARIS SAINT-GERMAIN for a world-record £50 million transfer fee, it felt like Chelsea had conned their way into one of the deals of the century. Their maverick Brazilian central defender’s style might have been easy on the eye, but he was coming off the back of a questionable year.
Despite winning numerous trophies with the Blues, he’d struggled to ingratiate himself with the English media; between Gary Neville and a host of ex-Chelsea players, everyone seemed ready for a turn of the knife. Battered and bruised, he left England with his reputation diminished, in spite of – or perhaps because of – his engorged price tag.
His ability has never been in question, nor his commitment to the cause. Instead, it’s his mentality and his temperament that appear to have been the problem, holding him back during the early stages of his career. Of course, in hindsight it’s always easy to see the pros and cons of any big money deal, but it’s clear that both parties were better off with the departure, and subsequent return, of the Brazilian.
So here’s the story of a man with more than an iconic afro to offer. He feels like a samba throwback on some days and a glimpse at the future of defending on others. Is he a world-class defender, or too often the orchestrator of his own downfall?
The Brazilian began his career with Vitória as a youngster, spending just one year with the first team before being snapped up by Benfica. Yet to be capped by his country, he joined the Portuguese side hoping to make a name for himself in the long term. A team in Europe was his best bet, and Benfica were a strong side with notable pedigree.
Under Jorge Jesus, he was assigned the vice-captaincy in 2009/10. He played nearly every game as he led the team to their first title win in five seasons, making a name for himself with his trademark bursts forward from the heart of defence.
While his team were improving domestically, it was clear that Luiz was always going to use Benfica as a stepping stone despite their history. He was coveted by the usual array of bigger teams in Europe, but Chelsea had an ace in the hole. They pitched a player plus cash swap, with Nemanja Matić as the makeweight.
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Having been given the chance to prove his mettle at a comparatively minor European side, the Premier League and Chelsea represented a chance to solidify his fledgeling reputation as one of the best defensive prospects in world football.
His first few games, and subsequent goal against Manchester United, were typical of the risk-taking nature that made him dangerous at either end. Luiz played a pass out from the back, continuing his run in a move reminiscent of Lúcio. He collected a cross on the edge of the box and promptly hit a sizzling shot past a despairing Edwin van der Sar.
Along with the equaliser, Luiz could have easily been sent off for a couple of dubious challenges on the day. Instead, the Blues went on to win the game, while Sir Alex Ferguson was venomous when he was asked to discuss the defender’s contribution after the match.
Despite a strong start it wasn’t all plain sailing, as Luiz’s attacking tendencies would often leave a gap to exploit when he lost the ball further up the field. Critics would argue that he lacked consistency, and risk-taking soon translated into being error-prone. They’re two words you don’t really want to associate with any defender, but Luiz was increasingly seen as a luxury option. Was he worth the odd mistake for his overall contribution to the team?
In reality, his critics had a point. A defender who’s better in attack isn’t really useful in the centre of the park, especially considering the added responsibilities of defending the heart of the team itself. Instead, he offered as much support as a rib cage made of melted cheese, as he couldn’t come to terms with the unglamorous aspects of the role.
Positionally he was often inept, which led a leaden-legged John Terry into footraces he had no chance of winning. Always willing to add an option up top, most of the time he’d have been better off staying in his own half. Luiz was also rash in the challenge, relying on sheer physicality too often, leading to more mistakes as attackers could sense the lunge before he’d even begun. It was classic Luiz, but hardly vintage.
Even so, he was a major part of the team that triumphed in both of Chelsea’s European wins, and one of the first names on the teamsheet throughout his time with the club. In their historic Champions League final win of 2012, he returned from injury to make the starting line-up, helping to hold off Bayern Munich who were aiming to claim the title in their home stadium.
Despite the trophies and the plaudits, it quickly began to fall apart in England. The media were consistently highlighting his flaws, while referees had wised up to the worst of his antics. Regardless, the club weren’t looking to sell one of their best defenders, especially with the long-term future of Terry in doubt.
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Gamesmanship had become an accepted part of his shtick, like a defensive Diego Costa. The giant Brazilian was happy to flop on the floor with the grace of a champion figure skater, while his winking after the deed left him in the bad books of many referees who were none too keen to look idiotic with the world watching.
Gary Neville inflicted the worst blow fairly early in his Chelsea career, describing his performance against Liverpool in 2011 as a player who looked like he was “controlled by a 10-year-old in the crowd on a PlayStation”. It was cruel, but not unfair. He was too eager to show off, forgetting that defenders often have no need to justify their place in the team.
As it was, it seemed likely that a move to defensive midfield would be best for the player, given his powerful frame and technical attributes. He had featured in the role at Benfica, although it was generally accepted as a failed experiment. For all his flaws and foibles, Luiz was still coveted and lauded for his natural talent. Superior decision-making would hopefully come in time, and he had the attributes to become one of the world’s very best.
Instead, he left the club altogether in 2014, when PSG decided to slap down a record £50 million fee to ensure they secured his services. Most Chelsea supporters weren’t too happy to see a key member of the first team leave, but you couldn’t really argue with the price.
International tournaments are an easy way for the world’s best to stamp their authority on the modern game. Given their historical prowess and home advantage, Brazil were seen as dark horses for the 2014 World Cup. Luiz was named vice-captain of O Seleção, who were already heavily reliant on the individual skills of Neymar. Still, their back four was a high point, and they had the 12th man on their side throughout the tournament’s opening stages.
They somehow got through a group of death, saw off Colombia in the quarter-finals – with a Luiz goal sealing the deal – and were matched up against Germany in the most memorable international game in recent memory.
The 7-1 drubbing was typified by Luiz, who lost all sense of direction as his team collapsed around him. Rather than forcing the team to sit back and accept defeat at the expense of an embarrassing result, he opted for a lionised display. Constantly charging out of position and generally having a nightmare was enough to see Luiz blamed heavily for the result. For a player who lived and died by his eccentricities, it was the clearest evidence yet that he had finally crossed the Rubicon.
It would take a couple of years to fully repair the damage. Domestically, he slowly began to restore his reputation in the safety of Paris. With little to no resistance, PSG strolled to a couple of league wins with Luiz at the heart of the defence, forming an able partnership with international teammate Thiago Silva.
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It’s a good thing, too, that he no longer had to deal with the memes and constant criticism that had underpinned his time in England. No doubt it was a learning experience, and he matured in a team packed with quality.
He ended up returning to Chelsea in a shock deal just before the transfer window closed in August 2016. The return of the afro saw a mixed response from fans and the media, who were quick to pile in following a difficult start to life back at the Bridge.
Despite an early wobble, he soon commanded his role with more discipline than expected, using his talents to play dangerous passes from the safety of his own half. As part of a back three, he helped to take the league by storm as Chelsea were crowned champions under Antonio Conte, although there were murmurs that the added central defender was probably there to give Luiz extra protection. Either way, it didn’t matter.
Eventually, he proved he could temper his attacking instincts when necessary. Luiz had finally matured into one of the very best in the league, and he still seems to be at the peak of his ability as the Blues aim to defend their title this season.
Technically, Luiz is one of the best defenders in the Premier League. Brazilian flair is an overused stereotype, but he probably has more talent than he ever needed. Every defender has an error in them, but Luiz doesn’t make the same mistakes as everyone else. It’s either a brainfart or sheer overconfidence that leads to his downfall.
Just because you can knock it over the striker’s head, it doesn’t mean you should. He was always keen to show off, and it cost his side more times than he would have liked. He may have won it all at club level, but some will hold his past mistakes against him forever.
Regardless of that, he should be seen as a modern Chelsea hero, one of the key players in a record-breaking defence, and a unique footballer – not bad for a guy who was essentially frogmarched out of the door when PSG named their price. The return of the king was enough to exorcise most of the demons that may have lingered on after his collapse while playing for Brazil.
The iconic afro appears to be settled in his current role as one of the elder statesmen in the current Chelsea squad, and it’s a status well deserved and five years in the making.