(Photo by Brian Minkoff – via Wikimedia Commons)
Cast your gaze to a year and a half ago. Antonio Conte had just guided Chelsea to their fifth Premier League title, The Blues were playing stylish and attractive football, and they had just broken the record for the highest number of games won in a single season (30). Chelsea thrived with Eden Hazard’s trickery, Diego Costa’s goals and N’Golo Kanté’s engine; but the key to their success stemmed from the team’s defensive discipline and their ability to make quick defensive transitions when the ball was lost.
Also a year and a half ago, David Luiz was named in the 2016/17 PFA Team of the Year, having played an integral role in Conte’s side. The long-haired Brazilian played in the middle of a back three and was reliable in all aspects of his defensive and leadership qualities.
Fast forward half a year and Conte had lost faith in Luiz. Having been praised for his maturity throughout the season before, the Brazilian fell out of favour without explanation, as his manager’s system began to lack its previous dynamism and success. Restricted merely to cameo appearances from the bench, or to the occasional game in the early rounds of the FA Cup, the Brazilian found himself “puzzled” and ready to leave, having bizarrely dropped off the map.
Fast forward again to September 26. In an interview after Chelsea’s draw with Liverpool, Luiz stated that he would have left Chelsea had the now departed Antonio Conte remained at the club. Instead, there are now rumours of him being offered a new contract. Thriving under new manager Maurizio Sarri, Luiz has combined the ability he’s always had with a new-found leadership and maturity.
Luiz’s footballing talent has never been questioned. During Benitez’s spell and during Mourinho’s second term as Chelsea manager, Luiz was frequently given a more advanced role to exploit his physicality, speed and quality distribution. Sarri has even admitted since arriving at Chelsea how pleasantly surprised he was to see how technically talented and perfectly suited Luiz is to the possession football that he is intent on playing.
Now, dividends seem to be paying for Luiz, Sarri and Chelsea. His performance against Liverpool was the perfect explication of this. Although Chelsea conceded, the Brazilian’s display was undoubtedly his best so far this season and only a late stunner from ex-Blue Daniel Sturridge could prevent him from notching up a fourth Premier League clean sheet in seven games.
Defensively, David Luiz played an impeccable match. He was disciplined throughout and did not commit rash challenges, nor break from his defensive line as his old self might have. He continued to build on the formidable partnership that he and Antonio Rüdiger appear to be forming this season, with excellent positioning and organisation to keep Liverpool’s dangerous front three quiet for the majority of the game.
When Firmino’s chance did come, a free header from six yards out, who had spotted the danger first and was positioned perfectly to clear his powerful header off the line? Luiz, of course. It would be naïve to suggest that Chelsea’s new defensive system is the pristine, finished article but it seems to be moving in the right direction.
Vitally, like with his defensive efforts, Luiz’s distribution was spectacular and was epitomised in a three-minute period during the first half of the game. He first played a long, yet inch-perfect pass to pick out the on-running Willian, who went one on one with Allison, and ultimately should have scored. Three minutes later, the team got their reward and Luiz was at the heart of a wonderfully crafted team goal. He received the ball from midfield, took a touch and picked out Eden Hazard with a direct pass that was flicked to Jorginho, then Kovacic and subsequently returned to Hazard who emphatically made it 1-0.
Maurizio Sarri said before the Liverpool game that Chelsea would need a year to be able to compete with Manchester City and Liverpool, but after, admitted that The Blues are closer to the top teams than he initially envisaged. Sarri’s men notched up another clean sheet at Southampton last week, and it looks as if they have solved their defensive frailties of last season. Their home fixture to Manchester United on Saturday will be another big test for the Blues, but with Hazard’s form and how well Chelsea are adapting to Sarri-ball it would be foolish for teams to not treat the Londoners as genuine title contenders.
(Photo Credit: Brian Minkoff/ Wikimedia Commons)