The good, the bad and the ugly - in search of the real David Luiz

Saturday sees the first true test of Arsenal's newest signing, a player who divides opinion like almost no other

Miguel Delaney
Chief Football Writer
@MiguelDelaney
Friday 23 August 2019 10:46
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Unai Emery pleased with new Arsenal signings

Those who know David Luiz immediately noticed the difference.

The 32-year-old just hadn’t been himself on the flight back from Germany, and his demeanour suggested it was down to much more than surliness over a bollocking. Frank Lampard had torn into David Luiz for his performance in the 5-3 pre-season win over Red Bull Salzburg, but such an “explosion” didn’t get it all out in the open. It only created a simmering tension, over the player’s role and over his future. David Luiz realised he had a problem, and one that maybe went back a few years.

So, similarly realising Lampard was happy to sell, the Brazilian’s agent Kia Joorabchian pushed the button on a move that certainly went back at least two years. David Luiz had actually been on the brink of signing for Arsenal in July 2017, to the point he was telling teammates he was going. The move eventually fell apart then, but the player was more than up for it now.

His new teammates are meanwhile “very happy he came”, and David Luiz is excited to be there, already perfecting his supreme impressions on them all. There’s already a difference.

The first great test is whether there can also be a difference against Liverpool this Saturday, and it could leave another lasting impression for David Luiz.

Anfield is the stadium that has exposed Arsenal’s chronic central defensive problem more than any other over the last half-decade, with the team having conceded 22 goals there on their last six visits. That’s an average of just under four a game, with two of those having seen them lose 5-1. One was the most recent, under Unai Emery, and it is this structural fragility David Luiz has specifically been signed to fix.

It is an intention that will be all the more intensely scrutinised on Saturday because of the presence of Virgil van Dijk at the other end. The Dutch centre-half is the example everyone else now wants to replicate, but it’s not like David Luiz replicates his game in defence. Van Dijk’s engulfing composure stands in such contrast to the Brazilian’s erratic energy. There are certainly very different perceptions of the two, but then perception is pretty much the story of David Luiz’s career.

That has of course been primarily fostered by his very appearance - going beyond that famous hair back to when his boyhood club Sao Paulo rejected him for being too small, crushing his dream - and ensured he has become one of the most divisive and debated players in the modern game. This transfer only feeds into it.

David Luiz has already made an impression on his teammates

On the one side, there are the questions over whether a Chelsea manager enduring a transfer ban was right to get rid of one of the few players at the club who was experienced, successful, technically gifted and a centre-half. Lampard’s early defensive struggles make all that more pointed. On the other side, there are questions over whether this is really the centre-half Arsenal so badly require.

There are of course even more questions over whether David Luiz is actually a centre-half at all. This is perhaps where the greatest difference in perception of the player lies.

It must be said that opinion within the game on his unique ability is almost unanimous. “He is a top-class player,” former Chelsea teammate Mark Schwarzer says. Someone as measured and tactically responsible as Lucas Leiva absolutely loves him. Some teammates and opposition players believe he is the best long passer in the game, and the general feeling is that players tend to rate him more than supporters.

Everyone who personally knows David Luiz similarly agrees that, when in a good mood, he is one of the best-natured teammates you can have. He brings a bit of life. He gets places bouncing. Stories abound of how good he is with employees, supporters and kids. Arsenal’s London Colney staff are already getting attuned to the reggaeton music blared out of his jeep that signals his arrival at the training ground, just as it did at Chelsea.

“He’s a likeable guy,” Schwarzer says. “He loves being the entertainer.”

David Luiz and Frank Lampard were in different camps of the Chelsea dressing room

It is here, however, where the divisions over David Luiz within the game start to arise.

His “silliness” isn’t endearing to everyone. It can annoy some teammates. “Fuck off, David,” has been heard more than once, precisely in the manner of dismissing an office clown.

Lampard was one of those who wasn’t as well disposed to it as others, particularly given his own seriousness about the game. They are very different characters, with that only emphasised by the fact they were in very different camps in the Stamford Bridge dressing room when players together.

Some do believe this played into Lampard’s ultimate decision to discard the Brazilian, and one Premier League coach confides that he can fully understand why the new manager got rid of him, if as much for “the culture of the team”.

“I wouldn’t like to coach him,” the source adds.

That is because of another big difference with David Luiz. There is a perception he isn’t all that open to new methods. It’s certainly true he isn’t always so positive. There are in fact as many periods when he is anything but.

“When you are someone who wears his heart on his sleeve and can be emotional, you get the good with the bad,” Schwarzer says. “So when things are going well, he’s great value and great to have around. But when it’s not so great, you can see it. It’s written all over his face… and that depends on a lot of things. It depends on his relationship with the manager, with the fans even at times, and also how the game is unfolding.

Frank Lampard is believed to have separated David Luiz from the squad due to being a 'disruptive presence'

“It goes both ways. When he’s in a really happy and positive mood, he exudes it. And, when he’s not, it’s very obvious as well.”

That was what those at Chelsea noticed in pre-season, and what many feel can lead to less obvious problems. Contrary to many perceptions, David Luiz can be a “hugely disruptive presence” when things aren’t going well. In fact, he can become hugely negative.

That sense of disruption is why Lampard decided he should train away from the main squad during his last days at Chelsea. It is why Antonio Conte was so willing to get rid of him in 2017. David Luiz was a key part of the group most at odds with the Italian. “There’s a calculation there,” one source says.

It has been a factor in his sale, which will now bring focus on that most widely debated part of his game: the lack of calculation to his defending, and the question of whether he is even a defender at all. There is a lot of division over this, from so many rough-at-the-edges performances at centre-half, that could set a tone for Arsenal’s season. The man himself believes he is primarily a midfielder, according to Schwarzer.

“David used to say it to me all the time when I was at Chelsea,” the goalkeeper reveals. “He saw himself as a midfield player. But Jose Mourinho didn’t.”

The latter may well say more about the Portuguese’s set ideas on what constitutes a midfielder rather than what David Luiz is, it must be remembered, and the Brazilian still also sees himself as a defender who is good on the ball.

Chris Hughton, one of the modern Premier League coaches perhaps most attuned to defensive organisation, isn’t so sure on part of that.

“He’s a brilliant player, but I would see him as an attacking player who happens to play at the back, rather than a defensive player. He thinks like an attacker.”

So much of that makes sense given David Luiz’s very formation as a player. He was initially put at the back at a relatively late age in his development, and for entirely attacking reasons. Then solely a midfield number-eight, the teenage David Luiz was desperate to make it at third-tier Vitoria having been let go by Sao Paulo, but was struggling to make any impact at all.

David Luiz’s agent Kia Joorabchian engineered his smooth swap to Arsenal

Joao Paolo Sampaio was then youth director at Vitoria, and admits he almost released the player too, until he had a revelation.

“I thought he had so much technical ability that he could direct play,” Joao Paolo, now at Palmeiras, tells The Independent. “In Brazil at that time, the dominant formation was three centre-halves due to the success of the 2002 World Cup, and I thought David could be the libero. It worked because he had two good defenders either side of him: Anderson Martins, who is now at Sao Paulo, and Wallace, who was at Flamengo. So David was free to play, and had so much quality that within two years we had got promoted and he had gone to Benfica.”

It is no coincidence he finally excelled once he had most of the play in front of him, and most of the actual defensive work done by teammates. It is even less of a coincidence a similar system brought out by far his best form at Chelsea, in 2016-17. The elements that led to that, however, were a series of happy coincidences.

That season saw David Luiz make another deadline-day move, and to a team that badly needed a defender, in a surprisingly smooth transfer that is itself testament to the influence of Joorabchian. The difference was that Conte didn’t really want him, and was initially “dismayed”. The Italian didn’t know what to do with him, or an apparently ill-fitting team, until he had his own revelation: a 3-4-3 with David Luiz at the centre.

The Brazilian was brought back to the basics of his career, and excelled. It still meant he didn’t have to do the basics of defending, of which there are still questions.

David Luiz is well-regarded for his ability to nurture younger players

Rafa Benitez liked David Luiz a lot as a player, but always expressed frustration he didn’t get to coach him when young. Carlo Ancelotti - who insisted Roman Abramovich should beat Manchester City to his signature back in 2011 - felt he could be the best in the world if he ever did learn the basics.

This is where Hughton’s view that “he doesn’t think like a defensive player” is especially important. It means David Luiz doesn’t think territorially. He purely thinks in terms of duels, which makes him aggressive, and can bring more of his erratic moments. This is especially exposed when in a two, and only further exposes one of his more destructive traits.

“He can be someone who allows his emotions to get the better of him,” Schwarzer explains. “I think where he comes unstuck sometimes is when the team’s not performing too well and he loses his cool a little bit, his discipline and decides he wants to try and force things himself. It’s not always clear rationale, and that’s when mistakes happen.”

That is now specifically what Arsenal need to avoid, even though they badly need David Luiz’s personality, his experience.

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There's also the way emotion getting to him on the pitch can go both ways as well. It can mean he rises to the biggest matches, goes with the flow of them, just as happened with his brilliant performance in the victorious 2012 Champions League final.

It’s just another difference, that will determine how his time at Arsenal will be perceived.

The biggest question, and debate, is whether the good outweighs the bad. That's what it really comes down to.

Schwarzer doesn’t see problems. “He is very serious on a football pitch. He can organise, and has a steady hand that Arsenal need. He’ll also suit Bernd Leno’s line.”

Others are waiting to see how it will play out, especially at Liverpool on Saturday. That’s where Arsenal first need something different, and it could well set a perception.

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