After defender David Luiz was moved into midfield to promising effect by Rafa Benitez during their Club World Cup victory against Monterrey, the prospect which has often been labelled by some as a natural progression and others a crazy move was dealt a clearer definition, so could the experiment work long-term in the top flight?
The 25-year-old has never been the modicum of defensive efficiency; he runs forward with the ball when he shouldn’t and he’s developed a penchant for giving away the ball in dangerous areas with his sloppy distribution. Yet on other occasions, he can gallop up the pitch with the ball seemingly glued to his feet and pick out a superb 50-yard pass. He possesses vision, technique and imagination, so just why is he still lumbering around at the heart of the back four then?
When you conjure up images of a Brazilian centre-half, someone like Luiz springs to mind. Indeed, South American expert Tim Vickery has compared Luiz’s divisive reputation to former Bayern Munich and Inter Milan defender Lucio when he first moved to Europe with Bayer Leverkusen as a raw 23-year-old back in 2001. He too had a habit of gifting the opposition avoidable goals while also pitching in with a few of his own (20 in 4 seasons), but after a while he matured and although he never quite fully got rid of that nagging urge to be involved with the play further up the pitch, he developed into one of the world’s finest exponents of the cultured centre-back tradition.
Benitez was the first of Luiz’s four managers at Stamford Bridge to finally grant the player his debut bow in midfield for the club against Nordsjaelland in their 6-1 Champions League win and the player responded well to the shift in role, stating: “If the manager wants me as a striker, a right-back, a winger… I’ll do anything to help the team. This is my philosophy. I play for the team and, if I’m needed to play in other positions, I’ll try my best. I’ve played football for a long time. I know other positions. I know what wingers need to do because I see them doing it all the time in games and training, so if someone asks me what I need to do as a winger I’d know. I was in a different position against Nordsjaelland on Wednesday, the manager pushing me upfield a bit. He said I was one of the top five in terms of my fitness in the team, so I can help the other guys to control games like that. We were winning 5-1 so I could be box to box, helping out the team. I just want to help Chelsea.”
You can certainly see the logic behind such a switch; he’s clearly a hugely talented player that just lacks that crucial element of concentration that all great centre-backs have in their locker at times. Moreover, he has that perfect blend between finesse and energy that could mean he’s ideally suited to a holding midfield role in the side.
Rafa Benitez has a fine tradition in deep-lying central midfield partnerships, from Albelda and Baraja at Valencia to Alonso and Mascherano at Anfield. He’s not been shy about moving midfielders around in the past either, famously shifting captain Steven Gerrard out onto the right wing during which he had his best ever season in terms of goals and assists, so you’d like to think he knows his eggs in that respect and he clearly sees something worth pursuing with Luiz there.
Carlo Ancelotti had a fit and firing Frank Lampard and Michael Essien to call upon, but aside from Oriol Romeu’s season-ending injury, Benitez has the box-to-box Ramires and the lacklustre John Obi Mikel to choose between and central midfield remains the second-most undermanned area in Chelsea’s squad at present, behind only their worrying reliance on Fernando Torres up front.
Playing the holding midfield role in the modern game is so much more than just playing square five-yard passes and shuttling across the pitch like a crab, as Scott Parker has clearly shown us in the past. No, the tactical awareness required is perhaps even more difficult to comprehend than playing at centre-back.
Firstly, there is no reference point as there is with a back four, or any such ‘line’ to hold’. Secondly, the players around you and in front of you are constantly rotating position. Thirdly, the opposition will attack down different parts of the pitch meaning you are thrust into situations outside of your comfort zone, rather than merely choosing to ‘get rid’ when the occasions calls for it. On paper, it looks an inevitable switch, but there’s much more than meets the eye that goes with it and while the thought that taking away an unreliable defender out of the heart of the back four is a positive, and whose mistakes are now no longer leading directly to goals, they could have an impact on the balance of the side.
Nevertheless, considering the lack of options available to the 52-year-old manager within the squad and Mikel’s lack of work-rate, they could do a lot worse than shifting Luis further forward into a shielding role. They are certainly covered at centre-back with John Terry, Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanovic capable of playing there, while Cesar Azpilicueta has impressed when given the right-back berth.
The slower-paced nature of the game against Monterrey provided the perfect platform for a midfield outing for Luiz and his more direct style of passing compliments well with the short and probing type the likes of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, Oscar and Ramires often opt for, which could suit Torres up top a lot better, with the Spanish striker recently stating a preference for a more direct approach. He will give the ball away more, thus reducing the element of control in midfield and he will take more risks in possession, but his pressing ability off the ball would help out an overworked Ramires hugely.
The reality is that under Ancelotti’s 4-3-3 or Andre Villas-Boas’ version of 4-2-3-1, giving the options they had at their disposal, it didn’t really make much sense at the time pushing Luiz forward, but you sense that the experiment is worth repeating in the future this time around. During the Monterrey game, Luiz was paired with Mikel and allowed the platform to carry the ball forward, so he didn’t particularly play in a traditional holding role, but there are plenty of reasons to grant him an opportunity in it looking ahead.
Benitez praised his performance after the semi-final result, telling reporters: “I knew that Monterrey were quick and dangerous in midfield and I decided to put someone in there who could stop them. He’s (Luiz) very good at winning the ball back and passing it to his team-mates. We needed that energy in there, and David can do it all very well. He’s a good passer and he’s very willing too. He did a fine job.”
Whether Luiz has the tactical sense to read the game against better quality opposition in a midfield role in the Premier League remains to be seen and the task of playing on the back foot in that position is one that he’s not had to come across yet, but this is a move which has been kicked around in forums, pub debates and on social media for some time; positional switches out of the ordinary are rarely more than hot air, but this time we may have something a whole lot more substantial on our hands and the positives seem to outweigh the negatives at this point in time regarding a shift forward for the flawed Brazilian defender.