On the surface, an error-prone defender is the last thing Arsenal need. Arsene Wenger takes great pride in the fact the Gunners have recovered the second-most points from losing positions of any Premier League side this season, but there is a very good reason for that – the Gunners have a habit of conceding cheap goals.
So bringing David Luiz, a centre-back famed for complacency in defensive situations even at the age of 30, into a team that already lacks the consistent organisation you’d expect of a top six Premier League side seems somewhat counter-intuitive. But when his qualities are put into the right context, Luiz can transform from recurring liability into one of the best in the business at what he does.
Only since returning to Chelsea and working under Antonio Conte, a manager now who appears to have lost faith in him, has this truly come to light. While Luiz’s technical and physical qualities have always been clear to see it was the introduction of a back three at Stamford Bridge, with the Brazilian playing the central sweeper role, that highlighted his weaknesses and covered up his flaws.
As Ruud Gullit discussed amid Chelsea’s 13-game winning run last season, the three-man set-up actually leaves Luiz in one of the freest roles on the pitch, both with and without the ball.
“When Luiz plays in a four-man defence and he needs to mark, that can be a problem for him. In this 3-4-3 system, however, he is more of a sweeper and makes fewer challenges than Chelsea’s other defenders.
“That suits him more, firstly because he rarely finds himself in trouble so is not in danger of making a mistake, and also because he is the player with the most freedom in that Chelsea team.Luiz can bring the ball out or play it forward and he uses it very well, which is so important when Chelsea look to break quickly.”
The errors become less prevalent because Luiz isn’t marking a direct opposite number – his primary task is to cover the space behind the other two centre-backs or step into midfield when necessary – and his well-established ability in possession becomes more evident because he’s in a deep-lying, central role that allows him time on the ball and copious options to find.
Nobody has ever doubted Luiz’s ability to spread a pass, or whether he has the athleticism needed to (theoretically, at least) cover for his defensive partners.
Seemingly surplus to requirements in west London, although Wenger has denied an approach for the 56-cap international, that makes Luiz a shrewd potential January target – the perfect man to anchor Shkodran Mustafi and Laurent Koscielny and complete what would be a rather formidable Gunners back three.
The consequential question, however, is Wenger’s level of commitment to playing 3-4-2-1 long-term. While Luiz has shown remarkable improvements in terms of reliability and consistency since becoming Chelsea’s sweeper, all of the current evidence suggests he’s still something of a liability in a back four – when he isn’t licensed the same defensive and offensive freedom.
On the most-part this term, Wenger has shown a commitment to a system which Conte directly inspired, using it 18 times from a possible 21 Premier League fixtures, so it makes sense to acquire what was previously one of the Italian’s most important cogs in making it work, especially one with the vast experience of Luiz.
But it always had the feeling of a temporary arrangement at Arsenal to resolve a bout of poor form and some would argue its run its course – there are still square pegs in round holes and Arsenal have conceded more than one goal per game using the formation this season.
In theory, signing Luiz – who Transfermarkt value at £27million – would address that, improving defensive performance and subsequently results by putting something of a three-at-the-back specialist at the base of the team.
But should Wenger revert back to a four-man defence as his primary setup, which certainly isn’t implausible, Arsenal will end up having the old, error-prone, ever-exposed Luiz on their hands.