Among all the varying reactions to David Luiz’s role in the sending off of Manchester United’s Rafael on Sunday afternoon, there had to be a dose of gratitude for at least trying to provide some colour to a game that, prior to the final five minutes, was as dull and mundane as staring blankly at a garden shed. Luiz provoked his fellow countryman into a rash loss of temper and whilst the Chelsea man was on the ground with a sarcastic smile etched across his face, the United full-back was shown red.
Few could argue with Howard Webb’s decision to reach for the red card, even Sir Alex Ferguson gave blame to Rafael’s immaturity, but he was far from as understanding about Luiz’s reaction, likening him to a “dying swan” as he accused the Brazilian of play-acting to exaggerate the offence in the eyes of the referee. “Cheat!” went the cry, Ferguson accused him of “rolling about” and the beaming smile seemed to amplify Luiz’s unpopularity even further in the eyes of the onlooker who despises the culture of modern football that much they will pick up on the smallest, most trivial of offences and use it as a mallet to beat the sport’s negated reputation even further into the ground. A footballer with a sense of humour? What on earth is the world coming to.
That incident, together with Juan Mata’s winning goal three minutes before, managed to illuminate an otherwise dishwater-dull match and appease the social media discourse and the Sky punditry team who sit perfectly poised and ready to pounce on any story, eager to blow it into a controversy of Watergate Scandal-sized proportions. They all went home happy as Luiz seized the headlines, but it overshadowed the fact that Luiz’s performance was an assured one, at the heart of a defence that stopped Manchester United scoring at Old Trafford for the first time since December 2009. His tangling with Rafael will be the abiding memory from his display, but chipping away at the headlines will reveal yet another endorsement of Luiz’s ability. Chelsea are in possession of an excellent centre-half.
Since Rafael Benitez was installed as interim coach back in November, John Terry has been given just 6 Premier League appearances as his role in the team begins to be more peripheral. It still raises eyebrows when Chelsea line-up away at the champions without their captain, but with the improved form of Luiz, such transition has been seamless.
The game at Old Trafford was his 53rd appearance of the season in a defence that, with 35 goals conceded, boasts the best record in the league bar Manchester City. The Brazilian has become a vital cog in Benitez’s solid work at Stamford Bridge as the Europa League finalists sit comfortably on course for a Champions League qualification spot despite the turbulence of Roberto Di Matteo’s sacking earlier in the campaign.
After moving from Benfica in 2011, it hasn’t been the smoothest of welcomes to English football for the defender who often appeared reckless with his positioning. Analysing his role in last season’s defeat to Liverpool, Gary Neville used the analogy of a “Playstation player controlled by a ten-year old” to sum up his over-enthusiasm which led to the rashest of decisions. Now however, Chelsea are reaping the rewards of a more disciplined Luiz, a defender making use of an impressive reading of the game to compliment his strength and athleticism. He still has the full-head of frizzy afro hair to overtly hint at his eccentricities, but the 26 year old has developed a steadfast maturity to form the backbone of his improvement.
Of course, Luiz’s Brazilian background means a high regard for the ball and a comfort in possession so much the experiment to turn him into a deep-lying midfielder, where his wide range of vision partnered with his combative nature allows him to control matches with vigour such as Swansea a fortnight ago, has been a success. The versatility has made Luiz a real asset for Chelsea, but despite Benitez’s original fears that he had to be turned into a midfielder to lessen the risk of him forgetting his responsibilities as the last line of protection and charging from deep like a bull to leave an abyss in behind him, he has grown back into his central-defensive role with all the verve and authority he displayed last May, when he helped Chelsea win the Champions League in Munich with a performance of the highest quality.
The goals, of the utmost brilliance in nature as Nordsjealland, Fulham and most recently Basle will testify, have been a bonus, but also suggestive of the genius Luiz is capable of within a single moment to reflect full justification of the £22 million fee Chelsea spent on him 2 years ago. He is immersed in the Brazilian national team to the extent he is the vice-captain with 20 caps and the Selecao seem to be boasting a player who is developing into the finest of defensive players with perfect timing as they head into their home World Cup of next year.
Another season with Chelsea separates Luiz from that however and he will find himself playing for a new manager after Benitez steps aside from his fire-fighting role over the summer. The new coach won’t have the same dilemmas that have occupied his most recent successors when it comes to a now consistently solid Luiz however, the mistakes have been virtually eradicated to show that there is indeed life without the previously impregnable John Terry.
The pictures of him lying on the floor with a wide, humorous smile will continued to be analysed needlessly, but aside from all the bluster generated on Sunday afternoon, there is no escaping what a superb defender Luiz is progressing to be. Focus on form, not a silly incident and it is Chelsea and Luiz who have the very last laugh.