David Luiz: A Centre-Half of Two Halves

Even by David Luiz’s own lofty – or should that be laughable? – standards, his red card for Arsenal against Wolverhampton Wanderers this week was particularly disastrous.

While apparently trying to get out of the way of his fellow Brazilian, Willian José, Luiz brought the striker down, gave away a penalty and received a red card, and all just before half-time.

As a result, Arsenal, who had probably just played their most impressive half of football all season at Molineux and should have led by more than one goal, went in level at half-time, were a man down for the second half and inevitably ended up losing the game 2-1. (Defeat was especially inevitable after goalkeeper Bernd Leno followed Luiz’s example and also got himself foolishly sent off.)

Afterwards, all that some Arsenal fans could think was, “What on earth would have happened if Luiz had meant to bring the man down?”

It was a further reminder, if it were needed, that David Luiz is the Jekyll and Hyde of football – the centre-half of two halves. He is capable of brilliance, but also capable of astonishing lapses of concentration that lead to calamities like the most recent one against Wolves. And that is true not just of his Arsenal career but of his entire career as a professional footballer.

Both Sides to David Luiz

Inconsistent at Arsenal

When Luiz first signed for Arsenal in the summer of 2019, most fans were amazed. For a team that so obviously needed shoring up defensively, particularly in central defence after the controversial departure of Laurent Koscielny, it seemed at best an odd choice and at worst utterly perverse.

Luiz hardly appeared to be the calm, mature senior player who would best aid the development of younger central defenders like Rob Holding and Calum Chambers. And that was borne out spectacularly within a month of his arrival at The Emirates in Arsenal’s loss to Liverpool at Anfield.

He dived in against Mo Salah near the halfway line and duly allowed the brilliant Egyptian to scamper through the Arsenal half of the field unchecked to score, as Liverpool strolled to a 3-1 win.

However, that was as nothing compared to his performance against Manchester City at The Etihad in the first game after the original lockdown, in what has been described as the worst performance by a substitute ever. Having come on as a first-half replacement, he made a mistake that led to City’s opening goal and then, in an incident that prefigured his Molineux meltdown, he pulled back Riyad Mahrez, conceding a penalty and getting himself sent off.

To paraphrase Oscar Wilde’s most famous quotation (which is arguably the most famous and adaptable quotation ever), “To bring down an opponent, get yourself sent off and cost your team the game ONCE might be considered carelessness; to do it TWICE looks like carelessness”.

But Also Capable of Brilliance

And yet it would be completely unfair just to highlight Luiz’s major errors without also considering the occasionally stunning performances that he has put in for Arsenal. For all his mishaps last season, he was also instrumental in the FA Cup win, not least against his old club, Chelsea, in the final, which was the last in a succession of superb central defensive displays that showed why so many clubs have spent so much money on him throughout his career.

And more recently, against Manchester United at The Emirates last weekend, he was so assured that even his arch-critic, Gary Neville, the man who once condemned him as looking like “a player on Playstation” controlled by a ten-year-old, made him man of the match.

Of course it is not just at Arsenal that Luiz has been frustratingly, indeed maddeningly erratic. It can be easy to forget, not least because it happened nearly a decade ago now, that he is a Champions League winner, having been one of the key components in Chelsea’s astonishing rearguard action against Bayern Munich in their home stadium in 2012. And in addition to that European triumph, he has also won league titles in three different European countries – Portugal, France and England – not to mention his winning more than 50 caps for Brazil.

World Cup 2014 – The Nadir

However, it is not so easy to forget the worst performances of Luiz’s pre-Arsenal career and especially the worst of them all, against Germany for Brazil in the 2014 World Cup semi-final.

Brazil, of course, lost 7-1, in a defeat even more humiliating than the 1950 World Cup final loss to Uruguay, also on home soil, that had previously been the Seleção’s historic low-water mark.

Gary Neville and others had often speculated that Luiz, with his superb ball-control and range of passing, would make a better central midfielder than centre-half, but against Germany he seemed to think that he was a centre-forward, so often was he caught out upfield while Germany rampaged in behind him.

In effect, therefore, David Luiz is like the proverbial little girl: when he is good, as against Bayern in 2012 or even against Chelsea in the 2020 FA Cup final, he is very good; but when he is bad, as against Germany in 2014 or against Wolves this week, he is horrid.

A Big Personality

Part of the reason why Mikel Arteta may have stuck so resolutely by his errant Brazilian centre-back, offering him a new contract after the Manchester City debacle and even bemoaning his loss this weekend against Aston Villa after the FA refused to over turn his red card against Wolves, is that he is such a “big personality”.

In fact, Luiz is often said to have a personality as big as his hair, having been one of the most vocal presences in all the dressing rooms he has been in throughout his long club and international career. And such vocality and presence may be especially important for Arteta when he is still taking his first fledgling steps as a manager and is looking for invaluable leaders on the pitch. Even though Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang is officially Arsenal’s club captain, during actual matches it always seems to be Luiz who is the most vocal Arsenal player, alternatively encouraging and berating his team-mates as required.

However, the time may now have come for Arteta finally to say “ obrigado e adeus” to Luiz. The Brazilian will obviously be missing at Aston Villa, which, like the Wolves game, is another difficult away match for Arsenal against a team they have already lost at home to. However, even when Luiz has served his suspension and is eligible to play again, Arteta should consider using his other central defenders ahead of him.

Indeed, the three much younger and so far more consistent centre-backs that Arsenal have – Rob Holding, Gabriel and Pablo Mari – should start learning to play with each other, rather than one of them playing alongside Luiz and wondering whether the good or the bad version of the Brazilian will turn up.

Too Late to Change David Luiz Now

David Luiz will be 34 in April. As a winner of the Champions League and multiple national league titles, and as a multi-capped international, there is no doubt that he has had an exceptional career. And yet it is also true that when he finally retires he will be remembered as much for his truly spectacular failures as for any of his triumphs.

If he really is the wise old head on the pitch that Arteta claims to need, then the Arsenal manager’s own judgement will inevitably be called into question, especially if he does what currently seems unthinkable and offers Luiz yet another contract extension.

 

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