David Luiz’s latest incarnation driving Chelsea’s exuberance
Brazilian playing under his seventh manager in his second spell at Stamford Bridge
Chelsea’s David Luiz blocks a shot on goal from Liverpool’s Roberto Firmino during the Premier League game at Stamford Bridge. Photograph: David Klein/Reuters
Chelsea goalkeeper Kepa Arrizabalaga is beaten by Daniel Sturridge’s shot for Liverpool’s late equaliser at Stamford Bridge. Photograph: John Sibley/Action Images via Reuters
Chelsea 1 Liverpool 1
Muttering under his breath, shaking his head in regret, David Luiz was the last player to disappear from the field. He had taken his time after the final whistle. As Liverpool’s players went over to celebrate with their fans, and as his Chelsea team-mates trudged disconsolately toward the tunnel, Luiz lingered.
He stripped off his jersey. He bestowed a few handshakes on eager young fans, reaching their arms out for him to brush. He made sure to wave to almost every corner of the stadium; only that pocket of jubilant Liverpool supporters avoided his gaze. Only when his tour of duty was complete did he depart, frustration etched on his face. In that, he mirrored those fans streaming out of the stadium.
Until the 89th minute, Chelsea had seemed destined for a victory that would have moved Maurizio Sarri’s team – which he acknowledges is a work in progress – above Liverpool in the Premier League standings, to a share of the lead, separated from Manchester City only by goal difference. It had been a game of fine margins, not quite one of those wild rides the Premier League imagines is its calling card, but a high-speed, high-calibre occasion, the first meeting of genuine peers in the early season.
The difference, the only difference, was that Chelsea had taken their chance – a move started energetically and finished exquisitely by Eden Hazard, midway through the first half – whereas Liverpool, on half a dozen occasions, had not.
That had, in no small part, been Luiz’s doing. Not simply because he had appeared, at the last moment, to stop a header from Roberto Firmino that would have drawn Liverpool level, but because he had produced a performance of precision and poise, control and concentration, to keep the visitors at bay.
Liverpool, of course, boast the most expensive defender in the world, the similarly impeccable Virgil van Dijk. Luiz’s display was a reminder as to why, until January, he had held that title. There was nothing he might have done – nothing anyone might have done, really – about the goal that salvaged a point for Liverpool, that sent that corner of red dancing into the night. Daniel Sturridge, on the field for only four minutes, picked up the ball outside Chelsea’s penalty area, glanced up and lifted a swerving, dipping shot beyond the reach of Kepa Arrizabalaga for the draw.
Its brilliance offered little solace to Luiz, or to his team-mates. The goal capped what has been an unlikely renaissance for Sturridge. This summer, his Liverpool career appeared to be at an end. He had been sent out on loan to West Brom in January, in desperate search of playing time in a vain hope of forcing his way onto England’s World Cup squad. He played six times. He did not score. West Brom were relegated.
Most assumed he would be sold, should a buyer come forward, a team willing to take the risk on his substantial wages. It had become clear that he was not a natural fit for a Jürgen Klopp team: insufficiently intense when chasing the ball down, overly inclined to slowing the play. The rhythms of manager and player had never been quite in sync. His intervention on Saturday, though, brought his tally to four goals in seven appearances this season; he is, all of a sudden, Liverpool’s leading goal scorer, level with Sadio Mane.
At a time when none of Klopp’s favoured forwards are quite at their best, Sturridge’s unexpected revival has been not just a welcome boost, but a crucial factor in Liverpool’s momentum.
No less than Sturridge, Luiz proves that there can be a second act in a Premier League life. More than that, in fact: The Brazilian is, at this stage, in his fourth or fifth incarnation as a Chelsea player. He is not the club’s best player; that honour, underlined yet again here, falls squarely to Hazard. He is not even its most important [Hazard again, obviously]. No player, though, embodies the character of the modern Chelsea better than Luiz; no player quite encapsulates the baffling volatility of the Premier League’s most enduring 21st-century superpower quite as he does. He is, in the ebbs and flows of his time at Stamford Bridge, the perfect avatar for his team.
Luiz is one of those players who have become featured cast members in the Premier League’s soap opera: a fixation for social media, a regular source of material for radio phone-ins and newspaper columnists. He is that most precious sort of player in a media age, a reliable content generator, and he has been for some time. It is nearly eight years since he first arrived in England; it is six since Gary Neville described him as defending as if he were being “controlled by a 10-year-old on a PlayStation.”
He is one of those players who draws the eye, the camera, the criticism. Everyone has an opinion on David Luiz. They are not all positive, and they are not all permanent. That extends to his managers. Sarri is the seventh manager he has worked with in his two spells at Chelsea. Not all have been entirely clear on quite what to do with him. Rafael Benitez felt he was best deployed as a central midfield player. Jose Mourinho sold him – in Luiz’s telling, because he was too “optimistic” – to Paris St Germain.
Antonio Conte brought him back to Chelsea, built his team around him, won the Premier League with him, then ostracised him. When Sarri arrived, he immediately restored Luiz to the team. He looks, once again, perfectly at home. It is that ebb and flow that makes him such a perfect encapsulation of Chelsea’s recent history. As even Sarri pointed out last week, in the build-up to this game, it is not easy to know quite what to make of Chelsea over the last few years: champions in 2015 and 2017; utterly mediocre in 2016 and 2018.
Like Luiz, the whole team seems to come and go: a high-functioning machine one minute, a sorry mess the next, with no obvious explanation for what instigates the change. They have an admirable squad, in the way they seem to adapt so easily, so frequently, to a new manager’s methods, as they have with Sarri. But it is one that attracts, too, unavoidable scorn for an inability to retain that focus, that intensity.
For the moment, Chelsea are in the swell of they cycle, enjoying Sarri’s positive approach, his focus on enjoyment, on pleasure, on aesthetic. Luiz, given yet another a new lease on life, seems to be particularly savouring it. Previous experience suggests this will not last forever, for him or for his team. It makes sense then, for all concerned, to enjoy it while it does.
- New York Times