David Luiz, the constant enigma – how the mercurial defensive talent defines Unai Emery's Arsenal
How do you solve a problem like David Luiz?
Thirteen years after his professional debut, it’s a question that on the face of it has stumped 19 managers, countless frustrated fans and perhaps even, to some extent, the man himself.
Except, is it really a valid question at all? It has certainly seemed more valid than ever during the opening weeks of this season as David Luiz has breezed with his usual fearlessness into an Arsenal backline that craves leadership and experience – two qualities he has in abundance – and wasted no time in becoming the centrepiece of the division’s most farcical defence. Throughout which the instinctive response has not been to wonder how a 32-year-old, multi-title-winning, high-pedigree leader figure can be put into the worst defence in the top half and contrive to make it worse, but more to nod along to an outcome that, in hindsight, seemed inevitable from the off.
David Luiz and Arsenal: a match made in comedy heaven.
And yet, as ever with the Brazilian, it hasn’t been quite that simple. Against Manchester United on Monday he was largely assured, albeit against feeble attack, while at Eintracht Frankfurt the week before he played with poise and a cool head. In both games he uncorked a couple of those signature pinpoint raking passes – a particularly handy tool for a team with Arsenal’s pace in attack.
But then the issue with David Luiz has never been the existence of talent so much as how he goes about applying it. The common complaint has always been that he would be a world-class centre half, if only he showed a little less exuberance and a little more application. Or as Jose Mourinho put it in August: “I know because I've coached him, sometimes he can make his mistakes, especially when his concentration levels are low.”
It’s a hard point to argue with. But then again, maybe we’ve been looking at it the wrong way round. Maybe the idea that David Luiz would be the perfect defender if only he'd defend more solidly is like complaining that Arjen Robben would be the complete winger if only he were two-footed, or that Apocalypse Now would be the perfect 90-minute movie if only it were two hours shorter. Not only is it a pointless lament, but it overlooks the fact that those very oddities are what makes them great.
Would David Luiz be a world-class player if he was more sensible? Or would he simply be a mediocre one if he were less adventurous? Because any attempts to paint him as a simple clown figure have never truly convinced. This is a footballer whose medal haul currently totals 16, who has been voted into FIFA’s World XI and the team of the season in Portugal, France and England; who has captained Brazil and buried a nerveless penalty in a Champions League final, who has commanded over £100m in transfer fees. Make no mistake: this is no clueless buffoon.
Certainly in England there is something about David Luiz that jars against the idea of the sportsman being a warrior, the centre-half therefore a battle-hardened psychopath. In a nation pathologically obsessed with world wars and imperial legacy, we see victory as a necessarily grisly affair. If winning is the end, blood and guts is the means. And accordingly, the idea of triumph via enjoyment seems unsound and faintly repellent. Maybe that why Gary Neville’s “Playstation” comment struck such a chord: it hinted at that distinct sense of untroubled fun, inherent to David Luiz’s style of play, that’s so alien to our conception of a man doing his job. Give us a bloodied Terry Butcher or a wild-eyed Tony Adams, not some bobble-haired goofball who seems to be alarmingly close to enjoying himself.
But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking it’s only us backwards Brits who are left bemused by David Luiz. As he said in 2017: “In Brazil they say defenders must be pessimists. I am an optimist in my life. I'm positive. I always think and dream of the best things. I don't want to take my small boat and go against a wave of 20 metres. Maybe I can go around the sides, and we'll arrive. I'll try to find a way.”
His managers have tried to find a way, too, deploying various tactical gambits in the hope of reinventing him as something more conventional – Jose Mourinho tried him in holding midfield, Anontio Conte put him to work as the free-roving central figure in a back three – but in the end the Brazilian’s avant-garde stylings have proved irrepressible. “In Benfica my job was to drive the ball to the halfway line. Chelsea didn't have that plan, but sometimes I would do it anyway,” he admitted in 2017, and not much has changed since.
Nor, from the evidence of this season, does it look like doing so any time soon. Can Arsenal finally solve the riddle of David Luiz? Maybe the real question is whether David Luiz – dreamer, leader, serial title-winner – can finally solve the riddle of Arsenal.
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