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The case for David Luiz at centre back

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Previously published (in altered form) on Plains of Almeria and reproduced here with their consent.

Michael Regan

The end of the season represents the moment in which it’s time to sum up a given team’s year and focus on individual performances. In that regard, much has been said about Chelsea’s centre-backs: leaving John Terry aside Gary Cahill has settled for club and country while his Brazilian counterpart David Luiz has started only a dozen League games.

The former has taken plaudits, being considered as one of the main reasons behind Chelsea’s excellent defensive record (27 goals conceded), while the latter was pointed to for an alleged lack of reliability. But as with most football analysis, this line of argument is too simplistic. To get an idea of how both will perform in the future, it would appear necessary to take into consideration the whole defensive setup and how it is implemented.

Please make sure the saloon doors are kept closed

A few months after that now-iconic Champions League triumph in Munich, Chelsea started the season helmed by the man who brought the long-coveted trophy to SW6 for the first time in the London’s club history. Despite an unenviable sixth-place finish in the League, the prospect of playing the Champions League as holders was one of the reasons Chelsea managed to attract the likes of Eden Hazard and Oscar over that summer; that duo joining the club’s reigning Player of the Season, Juan Mata.

Roberto Di Matteo had to find the right balance in order to play all three of that gifted trio at the same time. Amidst latent concerns related to the faith the Chelsea board genuinely put in the Italian, the manager decided to deploy his team in a brand new 4-2-3-1 formation, featuring the same players week and week out until his departure (a short-termist approach which goes some way towards explaining why Chelsea won seven of their first eight league games, unlike the other title contenders).

With Eden Hazard and Juan Mata’s propensity to drift into central zones to disorient the opposition's defensive set-ups, the provision of attacking width relied heavily on full backs Branislav Ivanović and Ashley Cole. Subsequently, both of Chelsea's centre backs were increasingly exposed as gaps opened between the back four. The deployment of Chelsea’s XI meant that centre-backs had to split while the lack of availability of the likes of Hazard and Mata for shorter passes meant that Gary Cahill and particularly David Luiz were forced into speculative long balls to try to move the ball forward.

With Chelsea’s high pressing faltering week after week, the team became more and more vulnerable during the transition from attack to defence. The home defeat to Manchester United served to epitomise Chelsea’s failures, with possession lost early and defenders torn between retreating back as much as they could (Ivanović and Gary Cahill) or rushing out in a last-gasp attempt to win the ball (Cole and David Luiz), two divergent attitudes eventually saw United score three goals and win the game.

Di Matteo was sacked shortly thereafter.

Reorganise to keep up the pace in a marathon season

Right from his appointment, Rafael Benitez’s first job was to set up a structure as quickly as he could in order to face to the task of playing one game every three days. His answer took the shape of two banks of four behind Juan Mata and Fernando Torres. In order to maintain the compactness of his team at all times, Benitez selected two similar "penalty box centre-backs" in Gary Cahill and Branislav Ivanović, who in theory were perfect fits for the system.

But for their similarities, both did display the same weaknesses, especially tactically. There was always confusion on who should go out and who should hold back, and that resulted in both going for the ball at the same time without taking the necessary steps to cover one another. Despite their aggression in making challenges in their area, however, they looked scared of being pulled out of their comfort zone to cover for their respective fullbacks.

While the Cahill-Ivanović defensive partnership took shape, John Terry went overlooked. Injuries had led to a lack of fitness for the captain and there were supposedly non-football-related reasons for his absence as well. That meant that David Luiz was the third choice centre-back -- who happened to provide more flexibility to his team in midfield as well.

Meanwhile, Juan Mata’s defensive contribution was nowhere near the required standard even for a player who had to share the same zone as players such as Michael Carrick and Mikel Arteta. Subsequently, Chelsea were unable to feature two layers of pressing in midfield (A), unless David Luiz swept in behind Lampard and Ramires* (B). Under the former Liverpool manager’s tenure, Chelsea were set up to invite opponents in order to recover the ball in the central channel of the pitch. For aforementioned reasons, that was done in areas close to the penalty box – with the aim to play on the counter-attack afterwards.

*The two started 9 of 26 League games altogether as the most used midfield partnership under the guidance of Benitez.

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The shell-shaped structure

As well as feeding the "comeback of the hero" narrative, José Mourinho’s return as Chelsea manager also meant that the London club was finally able to resume its long-term progression. Mourinho was the first managerial appointment who’d fit into an apparent long-term vision since Carlo Ancelotti’s departure. Mourinho did seek to implement a gameplan who would commit every player to the task.

Mourinho departed from a plan which heavily relied upon sacrificing players to gamble on an unique player’s ability to make the difference by himself (Juan Mata), who was completely free from defensive duties. The brand-new approach relied on an aggressive press from the whole team directly after the turnover of possession; what would supposedly allow Chelsea to keep trying to transform advantageous positions into goalscoring chances through short crosses.

The commitment of the whole team bar the main striker to get behind the ball and play in the opposition’s half would provide the ideal platform to force opponents to play the ball outwards and through wide areas. Chelsea would eventually recover possession there if they hadn't managed to win it in the final third, having blocked every option inside for opponents closed down.

Chelsea’s exit from the League Cup and José Mourinho’s adjustment toward a deeper block reinforced the shell-shaped structure to protect Peter Cech’s goal. Its two marshals, John Terry and Gary Cahill, were then assigned a smaller area to control given César Azpilicueta and Branislav Ivanović’s efficiency in the adjacent areas coupled with their new instructions (team must maintain 5 players behind the ball at all times is one of Mourinho’s leading principles, is a pivotal point in stopping the quick counterattacks so often seen in the Premier League). That narrow back four has been successfully headed up by Nemanja Matić and Ramires, whose ability to recover the ball has been one of the positives of the campaign.

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David Luiz couldn’t establish himself in the centre-back berth at the start of the season because of injuries, and the fact that he happened to be in losing sides (Everton, Basel, Newcastle) when he was introduced in the starting XI failed to help his cause. Moreover, his misunderstanding with Petr Cech over a textbook back pass against Cardiff reinforced his reputation as not concentrating in routine matches. The explanation behind his use by José Mourinho afterwards lies in the Portuguese manager fielding David Luiz in midfield in big games (Liverpool, Manchester United, Manchester City, Arsenal, PSG and Atletico; being on the winning side at four occasions in the league.).

Settle into the plan

José Mourinho got in depth on his plan in front of the Sky cameras after a 2-0 win against Fulham in September. The Chelsea manager explained that the project was to play in a high block – something reminiscient of Andre Villas Boas’ ill-fated tenure, with the sole difference that Mourinho got the players on his side. The team made noticeable progress on the first months of the season in terms of pressing efficiency as they sought to recover the ball as high up the pitch as possible.

However, the lack of conversion from the main striker forced Mourinho to revert to a deep block and pressing in limited sequences in time in December. Despite that switch, the team's collective discipline stayed intact through every players’ commitment. Everything suggests that José Mourinho will set up his 2014/15 team in similar fashion to the first few first months of the last campaign, as long as Chelsea are able to sign a striker (probabky Diego Costa) who is able to translate good positions into goals.

Occupying a higher portion of the field and applying a dynamic press will again raise the question of the defensive line’s positioning and the players who compose it. David Luiz’s ability to step up into midfield to intercept, makes him a proactive defender who seems to better suit a role further from his goal than Gary Cahill. The Brazilian’s sheer impact with a limited amount of fouls committed not only allows Chelsea to recover possession, it’s also a genuine asset to shake off strikers’ confidence and eventually reduce their threat.

While the former Bolton centre-back arguably improved -- his increased confidence, at least, has been notable --  over the past two years, it certainly has to be taken into consideration that the current setup restricts the back line’s exposure to attacks. It is rare to see either Terry or Cahill being dragged out of their zone to challenge for the ball, therefore fouling opponents. On top of that and on occasions against teams featuring a strong and mobile physical presence upfront (the likes of Džeko, Adebayor); José Mourinho’s instructions actually committed Nemanja Matić rather than any of the two centre-backs to track the striker’s movements.

It is possible to re-trace the evolution of the deployment of Chelsea’s most used centre-back partnership over the course of the last four seasons. Chelsea was horribly exposed at the back during Carlo Ancelotti’s second season and Andre Villas-Boas’ short reign. Then, Chelsea was made essentially a compact and reactive team playing on the counter as a result of a mid-season change two seasons running.

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But if Chelsea want to get back to the standards of the last successful domestic campaign (2009-2010) and genuinely dominate opponents, it will require committing more players forward to instigate more unpredictable attacks. Obviously, there is absolutely no suggestion here that Chelsea’s centre-backs should commit more fouls. But, considering raising Chelsea's game requires fielding a back line able to deal with wider areas to cover, a configuration that seems to suit better David Luiz (or, ultimately; Kurt Zouma) than Gary Cahill.

Weave the ball

The 2013/2014 version of Chelsea also reached it’s limits in terms of efficiency against teams renowned for "parking the bus"; being unable to get results against the likes of West Ham, Aston Villa, Crystal Palace despite being holding possession for more than two thirds of the match.

It has to be said that centre-backs hold significant attacking responsibility in such scenarios given the fact that every player represents a relay point to in ball circulation before finding a gap where he may rush into. The return leg against PSG doesn’t represent a blueprint which could be used in the league as a basic "Chelsea bombing on strategy" as PSG were obviously unprepared to deal with that many long balls in the box, which proved to be enough to nick a second goal through Demba Ba.

It’s fair to say Chelsea failed to undermine Tony Pulis’ resilience, having failed to convert the half-chances created through individuals and having not taken advantage either from overloading the final third (0-1 defeat). As John Terry and Gary Cahill were released from any pressure on the ball and with two of Chelsea’s three midfielders replaced by attackers before the hour mark (Oscar and Salah for Luiz and Lampard); Chelsea’s centre-backs didn’t capitalize on being in possession in the midway circle. Gary Cahill’s pass map at that day epitomizes Chelsea’s lack of penetration and forward thinking as one pass out of five was played sideways.

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Chelsea, as often this season, were running out of ideas. One of the reasons for that lies in the strictly defined task sharing to play the ball out, with very little risks taken. Both Gary Cahill and John Terry boast a 88.3% and 90.2% passing accuracy (league top 10 in their position) as most of their job consists of feeding the deepest midfielder (Ramires, then Matic after January).

Oscar and Willian drop deep to get on level with midfielders; both being very thrifty in terms of risk-taking and will try to keep the ball if they can’t feed Hazard in the best situation possible (it’s not ‘Willian hasn’t seen the pass’ but ‘he doesn’t think this move will develop’ – Willian being Chelsea’s leading pre-assist provider this season. Thanks to David Pasztor here for some excellent statistical analysis of Chelsea’s goals).

But whereas hitting a long pass on the deck into Hazard or Mata’s feet fifteen months ago let little doubt regarding the outcome – an unavoidable turnover; Willian and Oscar’s ability to shield the ball makes them a genuine option to add variation. David Luiz has the ability to accurately pick out his team mates with long passes, and also tends to take initiative when he gets on the ball. More generally Luiz can change the pace of the game through his large range of passes to connect with attackers or straight onto the centre-forward from a variety of situations: either facing a tight block, or acting as a launchpad for a counter attack.

His performance against West Ham in spring 2013 illustrates the benefits of playing forward quickly into pockets of space to enhance attacking moves in the attacking half. Opposing teams generally took into consideration David Luiz’s threat from deep as he was regularly man-marked by an attacking player when Chelsea played the ball out, unlike the "usual" configuration in which one or two attackers simply jog from the one who has the ball to the other who is to receive it.

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David Luiz’s interest from the likes of PSG, Barcelona or Bayern Munich certainly puts into perspective the reputation he’s made of in England. Unless his departure after the summer is motivated by financial reasons, the path José Mourinho wants to take seems to match David Luiz’s abilities. The Brazilian centre-back usually elevates his usual self with his national team. That means that the decision being taken in the summer regarding the 27 year old’s future will necessarily have to take into consideration those World Cup performances. It's difficult to see how Chelsea can afford to let such a quality player leave the club, particularly as Luiz’s contribution will be key in determining how far Brazil advance this summer.