The days of no-nonsense centre-backs, whose main focus was defence and defence alone, is gone, though it hasn’t been a sudden evolution even if it may appear as such. Ever since the Cruyff-ication of football and the advent of “total football”, central defenders have been increasingly required to not only perform their defensive duties but also take part in attacking buildup. The ball-clearing centre backs have all become ball-playing centre backs and those who haven’t kept up with the evolution, have had increasingly limited place at the top levels of the game.
One prime beneficiary of this trend has been Chelsea’s David Luiz, whose infamous lapses in concentration and judgement, not to mention flights of fancy, would have made him expendable several times over in the past. These days, due to his world-class technical abilities, his vision and skill, his creativity — (ed.note: and at times some strong defensive play as well!) — he continues to be employed at the highest levels of the professional game and at some of its best teams.
It wasn’t always like that for him. He wasn’t always appreciated for what he brought to the table as much as derided for what he didn’t. But the game reached this evolutionary turn at just the right time for him.
“I love that, it’s the evolution of football. I remember when I started, nobody wanted me to play the ball out from the back. Everybody wanted me to kick the ball long. It depended on the style of the coach, but now everybody understands.
“The top six in the league in England, which has four teams in the European finals, they are all teams who play the ball out from the back, play a possession game, try to create. Football is all about gaining time: if you put the ball up in the air, you’re going to lose time. That’s why we try to build from the back, to give the players with the talent the time to receive the ball between the lines, and make the difference.”
This paradigm shift, and the arrival of one its most idealistic champions in Maurizio Sarri last summer, has directly enabled David Luiz to not only reboot his Chelsea career, but sign on for two more years at the age of 32. In the Abramovich Era, this is literally unprecedented. 32 years old and still going strong. Sarri, wasn’t too keen on David Luiz staying at Chelsea at first, but after seeing him in training, the new head coach changed his mind after just three days! It’s no wonder David spent most of the season praising Sarri and Sarri-ball! Now he hopes to continue just like that, learning and improving along the way.
“I just try to learn every single day. That’s what prolongs our working life, wanting to learn something every single day. In my job, your job, we try to learn we improve ourselves. Life is moving that way. All the kids now in all their different jobs, they are quicker than us, more creative, speedier at understanding things. It’s up to us to realise that.”
-David Luiz; source: Telegraph
Football is constantly evolving, and players have to adapt accordingly. The evolution may not always be drastic, it may not always involve the same aspects of the game, and it may not even involve completely new ideas. But the one constant is that it is always changing. Teams and coaches are always looking for the next edge, the next advantage, the next big idea.
Ball-playing defenders are a perfect reflection, the zeitgeist of this era of football, and David Luiz, formerly just the clown prince, is now the master of it — or the mad scientist, if you will.