David Luiz: Chelsea defender’s progress from ‘PlayStation defender’ to PFA team

David Luiz has helped Chelsea move within touching distance of regaining the Premier League title

“It is like he is being controlled by a 10-year-old on a PlayStation.”

That’s how David Luiz’s defending was described by former England right-back Gary Neville in 2011.

It was a label that seemed to stick – unfairly, according to some – and was used by many fans to deride the Chelsea defender.

Five and a half years later, perception about the 29-year-old centre-back – who rejoined the Blues in August after a two-season sojourn at French side Paris St-Germain – appears to have changed.

Certainly it has among his peers, who selected the Brazil international in their Premier League ‘all stars’ after a successful first season back at Stamford Bridge.

The stats: ‘We’re not seeing mistakes’

Luiz’s shock return to Chelsea was first mentioned early on deadline day on 31 August, gathering pace throughout the day, before the £34m deal was eventually confirmed in the final hour before the window closed.

Not everyone was convinced by the signing, despite Luiz being part of a PSG side who won back-to-back trebles in France.

“He has been a liability for PSG more than anything else,” French football journalist Julien Laurens told BBC Radio 5 live on deadline day.

“I can hardly remember four games where he was actually good. He had some shockers.

“He hasn’t improved since leaving Chelsea. He’s probably coming back a worse player than when he left.”

However, Luiz’s fellow professionals believe he has returned a better player on the evidence of his 28 starts during Chelsea’s title push.

Compared with his first spell between January 2011 and May 2014, the Blues have certainly improved with him in their side.

They have a higher win percentage, have scored more goals and conceded fewer, and have gathered more points on average.

David Luiz’s influence on Chelsea
2011-2014 2016-17
* Premier League only
Games 73 28
Win % 0.61 0.75
Goals for (ave.) 1.9 2
Goals against (ave.) 0.9 0.8
Points per game 2 2.29
Shots conceded per game 12.2 8.9
Passing accuracy in final third 71.3% 75.6%
Passing accuracy in opposition half 77.8% 78.6%

This season Luiz has helped Chelsea keep 12 clean sheets in the Premier League – only team-mates Thibaut Courtois and Cesar Azpilicueta, along with Tottenham trio Eric Dier, Hugo Lloris and Kyle Walker (13) contributing to more.

And, while his first spell at Stamford Bridge was blighted by rash decisions and the odd mistake, he has cut these heart-in-mouth moments out of his game.

The Brazilian has not made a single error leading to an opposition goal this season, while he has only made two errors leading to shots – a tally which 71 other players have either equalled or made more errors than.

“The mistakes we saw – which were limited in the first place anyway – we are not seeing any of them now,” BBC Sport analyst Pat Nevin said.

“In Britain we tend to pick out big mistakes – every centre-half makes mistakes. Everyone got on a roll with David Luiz because he is that different and special.”

The critics cool: ‘He looks more mature, he’s not getting distracted’

Chelsea’s pursuit of the title, which appeared almost a foregone conclusion for several weeks until their lead shrank to four points last weekend, has been built on solid defensive foundations – of which Luiz has been a key pillar.

And that has led to many previous critics, including Gary Neville, to change their opinion in recent months.

“His decision-making has been far better in terms of not being as rash,” the former Manchester United defender said.

“I have to say he looks more mature. He’s not getting distracted by the sideshow stuff on the pitch like he did before. He looks to me to have a really good focus.”

Luiz’s return did not initially go to plan, however. The Blues conceded five goals in his opening two games – defeats by Liverpool and Arsenal – although the Brazilian could not be made entirely culpable for those losses.

Then came Antonio Conte’s tactical masterstroke which changed the fortunes of both Chelsea and Luiz.

Switching to a three-man backline, with Victor Moses and Marcos Alonso operating as wing-backs, shored up the defence and brought Luiz plaudits from Match of the Day presenter Gary Lineker. Eventually…

Chelsea deciding to end their search for John Terry’s replacement with the re-signing of Luiz was also met with an element of doubt by the BBC’s chief football writer Phil McNulty.

“While undoubtedly talented, he had proved himself something of a liability defensively for both his clubs and his country, Brazil. And, like many others, I have been surprised by the scale of his success at Stamford Bridge this season,” he said.

“Conte has brought added concentration and discipline to Luiz’s game, while also playing with a three-man defensive system that offers the Brazilian greater security and licence to play with the freedom he enjoys.”

Maturing, or enjoying his free role? Luiz made an average of 1.78 fouls per game in 2013-14

The players: Luiz finally recognised by peers

Luiz’s inclusion in this season’s PFA team of the year was announced on Thursday, representing the first time he has been honoured by his fellow professionals in England.

After joining Chelsea in January 2011, the former Benfica man clearly did not have enough time to force his way into the end-of-season gongs.

In his first full season, he helped the Blues win the Champions League and the FA Cup, although a poor league campaign – finishing sixth under Roberto di Matteo after he replaced the sacked Andre Villas-Boas in March – meant no Chelsea player was deemed good enough to make the league’s best XI.

Team-mates Juan Mata and Eden Hazard made the cut in 2012-13 as Chelsea finished third under Rafa Benitez, but there was again no place for Luiz.

This season he is one of four Blues players chosen by their fellow professionals, with Luiz and centre-back partner Gary Cahill’s inclusion down to their team’s defensive strength.

PFA Premier League team of the year 2017

The fans: ‘Walking calamity’ to crowd favourite

As the news of Luiz’s impending return to Stamford Bridge grew on transfer deadline day, it was met by some fans using #bbcfootball with scepticism and, to a degree, more derision.

Josh Earl: The David Luiz deal is laughable, overrated, unreliable and an all round loose cannon, decent free-kick taker that’s about it.

Mark Mackintosh: Emergency, send the psychiatrist round to Mr Conte urgently!! David Luiz….REALLY???

Richard Larque: Have Chelsea forgotten how poor at defending David Luiz is? Great hair mind.

Shane Daly: David Luiz back to Chelsea. Both Manchester clubs are rolling on the floor laughing right now. A donkey at a thoroughbred race.

Joe Wedgwood: Would 100% prefer Matt Miazga to the walking calamity that is David Luiz….Conte, have you gone potty?

Of course, hindsight is a wonderful thing. But not everyone was convinced his return was going to be a disaster…

Joe Borko: Koulibaly would have been a panic buy, not David Luiz. Luiz will be a great asset.

D.Tee: David Luiz. One of my favourite players. Full of verve! Will make Chelsea stronger. No doubt.

Darren Long: Great to have David Luiz back! Time to take our title back.

And alongside Luiz winning over many of the pundits, he has also convinced BBC Sport readers of his worth.

More than 40% of users picked the Chelsea defender when they selected their own Premier League team of the year – only narrowly the second most popular centre-back after Spurs’ Toby Alderweireld.

The pairing of Luiz and Alderweireld was selected in just under 50% of all teams picked.

40,000 BBC Sport users chose their Premier League team of the year

The pundits: ‘People are taking their blindfolds off’

So what has changed for Luiz? Very little, according to Nevin.

The former Chelsea winger believes it is not simply because of Italian manager Conte or his tactics. Nevin believes it is down to the 29-year-old growing in experience and maturity.

“I think the understanding of him is better and people are taking their blindfolds off slightly,” said the former Scotland international. “He’s still the same player.

“It helps playing three at the back – but that would help anyone. With two people around him, his ability to read the game and pass becomes more obvious.

“Every centre-back you ever see does not peak until he is 27 or 28, they are very few centre-backs, and you look back through history, that were absolutely brilliant at 23 or 24.

“Yes, he’s improving but he’s on the same improvement curve as every other centre-back.”

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