News & Blogs
The David Luiz midfield experiment
By: timbersfan , 1:21 AM GMT on December 14, 2012
Apart from center forward, Chelsea have looked most undermanned in central midfield this year, particularly after Oriol Romeu's season-ending injury last week. Inevitably, this prompted speculation that Roman Abramovich would be spending again to bolster the middle of the park this January. But maybe Chelsea can find their solution in-house.
We've pretty much heard it since he landed in the Premier League, back in January 2011. Wouldn't David Luiz be better in central midfield?
You could see the logic behind it. His combination of size, athleticism, energy and technique on the ball meant you wanted to find a place for him in the lineup. At the same time, a few major positional blunders left some wondering whether he was really cut out to be a week-in, week-out centre half.
Gary Neville famously said he played as if he was “controlled by a 10-year-old in the crowd on a PlayStation.” Andre Villas-Boas, boss No. 2 of the four David Luiz has had at Stamford Bridge, famously said it was a “stupid” and “ridiculous” thing to say, but there were times when you could see where Neville was coming from.
So, the thinking went, in midfield you could still have his energy, presence and passing, and the odd mistake wouldn't be as damaging as if he was the last man in front of Petr Cech. Yet it took a long time for this to come to fruition.
Carlo Ancelotti's Chelsea played 4-3-3 and could already call upon John Obi Mikel, Frank Lampard, Ramires and Michael Essien in the middle of the park. You can see why he wasn't tempted. Neither was Villas-Boas -- who made a point of adding to the number of central midfielders by picking up Romeu and Raul Meireles -- or his successor, Roberto Di Matteo.
But now, against Monterrey in the FIFA Club World Cup, Rafa Benitez finally pulled the trigger. Luiz lined up alongside Mikel in the 4-2-3-1, with the usual trio of attacking midfielders -- Oscar, Juan Mata and Eden Hazard -- ahead of him.
Benitez's hand was forced somewhat. He only has four central midfielders and one of them, Romeu, saw his season end with a cruciate injury last weekend. Lampard is 34 and just coming back from injury himself. Ramires has been running himself into the ground recently; he deserved a day off. In that sense, this was the perfect scenario for the switch.
Without any disrespect to Monterrey, the slower pace of their football offered a good chance for Luiz to ease himself into this new role. And he still had Ramires and Lampard to come in off the bench should things go horribly wrong.
Luiz did well. His size and strength, coupled with his ability to run with the ball, created a mismatch when he came forward. And when he won possession -- unlike Ramires and Mikel, who tend to look short -- he wasn't shy about going vertical, with accurate balls into space.
On the flip side, he did give the ball away more than the guys who usually play there, possibly because he took more risks. And there were times when he was caught out of position which, against Monterrey, wasn't much of an issue but, against tougher opponents who play at a higher pace, it could be.
Still, you can't help but feel that it's an experiment worth repeating. This doesn't mean that Chelsea's three previous managers got it wrong in not lining him up in midfield. The reality is that Luiz in midfield didn't quite fit the way they played or there were better options at the time. Ancelotti's 4-3-3 had a younger version of Lampard breaking from the middle of the park. Villas-Boas played a high defensive line and required midfielders who pressed as a group. Di Matteo did switch to a 4-2-3-1 but he had enough on his plate last year in simply stopping Chelsea from sinking and, this season, was looking to introduce the kind of short passing game Abramovich supposedly craved.
But Benitez looks to be doing his own thing. Rather than some kind of samizdat Barcelona, his priority -- apart from results -- seems to be getting the best out of Fernando Torres. And that means mixing it up with the kind of service Torres needs: balls into space. It's not a coincidence that, when Torres performed at his best, he had guys like Steven Gerrard and Xabi Alonso offering him that very service from midfield.
This is not to say that Luiz is as good a passer as Gerrard and Alonso. But he does have the long, searching pass in his skill set, certainly more so than Ramires and Mikel. And in Benitez's system, it simply makes more sense. If it works out, it also gives Chelsea the option of stiffening up the attacking midfield by moving Ramires into that area, the way Di Matteo did so effectively last year. The other bonus is that it gives Chelsea another big body on set pieces. Along with whichever two play centre half, the Blues would now have three legitimate aerial threats in the lineup, which is something they haven't had since last year, when Didier Drogba played up front.
But let's not get carried away. In games in which Chelsea are going to be on the back foot, you wonder whether Luiz has the tactical sense and ability to read the game in the center of midfield to make it work. Because that's also something Benitez values, as he showed at Liverpool, when he assembled the Javier Mascherano-Alonso partnership to protect the back four.
Right now, it's something worth revisiting and nothing more. But if it works out, it could mean that Benitez -- supposedly signed in part to get the best out of Torres -- could also benefit Luiz, the other man Chelsea signed in that wild $110 million spending spree two Januarys ago.