When David Luiz was first given a chance to play as a central midfielder by Rafael Benitez, it was in a match that was already won and whose result was irrelevant: Nordsjaelland in Chelsea’s final group game in the Champions League. With Juventus leading Shakhtar 1-0 (that was how the match ended), Chelsea were sure to be knocked out of the Champions League. And so Benitez decided to give Luiz some time in the middle of the park. Even though the quality of opposition was poor and the match was already won, Luiz clearly seemed to enjoy his new role and impressed many with his performance, including his manager. Why else would he decide to hand him a start as a central midfielder in Chelsea’s Club World Cup semi-final against Monterrey?
Luiz played only 60 minutes of the game against Monterrey, but his performance was brilliant to say the least. The English media were clearly impressed, with words like “brainwave” and “revelation” being thrown around. Benitez himself seems to think Luiz would be suited to a midfield role. In a recent pre-match press conference, he said. “He likes to play, he wants to help and he wants to win. In midfield it’s easier for him because as a centre-back it only takes one mistake and everyone will be watching him.” Indeed, Luiz can be a liability in defence at times. And his passing and creativity works very well in midfield. However, playing Luiz in midfield may be an easy solution but not necessarily the correct one.
Chelsea are currently in the process of changing their style of play from a direct, physical one to a more intricate pass-and-move style. The playing style that Chelsea are trying to emulate requires the presence of a ball-playing centre-half like David Luiz in the heart of the defence, someone who can start attacks from the back and even go forward to aid the attack whenever necessary. The problem with ball-playing centre-backs is that when they do go forward, they leave a massive hole at the back. This problem is usually solved by a central midfielder dropping deep and covering for the defender. In theory, this appears very simple. In reality, it’s not.
Let’s take another look at the Leeds game and the one goal that Leeds scored. Luiz, as he normally does, ventured forward with the ball and ended up in the attacking third. That in itself should have been a signal for either Lampard or Oscar (who were playing in midfield that night) to drop back and cover for Luiz should he lose the ball. Luiz lost the ball and Leeds hit us with a swift counter-attack that resulted in a goal simply because we were one man short in defence. Now don’t get me wrong, it was foolish of Luiz to venture forward and lose the ball as carelessly as he did. However, what people failed to notice (or chose to ignore) was that Lampard, who was in a decent position to actually drop back, failed to do so and that in turn left us horribly exposed to the counter-attack.
Another reason some say they want Luiz to play as a midfielder is because he “can’t defend”. That’s not true at all. Had it not been for his presence in defence against Corinthians in the Club World Cup finals, Chelsea would have lost by a larger margin. Gary Cahill was poor that night (again, something people either failed to notice or chose to ignore) and Luiz had an excellent game, bossing Paulo Guerrero off the ball on a few occasions. Even before this game he has shown solidity in defence in several games (think back to the Benfica game in last season’s Champions League or the City game in the Premier League this season). The difference between Luiz and a defender like John Terry is that he isn’t a traditional centre-back who sits deep, he likes to go forward and assist in attack whenever he can. This may seem strange, but curtailing the attacking side of his game defeats the very purpose of playing him as a ball-playing centre-half in the first place.
Instead of preventing Luiz from going forward and joining in on the attack, the focus should be on raising the defensive awareness of Chelsea’s midfield. Whenever Luiz is in possession and out of position, one of the central midfielders must immediately move back and take up his position. This way, we won’t be exposed to a counter attack should Luiz be caught off guard. That being said, Luiz himself needs to work on timing his runs and not going forward whenever he feels like it. But stopping Luiz from running forward is not the solution and neither is playing him as a midfielder. It won’t be easy, but the best attacking teams are adept at covering for one another and working hard defensively. However, it is the only way forward if Chelsea are to complete their transformation into an attack-minded team.