Tuesday, February 1, 2011
David Luiz's dizzying rise continues
Needs must when the devil drives. The January transfer window is rightly regarded as the last card of the desperate and that's exactly what Chelsea have been, even taking into account the encouraging signs drawn from this week's emphatic win at Bolton. The good news for Blues fans is that new arrival David Luiz is a pillar the club can build its future around as well as a quick fix to current problems.
Still only 23 years old, Luiz has all the attributes to suggest that he can adjust quickly to life in England. He is physical, tough, good in the air and blessed with a decent turn of pace - the latter being a quality the Chelsea backline have sorely lacked at times this season, a fact so comprehensively exposed in the post-Christmas defeat at Arsenal. Luiz also displays the sort of comfort on the ball that the Premier League champions have arguably lacked since the departure of Ricardo Carvalho.
Saying £25.5 million is a bargain is to overstate, particularly in the present global economic climate, but it should be recognised that Benfica president Luis Felipe Vieira has only dropped his asking price from the full €50 million (£42.8 million) release clause in Luiz's contract in recent months. The club's earlier-than-expected exit from the Champions League, together with the player's clearly expressed desire to challenge himself in a higher level of domestic championship, has brought matters to a head.
Yet Luiz should prove good value for today and tomorrow. This is a player who promises to be the cornerstone of Brazil's defence for the next decade. Starting with his August debut in the New Jersey friendly against United States, Luiz has played in all four of Brazil's official friendlies in 2010-11. Mano Menezes' team won the first three without conceding a goal, and lost the last 1-0 to a superlative piece of Lionel Messi magic late on for Argentina. He has settled into the international set-up with ease.
Luiz's adaptation closely mirrors the dizzying speed of his rise since arriving from Brazilian third-tier side Vitoria to Benfica in 2007, which has seen him closely linked with Europe's elite for the last 18 months. Real Madrid have followed his progress closely over that period, in which he has also been linked with Manchester United and Manchester City - the latter, presumably, as they were for a long time the only club in Europe with the means to meet Benfica's demands.
While the dashing attacking fashion with which Benfica snatched the title back from Porto last season may have been celebrated all over Europe, a mean defence was a big part of the recipe, conceding just 20 goals in 30 league games last season, with Luiz playing all but one match.
There are two ways of looking at his new role at Stamford Bridge. The first will see plenty of second-guessers predicting the eventual sending out to pasture of John Terry. Luiz has a similar height, build and plays on the left side of central defence. Terry is bound to be questioned, entering his 30s and on the back of inconsistent form for club and country in the last 12 months or so, especially against a younger, quicker potential rival.
In the long term, it may well be that Luiz and his fellow Brazilian Alex are the most natural centre-back pairing for Chelsea, but one should not underestimate Terry's capacity to renew and reinvigorate himself with sheer determination. The captain's knowhow and leadership may indeed play a prominent role in smoothing what is often a difficult transition to the Premier League for overseas defenders.
The second way takes historical precedent from Luiz's time at Benfica into account. The youngster formed a formidable pairing with fellow centre-back Luisao at the Luz. The 29-year-old Luisao has been in Lisbon since 2003, but was widely regarded to have become a lumbering liability to his team. He has been reinvigorated with Luiz at his side, covered by his junior colleague's pace and able to concentrate on the things that he does best: head and tackle. There is little reason why Luiz shouldn't do the same for Terry.
One aspect that shouldn't be used to sell Luiz is his versatility. Some will trumpet him as a centre back and left back, but the Brazilian has made his name as a top-class player playing as a central defender, pure and simple. There is no doubt in the mind of Luiz himself that this is the case, and Benfica coach Jorge Jesus' insistence that the player is a perfectly serviceable full back has been a major bone of contention between the two.
The matter came to a head after the 5-0 defeat at Porto in November. Jesus employed Luiz at left back in an attempt to stifle Hulk, who habitually operates on the right side of Porto's three-man attack, reasoning that Luiz's strength and pace would match that of his opponent. The coach was wrong, with Hulk running riot, creating one and scoring two.
Jesus insisted after the game that he had not erred, pointing to the fact that Luiz had played the best part of a season at left back after arriving in Portugal, but the player was reportedly furious at what he saw as exposure to humiliation against his sometime Brazilian international colleague. Jesus knew better than most that his man is suited to the middle - moving him into the centre was one of the most telling alterations the coach made from Quique Sanchez Flores' plans when he took over at the Estadio da Luz.
The good news is that Carlo Ancelotti will almost certainly not push Luiz into service on the flank, even as cover for the far more flamboyant Ashley Cole. The days of making do with displaced centre backs, such as William Gallas, are long gone.
Neither will Chelsea have to make do any longer with the opposing problem of having to shoehorn the unsuited likes of Paulo Ferreira into the centre. Luiz has all the power and presence that one traditionally associates with the spine of a Chelsea side in the modern era.