Chelsea supporters were rightly blue after last weekend’s one-sided derby defeat to Tottenham Hotspur.
It was the first league loss of the campaign, and a deserved result for a side who were second-best all over the park. Alvaro Morata proved to be a pointless inclusion in attack, Jorginho had a miserable match, N’Golo Kante’s mercurial run in a more advanced role produced another mixed bag, and an improved Antonio Rudiger was poor. Even Eden Hazard had a few uncharacteristically shaky moments in possession.
Of all the Chelsea players to draw the ire of pundits and fans alike, center-half David Luiz’s performance was nothing short of horrendous. The Brazilian sloppily conceded the free-kick on Dele Alli’s eighth-minute opener and inexplicably skipped out of the way for Harry Kane’s strike from distance that handed Spurs a two-goal advantage. Luiz only made matters worse when he lazily attempted to dispossess Heung-Min Son on the edge of the area after the South Korean made a fool of Jorginho with a lung-busting run.
It was Luiz’s worst performance since his return to the English capital, and with calls for the Brazilian’s head, here’s a look at the pros and cons Maurizio Sarri faces in dropping the 31-year-old:
Dumb decisions: Luiz has started all 13 of Chelsea’s league affairs this season, and naturally, the central defender has been in the thick of it. That doesn’t excuse the right-footer for a slew of individual errors, with Luiz partially at fault for seven of the 11 goals conceded in the league. The fact his mental gaffes against Tottenham were so glaring shows Luiz can cut a frustrating figure at the back, something that is often concealed by his contributions in attack.
Below is a great example. Luiz needlessly fouled Cardiff City’s Danny Ward high up the pitch with a trio of Blues streaking back to help. Spoiler alert: it resulted in a goal. Luckily for Luiz, Chelsea stormed back with a quartet of goals to handily outclass the Welsh side.
Blaming Luiz for all of Chelsea’s shortcomings is a common narrative that has followed him since his first stretch at Stamford Bridge. The Brazilian has taken the torch from Salomon Kalou, John Obi Mikel, and more recently, Willian. Luiz has conceded seven free kicks, two of which have resulted in goals, and in certain instances, like on Son’s goal for Spurs and Joselu’s at St. James’ Park, the mistakes are stupefying.
Poor positioning: Considering how high left-back Marcos Alonso fancies getting up the pitch, Luiz’s positioning is vital. Unfortunately, it’s becoming a frequent worry, and Luiz isn’t exactly setting any records for pace. Against Spurs, Luiz was caught out on multiple occasions. When Chelsea were unbeaten, it was easy to overlook. Recall the 2-2 draw with Manchester United as a prime example of Luiz’s volatility. With the scoreline locked at a goal apiece, he nearly nodded Willian’s pinpoint dead-ball delivery beyond David de Gea with an adept leap and header. Moments later, Luiz was caught well out of position trying to close Juan Mata down on the flank, which proved a pointless pursuit as the Spaniard darted around the Sao Paulo pylon as he drifted out of play.
Like a puppy who’s soiled the rug only to flash a look that’s impossible to condemn, Luiz partially made up for that error by winning an acrobatic header that ricocheted off the post and into the path of Ross Barkley. Barkley scored the equalizer, maintained Chelsea’s unbeaten run, and to the delight of those in attendance, prevented Jose Mourinho from flashing his smug smile at his former gaff. (Watch the attached video for the full Luiz experience.)
Lack of depth: With Gary Cahill nearing a move amid the denouement of a lengthy career, Sarri has two realistic options to replace Luiz: Cesar Azpilicueta or Andreas Christensen. Azpilicueta, 29, has lost a step and at times appears a bit long in the tooth to play as a speedy full-back. He played as part of a back-three under Antonio Conte last season, and what he lacks in height, he makes up for with composure on the ball. This also means Davide Zappacosta will have to start at right-back, which may not be a viable long-term solution.
Assuming Christensen gets the nod, the 22-year-old will need to regain the form he exhibited last season, and in a hurry. Relegated to Europa League duty, the Dane has, at times, suffered as a result of the competition and playing alongside Cahill. The versatile former Monchengladbach defender is a risk considering he has yet to make a Premier League appearance this season.
Veteran presence: A self-appointed leader among Sarri’s relatively reticent and passive squad, Luiz has plenty of experience thriving in England’s top flight. In two spells with the west London lot, Luiz has paired a league title and two FA Cups with conquests in both of the continent’s major competitions. The ebullient Brazilian has helped fill the authoritative boots of John Terry, and his communication skills have been instrumental in Rudiger’s stellar form this season.
Playing from the back: Sarri’s acclimation to the Premier League has been shockingly swift, and a major reason for that has been his squad’s competence in welcoming the changes. One of the biggest tactical shifts has been playing the ball out from the back, an area that Luiz excels at, as he and his centre-back counterpart recycle possession and work with shot-stopping newcomer Kepa Arrizabalaga. When that doesn’t work, Luiz is world class at playing pinpoint balls from deep. According to OPTA, Luiz has successfully completed 80 long balls, the highest return in the league. Luiz and Rudiger combine for 18 long balls per match, compared to five between Cahill and Christensen in the Europa League.
The decision ultimately rests with Sarri.
Few players with Chelsea have benefited from the Italian’s tactical shift like Luiz, but if his glaring defensive errors continue, the manager will have little choice but to relegate him to the bench.