Chelsea’s 3-4-3 suits them so well it’s a wonder Antonio Conte waited until his side were hammered 3-0 by Arsenal to implement it. With it he has got the best out of his first choice XI most weeks and it appears to have been designed with one man in mind more than any other: David Luiz.
It is a happy accident that the 29-year-old ended up back at Chelsea at all as for the third time in his career he moved on transfer deadline day. Chelsea failed to land first choice central defensive targets Alessio Romagnoli, Kalidou Koulibaly or Kostas Manolas after a frustrating summer.
The sight of Luiz striding through London’s St Pancras train station after a trip on the Eurostar from Paris was a welcome one for Chelsea fans who came to regard the Brazilian as a cult figure during his first spell at the Bridge.
While many Chelsea supporters were very fond of Luiz the person, they were rightly apprehensive about what he could bring to Conte’s reconstructed back line. Luiz clearly wasn’t Conte’s prime target and he produced enough erratic football in his three-and-a-half seasons in London to fill even the most ardent fans with doubts about his return.
He had been cast out of Stamford Bridge by Jose Mourinho – so perturbed by his frequent defensive lapses that he played him in midfield – and there was a hint of desperation about Chelsea’s last-gasp £34m bid.
That the signing has worked out so properly – and Conte’s formation such a good fit – it is tempting to believe that it was all planned.
That – however – would pay a disservice to the hard work put in by not only Luiz himself but also Conte in ensuring that he could carve out such a distinct role in the team.
Conte has likened Luiz to his Italy defenders Andrea Barzagli and Leonardo Bonucci – whom he also coached at Juventus – and also referenced the fact that they were considered inadequate until he coached them towards becoming clean-sheet machines. There is also a certain similarity between how Bonucci (Juve) and Luiz (Chelsea) step into the midfield to make an extra man.
Luiz has indeed been exposed time and again defending in a central defensive duo – no more so apparent than in Brazil’s 7-1 “Mineirazo” World Cup semi-final defeat to Germany. He is not equipped to play that deep or with that kind of defensive responsibility thrust upon him. He cannot marshal a defence as a leader in the way John Terry or Thiago Silva can. He has his flaws but this season has given more reason to talk about the things Luiz can do instead of what he can’t.
Luiz is far from being the 'spare man' in Chelsea’s back line. He’s the key link in the chain. He occupies the centre ground for his team, allowing N’Golo Kante and Nemanja Matic the space to roam and win the ball. He provides an extra man in midfield when it appears Kante and Matic could be out-matched two to three. He allows Chelsea to be flexible in their defensive shape by moving up and down the pitch as required.
He provides expert balance to the back three being the most accomplished player technically among them. Gary Cahill or Cesar Azpilicueta could not work that position like a midfielder the way Luiz does and by the same token Luiz struggles when asked to position himself in the wider central defensive areas. His ability on the ball is unmatched by any of his defensive colleagues – he is more comfortable in possession and calmer too.
He is not quite a full-blown central defender but not quite a central midfielder either. He is a hybrid of both positions and indispensable in this Chelsea system.
He is in the process of proving a lot of people wrong. Many had him pinned as inattentive and error-prone in his first spell at Chelsea but he is a meaner, more tuned-in, more mature player than he ever was before.
Conte has said that Luiz could well become the best centre-back in the world. He can… but only for a team playing a back three.