On Friday night before the Manchester City game I was in a place that I have often been. I was trying to explain on national radio that David Luiz is actually a superb player and is having a great season, but like the rest of the Chelsea team didn’t have a great day against Spurs, it was nothing more than that. Cue the usual reaction, you are just making excuses because you love Chelsea, you have a blind spot for David etc etc. While making the argument, I had a fear that they might have some more ammunition after the upcoming City game; after all they were invincible weren’t they and they put every defender under huge pressure?
I do not think I could have written a better script. The team, marshalled by David, defended heroically, particularly in the first half under severe pressure and then quickly became the better team after N’Golo’s goal. A 70-yard cross-field ball that led to that goal was surely the icing on the cake regarding David? In all honesty, how many players in the Premier League can see that pass and can then deliver that pass? In my opinion, it is his critics who seem to have the blind spot on these and other occasions.
It wasn’t of course the icing on the cake. That came with the fabulous headed goal for 2-0 which sent Stamford Bridge wild. It also had me smothered on the gantry by Jason Cundy while our co-commentary duties were rather unprofessionally but understandably ignored by all of us for a few moments.
What it is with David Luiz and his detractors? Other defenders make mistakes but they aren’t routinely dismissed and ridiculed in the media, and specifically on TV and radio, by former players who are now pundits. I do that job too, so I sometimes ask those guys what their problem is and they truly believe they are just being honest. I suspect there are a few reasons why they are unfair on our Brazilian centre-back.
First of all is the fact that he is a ‘Brazilian’ centre-back! He is not an old-school British stopper who is only concerned with defending, tackling, marking and violently going through the back of a few soft strikers and claiming it is just a ‘reducer’. He in fact is a real footballer, a talented one at that, and this sticks in the throats of a few whose world view of the position is a narrow-minded Anglo-Saxon one. I wouldn’t go so far as to call it jealousy, but probably only because I am too polite, but it is an insular state of mind.
There is also the fact that some fans and pundits nailed their colours to the mast early and laughed from that vantage point when there was a feeding frenzy on David Luiz and they aren’t brave enough to climb down and admit his qualities when they subsequently show through. Apart from a missed tackle on Juan Mata and the Spurs game, David has had a brilliant season, he still has the seventh most passes of any player in the entire league to date.
The argument against that statistic is that he is a defender and those are mostly simple sideways passes. Well I looked on the Premier League stats and he has played more through-balls than any other player in the entire league this season. That includes Christian Eriksen, Gylfi Sigurdsson, Riyad Mahrez, Mohamed Salah and David Silva, but the naysayers will still forever hold their ground, referencing the slightest suggestion of a wobble that would be ignored in any other player.
My thoughts are that when David Luiz finally leaves Chelsea, not only will we but also the rest of the league will miss him and you can’t say that about too many players.
Before I have another rant about people getting things wrong, I will admit to being far from immune to errors. I really thought we had little chance of winning on Saturday. There, I have said it, and actually I am open and happy to say it. Everyone gets things wrong but when you do err, it is not a weakness to openly admit to it.
So now, what about those out there who continue to say Kante cannot play further up the field? He may not be the best player in the world in the ‘No.8 position’ the way he is as a deeper destroyer, but he can do a job there. He is now showing rapid improvement in his performances there. Last week I explained that winning the ball 50 yards higher up the field has huge benefits. Well he surpassed that against City when he roofed the opening goal. His second-half performance was a game changer in every sense for us on the day but also for him as a player going forward into a new future in this new position.
After the difficult week endured by the team, this just showed what many of us had being saying - this was not the time for knee-jerk reactions. Adaptations are needed in every team on occasions and Maurizio Sarri showed a pleasing ability to tinker at the edges and not just by spotting that this was the right game to play Eden up front as the central striker.
Saturday was a different version of Sarri-ball. With much less possession, other qualities were needed. The ‘muscle memory’ from when many of these players knew how to defend deep as a group under other managers resurfaced and was vital in the final result.
That said, the original Sarri-ball passing game came more and more into play as City wavered in the second half. It took Pep Guardiola at least a season to get Manchester City into the groove they are now in and he will admit that yes, although the players had to learn a lot, he was not above learning too.
I suspect Maurizio learned a huge amount about some of the players at the weekend, about their other abilities above and beyond what his specific style demands. In time a marriage of the two could be a joyous thing to behold.
At the start I was writing about unfair and biased criticism of David Luiz. Well the abuse that appeared to be aimed at Raheem Sterling at the weekend is of course far more concerning. The vast majority of our real fans know that this is not behaviour we accept at Chelsea or indeed in the game of football in general.