Haters gonna hate, but David Luiz is having the last laugh

Is there a more disliked footballer than David Luiz? Maybe, but he's right up there. A Brazilian centre-half with a Bob Marley-like hairdo would ordinarily be regarded as a cult hero without even trying.

David Luiz

Chelsea defender David Luiz Source: Getty Images

But there is something about him that rubs people everywhere the wrong way.

As a huge part of Chelsea’s success this season – who will look to extend their eight-point lead on top against Swansea tonight (Live on SBS, Sunday 1:30am AEDT) – it’s worth unpicking one of the Premier League’s most divisive characters.

The first question: why the hate? What did he do wrong? Was it him – or the circumstances he found himself in?

Let’s go back to 2014, when his career was punctuated by four big things: a shock £50 million ($80 million) transfer from Chelsea to Paris Saint-Germain, a poor home World Cup in Brazil, an undeserved place in the FIFA Team of the Year and a completely undeserved nomination for the Ballon D’or.

There is always a degree of acrimony around big transfer fees, but this one seemed to generate a particularly malicious appraisal. Deemed too loose and selfish as a player, many felt PSG were foolish parting with so much cash – and needlessly inflating the market.

The transfer was already agreed before Luiz had an ordinary month in Brazil, punctuated by one of the worst defensive displays of modern times in the semi-final. Without the suspended Thiago Silva by his side, he took the armband but looked a fraud of a leader against Germany.

He whined and moaned and pointed fingers at others as the goals, all seven of them, flew past him and his defensive partner of the day, Dante.

It was he – and that poor sod up front, Fred – who copped most of the blame for Mineirazo. Luiz was cast as a figure of excess. Careless about his defensive duties, his head was said to be already turned by money. While an impoverished nation wallowed, he’d be on the next plane to Paris. Never mind those crocodile tears at full-time.

Yet in the two years at PSG, away from the spotlight of the Premiership, he hardly put a foot wrong. Not that he was challenged too much – PSG were a class apart from the rest of the league, and very rarely did he or Silva have much to contend with as Zlatan Ibrahimovic and Edinson Cavani banged them in at the other end.

But with John Terry almost finished as a first-team regular, Chelsea needed a solution going into this season. It was a risk, but new boss Antonio Conte rolled the dice and called Luiz. A £30 million ($39 million) transfer was agreed – a far lower price than what they sold him for, even if he was almost 30.

The critical part for Luiz wasn’t about finding him a partner – the ever-reliable Gary Cahill would fill that role. It was more about getting him some protection from elsewhere.

That has come, quite sensationally, in the form N’Golo Kante. He might have come with a transfer fee slightly higher than Luiz but he’s probably the Premier League’s bargain buy – Chelsea now wouldn’t let the Frenchman go for less than £65 million ($106 million). Probably more

Kante’s role in the team brings back memories of Claude Makelele, a player so effective at Stamford Bridge he ended up with a position named in his honour. Kante is a different beast – more defensive, and a king of interceptions – but equally effective as Makelele at his peak.

Indeed, as Kante snaps, harries and breaks down opposition attack, he often looks up and sees Luiz surging forward. And that, contrary to what popular theory tells us about defenders, is a good thing, especially in Conte's 3-4-3 formation.

Luiz’s galloping runs are protected by Kante, and with Cahill only coming forward for corners, the trio have worked out an understanding that gets the best from all of them.

The confidence has clearly filtered into Luiz’s game and it’s arguable he’s a more complete defender than when he left for Paris. Truthfully, hasn’t been beaten very often this campaign. Maybe once or twice, but no more.

He’s tougher, too. A scything challenge from Sergio Aguero in December left the Brazilian in real pain, something that has reportedly bothered him ever since. Would you know it? Not based on his past two months.

Having been part of a league-best defence that’s conceded 18 goals in 25 games, even the haters have will have to own up to the fact that Luiz’s form has justified Chelsea’s investment – and then some.

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5 min read
Published 25 February 2017 at 3:45pm
By Sebastian Hassett