Statistics don’t always tell the whole story but David Luiz has a right to point to them when he turns up at Anfield with new club Arsenal still being billed as the Premier League’s defensive comedy routine up against the country’s best centre-back, Virgil van Dijk.
For most people, it seems, the two are on a different planet. Van Dijk, Liverpool’s man mountain and player of the year whose arrival turned them into Premier League title contenders. Luiz, Arsenal’s last-gasp signing when others didn’t arrive, a player with wonderful passing skills but who Gary Neville once said defended like a PlayStation player controlled by a child.
In the eyes of social media it’s a story of Crown Prince v Principle Clown — and for Luiz, despite his career successes, there seems to be no respite in the constant derision and mockery, no matter what he achieves.
Even a highly impressive performance on his Arsenal debut against Burnley, one of the division’s most unforgiving teams when it comes to dealing with powderpuff defenders, wasn’t enough to please everyone. There are still doubters outside the Emirates (and just a few inside too) over whether Luiz is the answer to the club’s age-old defensive problems.
Martin Keown, the Arsenal legend and former centre-half, summed up some of the concerns by saying: “He’s not an out-and-out defender, work is going to have to be done with him. And what sort of person is he? Is he a leader and is he the right influence in the dressing room?” Just as damningly Jose Mourinho, who managed the Brazilian at Stamford Bridge from 2013-14, questioned the 32-year-old’s concentration.
“I think we all know the good qualities of David and where he can improve teams. And I think we all know, probably I know a little bit better because I’ve coached him, that sometimes he makes mistakes,” the Special One said.
Mourinho went on to claim that Luiz’s concentration will no longer be low now that he is inspired by a new challenge at the Emirates, and declared him a positive signing for Arsenal; but the damage had already been done by the words which went before.
But is Mourinho right? Is Neville right? Or have we all been misled by a football myth that suddenly became accepted as truth without any real basis behind it?
Certainly if you go by statistics, then Luiz has plenty of ammunition for a sturdy defence — the kind his crticis suggest he cannot manage on the pitch.
According to official Premier League figures, during 161 appearances in England going back to January 2011 when he first joined Chelsea from Benfica, the Brazilian has made only two mistakes which led to goals, and
conceded only three penalties.
These are not the statistics of a player regarded as the punchline to a defensive joke. Two serious mistakes in 13,719 minutes of football during a time period in which he won the Premier League, two FA Cups, the Champions League, and the Europa League (twice)? This man deserves an apology.
In statistical comparisons with Liverpool’s van Dijk, widely regarded as the best defender in English football, he comes out pretty well, too.
Last season, even during a campaign in which Chelsea stuttered for consistency and harmony, his figures are good. Yes, van Dijk comes out on top in most categories in a Premier League head to head, but the margins are small and often reflect a difference in style rather than a chasm in quality.
Luiz has the edge in the attacking third, for instance. More shots than his rival, a higher shooting accuracy, more big chances created and a lot more through-balls. He matches up in terms of possession too. His pass completion of 88.02% is close to Van Dijk’s who recorded 89.49%, and he wins on the number of forward passes played — 1,013 to 830.
Defensively, the area in which he is so often criticised, the stats paint a picture of an outstanding defender playing at the highest level. The Brazilian made the same number of blocks as van Dijk, similar numbers of interceptions and won more tackles. As you’d expect, van Dijk wins on headed clearances and aerial battles but the pair are close in almost every other category.
Remember how Liverpool’s Dutch talisman earned headlines last season for remaining unbeaten in one-on-ones? Well, nobody mentioned that Luiz was dispossessed only three times in the entire campaign and made only one error which led to a goal — the same as the Dutch master.
This season, having played only one match, Luiz already leads his rival on clearances and headed clearances. Moreover, in Chelsea’s title campaign of 2016-17, when he transformed the team’s fortunes by playing the leading role in a back three under Antonio Conte, his defensive stats were hugely impressive. In that campaign, Luiz made 64 interceptions and 171 clearances, winning 60 aerial battles. There was not a single error leading to a goal and no penalties conceded.
That fact alone should be enough to wipe out memories of the World Cup in 2014, when Brazil were famously thrashed 7-1 by Germany and Luiz was again painted as the pantomime villain.
He has matured and grown in stature since then, and Arsenal, for little more than €8m, may have got themselves a far better player than even they realise — a player who has won league titles in three countries, been named in the PFA team of the year in both England and France, and who carries with him a wealth of experience after so long at the top level.
If Luiz can add leadership qualities to that list, which is what Arsenal so desperately need at the back, then comparisons with van Dijk may not look so fanciful or laughable in future.
Whatever happens this evening at Anfield, it’s time for David Luiz to be judged on his performances and qualities — on reality, not myth...