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30 Jul 2018

Chelsea: David Luiz & the Maurizio Sarri renaissance

Chelsea: David Luiz & the Maurizio Sarri
renaissance

Frozen out under Antonio Conte, the Brazilian could witness a change in fortunes under his new boss.

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REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

The curious case of David Luiz. A defensive stalwart in Antonio Conte's first season at Stamford Bridge - returning to Chelsea from Paris Saint-Germain in a £34 million deal after two years away - the Brazilian found himself very much on the fringes the following season.

Luiz made just ten Premier League appearances throughout a 2017/18 season plagued by recurrent knee injuries and shrouded by the murky veil of disputes with Conte, with the former Chelsea manager willing to sell the central defender in the January transfer window.

Nothing came to the fore, however, and Luiz returned to pre-season training with Conte still at the helm, as his longevity at the club remained doubtful.

Just like the Renaissance of the Middle Ages, and the ensuing intellectual revolution that ushered in the Age of Enlightenment and modern history, the scholarly Maurizio Sarri arrived on English shores with ideas aplenty, ones that include Luiz in their conception.

The term 'renaissance' literally translates to 'rebirth' in French, and Luiz could be in the midst of one himself under Sarri's guidance. Who says an old dog can't learn new tricks?

REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

"When I took my decision to come back here from Paris it was to win the Premier League and... I came back to stay," Luiz explained after Chelsea's 1-1 draw with Inter Milan in the International Champions Cup. And stay he will under Sarri.

The Italian deploys an adventurous, expansive style of football, one that Luiz is particularly fond of. "We play high, with a lot of possession of the ball in a technical way," he continued. "I love this philosophy." And the philosophy loves him. It's a highly technical, possession-based style of play that incorporate's Luiz's defensive skillset, and plays to his particular strengths on the ball.

The potential concern, though, is that the Brazilian is prone to lapses in concentrations and, therefore, defensive errors, previously negated by the back three and the presence of an extra centre back. Under Sarri, however, that protective player is Jorginho - who made the most interceptions (50) of any Napoli player in 2017/18.

The deepest-lying of the three central midfielders that effectively plays as a regista, one that splits the centre backs as he drops into the defensive line when the fullbacks advance.

REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

In Conte's title-winning Premier League debut, Luiz was lauded for his range of passing and comfort in possession, which is an aspect Sarri, too, places significant importance on. "Play from the back, build from the back," Luiz highlighted as crucial in Sarri's philosophy.

Sarri's Napoli deployed a high defensive line and pressed aggressively out of possession - a contrast to Conte's mantra of retaining shape and retreating into a low block - whilst looking for vertical passing options once the ball has been won. This is a system entirely predicated on finding space for verticality of play.

Hence, Luiz's suitability. This is a centre back whose average passing length was 24.5m in 2016/17, more than both Kalidou Koulibaly (17.3m) and Raul Albiol (20.9m) - Napoli's first choice centre back pairing last season. The Brazilian, moreover, was accurate in 85% of his passing two seasons ago and created ten chances from this ability, more than Albiol (7) and Koulibaly (8) the following year.

REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Finding space for this verticality, however, starts from the back. The longer the ball stays in Chelsea's defensive third, the more enticing it becomes for opponent strikers and midfielders to get sucked into pressing, thus opening gaps. To retain the ball, however, this philosophy needs a defender like Luiz, one that's comfortable on the ball and can resist pressure.

A former investment banker, Sarri is an intellect of the game. Knowledge simply pervades the way he speaks about football and he releases an aura of a manager capable of enacting revolution of the way Chelsea play. Central to that could be Luiz. This is his rebirth. His renaissance.

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