Arsenal’s signing of David Luiz on the final day of the transfer window divided opinion among the faithful.
But love or hate the fuzzy-haired Brazilian beanpole, I fancy that few of us have fully considered the impact he’s likely to have on our style of play this season.
It could be massive, and here’s why.
Although we have had some good footballing centre backs (Mertesacker stands out in recent years) we have never had what you might call a “deep-lying playmaker.” And that’s exactly what Luiz is when given the chance.
How does a deep-lying playmaker affect the way we play? Well, in just about every way you can think of…
We have grown used to Arsenal teams where the primary responsibility for creativity has come from attacking midfielders or withdrawn strikers: the likes of Ozil, Cazorla, Ramsey (some of the time), Fabregas, Arshavin even Sanchez on occasion.
In this system our defenders’ job is to bring the ball out from the back and give it to the “creative” players ahead of them (an alternative being to push it down the wings to wide players who, invariably with Arsenal, then cut inside and lay it off to the creatives).
It’s not an unusual approach – most top teams do it (although some make better use of wide attackers than we do). But at Arsenal in the later Wenger years and also during Emery’s first season it has led to a constipated way of playing: we get an uncomfortable blockage in the middle and when we eventually manage to squeeze it out there’s a huge feeling of relief, only to start all over again.
The build-up is slower, opponents can organise their defence and we need to use guile to break them down rather than speed and power. When we manage a rare breakaway goal (as we did with the winner at Newcastle) we all get excited and remark how it’s the sort of goal we used to score during the Invincibles era.
The “central guile” approach was a deliberate policy by Wenger after the break-up of the Invincibles when he was building a team around Cesc Fabregas, modelled on the Barcelona tiki-taka style and we have never really shaken it off since.
What does Luiz offer?
In short, something we have not had for years – a talented play-maker from deep. He can bring the ball out from the back and dictate the play with his excellent range of passing or with his willingness to advance with the ball at his feet, commit opposition players and then find the gaps.
Examples of deep-lying play-makers that come to mind are Xabi Alonso (Real Madrid), Andrea Pirlo (for Italy and Juventus) and, interestingly enough, Jack Wilshire for England for a while under Roy Hodgson, before injuries lost him his place (again) and then Hodgson lost his place after England’s abysmal performance at the World Cup in Brazil.
Of course, none of those are primarily central defenders like Luiz, so perhaps a better comparison is one of the best players ever to have graced the turf: Franz Beckenbauer at Bayern Munich and as a World Cup winner for West Germany (in the days before German reuinifcation).
Beckenbauer was a more reliable defender than Luiz but his ability to dictate play from the back was similar. Germany built such a successful system around him and this approach that they made two World Cup finals (winning one) and two European Championship finals (again, winning one) with it in just six years.
If this is how Luiz is going to play for us, what are the implications?
Well, for a start there is a lot less need for a playmaker further forward, which might mean curtains for Mesut Ozil. In fact I would not be completely shocked if we offload Ozil before the foreign transfer windows close (DC United anyone?).
Don’t believe me? Look at the Chelsea team that won the Premier League in 2017 with David Luiz playing a central role. Notwithstanding a few appearances from poor old Cesc (after Wenger sadly declined to bring him home to Arsenal as he’d hoped), Chelsea played most of that season without an out-and-out playmaker ahead of Luiz. They had protective midfielders like Kante and Matic and pacey attackers like Hazard, Pedro and Willian, with a despicable but undoubtedly effective goal machine up front in Diego Costa.
I know you could describe Hazard as a playmaker, but really he’s a wide attacker who is blessed with such brilliance that he can bring in other players at will and change games on his own.
Don’t be surprised to see this year’s Arsenal resemble that Chelsea team.
One positive aspect to starting our playmaking from the back is that it gives us a chance to return to the pace-and-power approach that worked so well in the first half of Wenger’s Arsenal tenure.
Although we did not have a defender-playmaker under Wenger we were able to move from defence to attack very quickly, whether through Seaman-Vieira-Overmars-Bergkamp-Anelka or through Lehmann-Vieira-Pires/Ljungberg-Henry.
For Arsenal 2019-20, with Luiz taking the lead playmaking, role perhaps a future first team line-up looks like this: Leno, Bellerin, Chambers, Holding, Tierney, Luiz, Guendouzi, Torreira, Pepe, Lacazette, Aubameyang.
Well, I for one would be pretty excited by that. And, of course, we have sufficient squad depth and strength to change it up as needed for particular opponents or if it just isn’t working in a given game.
Am I barking up the wrong tree with this? Or just barking?
Let me know…