David Luiz – A Sign of (Old) Times
Yesterday (14th May), Sami Mokbel from the Daily Mail broke the news that David Luiz will be leaving Arsenal at the end of the season. After 30 appearances in all competitions this campaign, a meeting took place in the last 24 hours between Luiz and the Arsenal hierarchy informing him he would not be offered a new deal. Luiz’s decision is significant news for many reasons, but the most significant to me is actually in a simple perspective shift.
David Luiz may move on from Arsenal, but it is Arsenal who have to move on from David Luiz – the man, the player and the deal.
Luiz’s Arsenal career will be looked back on with mixed feelings. For every one of his three red cards and six penalties in his two seasons at Arsenal, there are memories of wonderful performances, including those that helped us lift the FA Cup in 2020. For every calamitous decision made leading to a goal, there is a comment from inside Arsenal speaking of his positive influence. Luiz is certainly a divisive figure, and one who a large number fans will be cautiously optimistic of a future without – especially so we never have to see him blaze a free kick over the bar again. He hasn’t scored one since 2015.
But the reality is, a lot of people like David Luiz and believe he adds a different dimension to this team – most crucially those inside the club. A calming presence, Luiz is one of the only Arsenal central defenders capable of of playing long diagonal out-balls with accuracy on anything like a consistent basis. His progressiveness and ball carrying allows Arsenal to push further up the pitch and have more control while breaking teams down. There is a directness and clear strategy with Luiz in the side, and his reading of the game, experience and communication are all useful for a relatively young team. Similarly, Luiz has more professional honours than anyone else in the Arsenal side, and he knows what it means to be a winner – multiple league titles in multiple different countries and a Champions League medal speak for themselves. There is no doubting his pedigree.
But as much as the notion of Luiz seems appealing – a leader, and an experienced head – stats don’t lie. On the defensive side, Luiz is really poor, and he’s getting worse. He is in the bottom one percent for Successful Interceptions per ninety for players in his position in Europe’s top five leagues, according to fbref.com. He’s also bottom two for Tackles, and bottom four for Pressures. Combine that with his seemingly unique ability to completely turn a game on its head with a swing of an outstretched boot or the clip of a heel, and you are often left scratching your head, wondering aloud, or perhaps even screaming at your TV – “Why, David? Why?”…
So then… why? Why have Arsenal persisted?
Luiz’s leadership qualities are hailed consistently, and it’s plain to see why. He fronts up to the media when he makes mistakes, talks for the team, and we’ve heard countless times about what a great influence he is on the dressing room. He has been described as a “key role model” by Arteta, and important young players like Saka talk of his “big heart”. He has been publicly supportive of countryman Gabriel Martinelli, predicting “big things” for him. But isn’t that what a 34 year old of his experience and character should be doing?
The trade off for Arsenal is to decide whether that makes up for his on-pitch deficiencies. Moreover, “leadership” is a difficult thing to define, and in the modern era it’s important to remember that leadership can take many different forms for contemporary footballers. Gone are the days of Roy Keane barking expletives at younger players. Arsenal are often accused of not having enough senior football figures in the side by various TV & radio pundits, and Luiz’s departure as an outward “leader” may look foolish. But as Clive Palmer, the gravelly-voiced tactical wiz on the Arsenal Vision Post Match podcast recently opined, it’s important to focus on the space you have within a setup to allow new leaders to grow. Leaders leave, players step up, and new leaders form. The question is – what type of leaders do we want?
Leaders don’t grow on trees, personalities hand picked and then stuffed into six foot five central midfielders or the loudest man in the dressing room. They are formed over time – and each individual finds their own path to what their version of leadership looks like. With Luiz gone, there is every chance that Kieran Tierney, Pablo Marí or Thomas Partey step up. There’s every chance Rob Holding continues his evolution into a senior figure, having taken the armband a few times this season. We won’t see those new leaders without the space that Luiz may leave behind – and, crucially, their leadership might be more the type we’re after, accelerating the growth of more talented players.
What does it say about us as a club that someone who so significantly and regularly underperforms is a leader in our dressing room? What does it teach our young players?
And what does it tell us about ourselves?
It’s significant that Arsenal have made this decision to move on, and it may be looked back on as one of the changes that come to define Arteta and Edu’s short to medium term futures. It’s significant because it’s dangerous, considering what we lose, we currently don’t have much of. Luiz is a safety blanket, and right now, Arsenal could do with some security. But this deal and this type of thinking has come to define Arsenal post-Wenger; it’s time to change, and it’s encouraging to see a brave decision being made
Signed as a sticking plaster for a Laurent Koscielny sized cut, Luiz, along with the likes of Stephan Lichsteiner, Sokratis and Willian showed an Arsenal without a plan or recruitment philosophy – looking to short term solutions with experience to regain a place in Europe’s elite. Sometimes it works – for every David Luiz there is a Thiago Silva. But when it doesn’t work, you’re left with little resale value and a culture led by serial under-performers.
It’stime to move on. Both from David Luiz the man, and David Luiz the idea. Who replaces Luiz is another question entirely. If only we had a young, expensive, dynamic 6ft+ CB who is known for ball progression somewhere on our books… that William Saliba at Nice looks good.