Manchester United may have lost ground on their rivals and league leaders Manchester City in recent weeks, but they remain arguably the best defensive side in the country. No Premier League team has conceded fewer than their five goals in 11 fixtures.
Considering the above, it will come as a genuine surprise to many that they are now being linked with a January move for another centre-back in David Luiz. However, the Brazilian could be in need of a departure from Chelsea in the near future if he is to regain regular game time.
The reigning champions welcomed United to Stamford Bridge in the final game before the international break, winning 1-0 in a tense affair. However, Luiz, a mainstay in the club’s title win last season, was conspicuous by his absence. Not only did Andreas Christensen take his place at the heart of Antonio Conte’s defence, but there was no spot for him on the substitutes’ bench.
Since then the Daily Star have shed light on the situation, reporting that the defender is unhappy following a bust-up with his manager over the team’s tactics in a 3-0 defeat to Roma in Champions League action. It is also reported that José Mourinho could be willing to offer his former colleague a way out.
Given that Luiz is almost more of a cult figure in English football for his hairstyle than his footballing ability, as well as the fact his form has appeared to decline this term, the prospect of his signing may worry United fans. However, there are a number of reasons why the deal could work out for the title challengers.
LUIZ’S STRENGTHS AND WEAKNESSES
This term Luiz has not been helped by a number of factors outside of his control. The drop-off in form of his central defensive partner Gary Cahill has only added to the burden on his shoulders, while the absence through injury of relentless ball-winning midfielder N’Golo Kanté has left the Chelsea defence more open as a whole.
The Brazilian has also been rotated between different positions in different systems. Whereas he was the team’s sweeper in a 3-4-2-1 for much of 2016/17, the current campaign has been one of constant tactical tweaks and slight changes. This cannot have helped the player and perhaps explains why he has looked more error prone than before.
However, while he has given the appearance of losing his form, some of Luiz’s most important statistics have actually gone up. He is averaging more tackles, interceptions and passes per game, while his pass completion rate has improved by three per cent. While the defensive numbers may have more to do with Chelsea being attacked than any individual development, the player’s passing stats are a real positive.
Passing is perhaps the most important aspect of the 30-year-old’s game. He may never earn the solid status of some his central defensive peers, but he will always be respected for his ability on the ball. The Brazilian game may have become more pragmatic in recent times, but Luiz possesses the flair and adventure of his illustrious footballing forebears.
He is a capable dribbler who can carry the ball out from the back well. This allows him to attack the opposition defensive block, making him a good starting point to build possession from. He is also a sound distributor of the ball, and is able to pass particularly well over long distances.
Luiz combines technical quality with physical strength, though he is not always the most composed. He can also be reckless defensively, abandoning his position to apply pressure unnecessarily, and is not the most dominant in aerial duels.
All of this is highlighted statistically when compared to United’s first-choice centre-backs Eric Bailly and Phil Jones. While Luiz completes more passes and dribbles per game, he also commits more fouls and wins a significantly smaller percentage of his aerial duels.
WOULD LUIZ SUIT MANCHESTER UNITED?
The quality, or lack thereof, in Manchester United’s passing has been one of the primary issues since Mourinho took charge. While they are a more resolute outfit then previously, they struggle at times when faced with stout defensive opponents.
They are superb in attacking transitions – indeed, only Liverpool have scored more through counter-attacks this season – where they can make full use of Romelu Lukaku, Anthony Martial and Marcus Rashford’s speed on the break, but are not quite so comfortable or effective when in possession.
Generally, it is accepted that United could do with another creative midfield type to alleviate these problems, which are only emphasised with Paul Pogba’s absence, but the signature of a quality ball-playing central defender could also help, particularly given the recent switch to a back three.
Mourinho implemented the three-man line for the 1-0 home win over Tottenham Hotspur having toyed with the tactic in pre-season. He then continued with it for the trip to Chelsea. However, while he has a number of centre-back options, none match Luiz on the ball.
Bailly and Jones are selected more for their athleticism, aggression and physicality than for their prowess in possession. Victor Lindelöf is in a similar mould, while Chris Smalling was actually dropped from the England squad by Gareth Southgate specifically for his playmaking deficiencies.
If Mourinho is to continue with the back three, Luiz could be the ideal January signing. He would operate between two more rugged, defensively minded centre-backs, with licence to push forward with the ball, just as he has done during much of his second spell at Chelsea.
Furthermore, the deal is more viable than it may at first seem. Chelsea have already allowed a regular first-team player to move to Old Trafford this season, with Nemanja Matić becoming an integral component in United’s midfield.
Luiz is an experienced, proven Premier League player. He’s also a centre-back who fits United’s new system and would, theoretically, at least, enhance the quality of their attacking play. Furthermore, he’s worked with Mourinho before and shouldn’t be eye-wateringly expensive. For all of those reasons, he would make the ideal addition to revive their title challenge.