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Paris St Germain will be the first to attest that it is hard to make a competition out of France’s Ligue 1.
Yet, in Unai Emery’s first campaign since succeeding Laurent Blanc as coach, the Parisians giving it a very good go.
Having won the title for the last 4 years, PSG lie third at the halfway stage of this season, seven points off leaders Nice, with 15 goals already conceded, only 4 short of the total from the whole of last term.
Emery has had to contend with the fact they are not as imposing without Zlatan Ibrahimovic, now defying his advancing years to thrive with Manchester United, and, contrary to the popular perception when Chelsea came calling back with a £34 million move on deadline day, not as solid without David Luiz.
Shock was the common reaction to Chelsea’s re-signing of Luiz.
Antonio Conte, having built success at Juventus and Italy on the uncompromising back-line of Leonardo Bonucci, Andrea Barzagli and Giorgio Chiellini, had seen interest in Napoli’s Kalidou Koulibaly and Milan’s Alessio Romagnoli rejected before turning to Luiz, the eccentric figure that had Chelsea laughing to the bank when they sold him to Paris for €62 million in June 2014.
Luiz had won the FA Cup, League Cup and the Champions League during his first spell at Stamford Bridge and it was his excellent performance in the latter final, against Bayern Munich in 2012, that marked him out as a significant presence in Chelsea’s recent history.
The Brazilian’s charisma and dressing-room influence had been missed at Chelsea over the following two years but perhaps staying longer in the memory were the mistakes and the costly over-zealousness with the ball, which Gary Neville famously referred to as “being controlled by a 10-year-old on a PlayStation”.
Eager to find a long-term replacement for John Terry, Luiz was an eye-opening choice for Conte, the quintessential Italian who prioritises hard-work and stout organisation in his teams.
Yet so far Luiz, like so many in the Chelsea squad that sits comfortably at the top of the Premier League, looks reformed.
The steadfast belief in running the ball out from the back at all costs has virtually disappeared in favour of a more assured Luiz who chooses when to dribble more carefully.
Looking more comfortable in Conte’s preferred 3-at-the-back system and stunted in his ability to freely roam forward, Luiz has made just 6 dribbles, completing all of them. The Brazilian has lost possession only 7 times.
The likes of Neville, who was among those questioning Chelsea’s decision to re-sign Luiz, have changed their tune and the 29-year-old was included in the Sky Sport’s pundit’s half-way Team of the Season on Monday night.
The adaptation to a new system that gives Luiz more protection has undoubtedly helped.
“I’ve talked about him being cuddled by his goalkeeper, by Cesare Azpilicueta and by Gary Cahill” said Neville. “His decision-making has been far better in terms of not being as rash”.
Under Conte, Azpilicueta has also been outstanding and since the Italian moved to the 3-4-3 after the chastening defeat to Arsenal in September, Chelsea have won all their 11 league games, conceding just 2 goals in the process.
Luiz has been instrumental in that run as part of the defence that has kept 9 clean sheets in the last eleven games, focusing on the diligent defensive duties that had him drop deeper to contain the physical Alvaro Negredo in the 0-1 win at Middlesbrough as well as Christian Benteke as Chelsea won by the same score-line at Selhurst Park on Saturday.
A habit for being drawn into over-spilling emotion that could blight his previous spell has been notably lacking too, with Luiz producing a superb performance in the 1-3 win at Manchester City after his calculated block on Sergio Aguero in the first-half set a powder-keg that duly blew when Aguero reacted in the dying moments.
Luiz has also benefitted from the togetherness and spirit that has also curtailed Diego Costa’s aggressiveness, transforming the defender into the becalming influence that has been at the centre of their impregnable defence.
The Brazilian is no longer the figure of fun he was often seen as during his first spell at Stamford Bridge and all that relates him to his previous erratic incarnation is the floppy hair, grown as a reaction to the shock of how cold the defender found Europe when he first moved.
Against all expectation, he is making an inarguable case to shake off his ‘figure of fun’ tag and has kept Terry on the bench since the win over Everton at the start of November.
Back in Paris, where criticism was growing on the defender after he gave away a penalty to Monaco in August, they are realising the full strength of his absence as Emery’s defence, with a shift in emphasis in youth bringing about Marquinhos’s inclusion, shift goals freely to Nice, Montpellier and Guingamp.
Inspired move by Conte
In contrast Chelsea are impenetrable and a big part of it is down to Luiz, who showed his unrivalled influence off the pitch as he performed magic tricks to Costa, Eden Hazard and the club doctor recently.
Conte’s decision to pay £34 million to bring the Brazilian back to London is one instance in a long list of inspired moves in the Italian’s debut campaign as Chelsea boss.
Written by Adam Gray
Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250
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