"I have spoken to David about it but I am not worried," said Brazil boss Luiz Felipe Scolari in the recent international break regarding David Luiz's lack of appearances for Chelsea. "He is one of the best defenders in the world and Jose Mourinho is an intelligent guy. He will not leave a player like that on the bench all the time."
Former Stamford Bridge boss Scolari might have his opinion but if Chelsea have aspirations of winning the Champions League again, they should forget about Luiz as a defender. Mourinho has been shifting his centre-backs since returning as manager in the summer and many pundits have had their say on the situation. However, the statistics now prove John Terry and England's Gary Cahill, despite his international-level doubters, are the best combination for the 2012 kings of Europe.
Ahead of Tuesday's game at Basel in Group E, when a draw would be enough to book Chelsea's place in the knockout round, Mourinho - an "intelligent guy" or not - would make a mistake if he returned Luiz to his Champions League starting line-up. The Brazil international, having been away with his country, was not even in Chelsea's squad at West Ham United on Saturday night in the Premier League and he has not featured for his club since the dire defeat at Newcastle United at the beginning of November.
Mourinho refused to sell Luiz in the summer, despite Barcelona reportedly making two offers for the 26-year-old, because the returning Special One wanted to assess his full, inherited squad. Perhaps there were even concerns Luiz could transform potential into brilliance if he left the Premier League in a similar style to how Gerard Pique has flourished since swapping Manchester United for Camp Nou. But new speculation now suggests Chelsea could be ready to offload their £21million January 2011 signing from Benfica, and it might not be the worst decision.
Luiz may have played a key role in Chelsea's famous Champions League final win over Bayern Munich two seasons ago, even scoring a penalty in the decisive shootout as the suspended Terry watched. But Luiz has been a liability in the current European campaign, resembling the player being controlled by a "10-year-old with a PlayStation" once referenced by Sky Sports' Gary Neville.
Terry, Cahill and Luiz have all made three appearances in this season's Champions League but the latter only started two of those games. Tellingly, Luiz's two starts were also in Chelsea's first two matches - the Stamford Bridge defeat by Basel and the win at Steaua Bucharest. In the key double-header against Schalke on Matchdays Three and Four, Luiz was only an 84th minute substitute for Oscar in Germany before remaining unused on the bench for the return game.
|Player||John Terry||Gary Cahill||David Luiz|
|Minutes On Pitch||270||270||187|
|Total Tackles Made||1||7||1|
|Tackles Won %||100.0%||57.1%||100.0%|
|Pass Completion %||93.4%||93.3%||87.6%|
Sky Sports pundit Graeme Souness said before that first fixture against Schalke, a match which was vital for Chelsea given their opening defeat by Basel: "I would not play David Luiz in this game, because, for me, he is not a centre-half. He takes too many risks and does not sense danger early enough. If you are making mistakes at centre-back, then inevitably that results in an effort on your goal and your goalkeeper has to make a save."
Souness' argument is not supported by the fact Luiz has only conceded a shot every 11.7 minutes he has played in this season's Champions League while that figure drops to 10.4 minutes for Cahill and falls further to nine minutes exactly for Terry. But it is worth noting 90 of Luiz's minutes came against a Basel side who produced a smash-and-grab win in London. In Luiz's three Champions League appearances, Chelsea have also kept just one clean sheet while they have yet to concede a goal when Terry has played.
It is no coincidence Chelsea's worst result of the season, the shock home defeat by Basel, came when Terry was not involved. Terry's presence has a calming impact and also brings out the best in Cahill compared with when the latter plays with Luiz. Contrast the home game against Basel, when Luiz started, and the home date against Schalke, when Terry started, and Cahill made both a higher number of tackles and had a superior passing accuracy in the second match.
Luiz has completed 11 interceptions in the 2013/14 Champions League, more than Terry (two) and Cahill (four) combined. But this is attributed to his style of play. He is one of the modern defenders who likes to attempt to dive in front of an attacker and beat his opponent to the ball. This can then lead to Luiz being left out of position or being easily spun by the attacker if the timing is not correct.
Cahill has the worst record for tackling having won only 57 per cent but he has also attempted more than double (seven) both Terry and Luiz (one each), who both have 100% records. But contrast that with headed clearances - Terry (13), Cahill (seven) and Luiz (five) and it further underlines the difference in styles. That is the reason why Rafa Benitez played Luiz with success as a defensive midfielder last season. Former interim Chelsea boss Benitez even said in February: "David Luiz can give that balance to the midfield. He understands the role."
Mourinho, though, clearly does not want to experiment with Luiz in midfield, preferring Frank Lampard and Ramires in the two deep-sitting midfield positions. The Chelsea boss even took the step of reinstating the steady if unspectacular John Obi Mikel as a substitute and then a starter in the two wins over Schalke.
Possession is also vital in Europe and it is in pass completion in the Champions League this season where Luiz (87.6%) is again inferior to Terry (93.4%) and Cahill (93.3%), having also played far fewer passes than both of his squad-mates. Of course it could be argued Terry and Cahill have benefited from more minutes on the pitch and the confidence, understanding and rhythm that brings, which all footballers crave, but Mourinho does not appear to trust Luiz.
Luiz may not be overly concerned, telling Brazilian media outlet UOL about his lack of playing time: "It will be like it has always been, I am never worried. I train hard and seriously every day. He [Mourinho] has his options." But it is easy to understand why Mourinho does not put his faith in the South American. Chelsea captain Terry, with his combination of experience and ability, has demonstrated he is again his club's best defender. Cahill, when partnered with his skipper, has also been a reassuring presence. Luiz's time at Stamford Bridge could be running out.
Basel v Chelsea is live on Sky Sports 2HD on Tuesday from 7.45pm
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