How valuable is David Luiz to Chelsea? Compared to Kompany, Ferdinand & Vermaelen

How valuable is David Luiz to Chelsea? Compared to Kompany, Ferdinand & Vermaelen

In the wake of a rejected £35 million bid from Barcelona for Chelsea defender David Luiz, quite a debate has erupted over the former Benfica man’s actual worth to the team. Luiz, whilst a first-team stalwart and a fan favourite, has nevertheless been derided in the past by fans and pundits alike for his erratic defending, none more famously than Gary Neville. The former England right-back’s comments that Luiz defended like he was being controlled by a “10 year old on a Playstation” did much to spread the idea that Luiz was something of a liability; a gifted but unreliable defender prone to unforgivable lapses of concentration.

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A year on, and David Luiz is a far superior player. A full season for Chelsea has seen the Brazilian blossom from the inconsistency that plagued his game into a truly top-class defender. Nevertheless, a combination of the size of the proposed transfer fee and the hangover from last year’s furore over his reliability has led to widespread uncertainty over Luiz’ worth. Some argue that Luiz, no matter how much he has improved, isn’t worth £35 million. Others – Chelsea supporters among them – say that David Luiz is showing the potential to become a truly world-class defender, and given the scarcity of other players of similar calibre and the inherent hassle, cost and uncertainty that comes with signing one, it wouldn’t be worth letting him go. In this article, I compare Luiz to a selection of the Premier League’s top centre-backs and assess his value to the team.

The contenders

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In the above graph, David Luiz is compared head to head with three defenders from the rest of last season’s top four along with teammate Gary Cahill, as something of a control subject. All five of these defenders are amongst the Premier League’s elite, and importantly all four spent most of last season at centre-back and played a similar amount of minutes. [1]

In terms of minutes played, Luiz was top amongst the five, but this has relatively little value. On the other hand, the ground 50-50 win % is a vital statistic for centre-backs, dictating their ability to win individual duels with opposition players on the ground. In this parameter, Luiz is clearly the least effective, far behind the leader Rio Ferdinand (74%) and even behind his teammate Cahill (59%). In terms of aerial 50-50s, he fares a little better. Vermaelen loses out with 55%, and Luiz ties with Ferdinand at the marginally higher 57%. Cahill, somewhat surprisingly, beats out Vincent Kompany – a player known for his aerial ability – by 8 clear percent.

Tackle success % is another important parameter for centre backs. Whilst ground duels is about not getting beaten, tackle success % dictates how often a player cleanly wins a tackle. Another surprise in this category sees the normally clean-tackling Ferdinand lose out with under 75%. The Chelsea pair top out the rankings, with Cahill (85.71%) edging out David Luiz (84.09%). Kompany again shows his reliability in the minutes per defensive error category, remarkably having made no defensive errors at all during the course of the season. Luiz is next up with 1317 minutes, followed by Ferdinand and Cahill in quick succession. Vermaelen is the clear loser, logging a poor 373 minutes per defensive error.

Interceptions is an interesting statistic. Occasionally, the amount of interceptions a player gets is more to do with the system he’s played in and his own approach to the game rather than individual quality. It could be argued that such a phenomenon occurs here: even when adjusting for minutes played, Luiz is the best interceptor, blowing away his closest competitor (Vermaelen with 52) by 27. In terms of discipline, there are two losers. Luiz racked up the most yellow cards – eight – but Kompany managed to get himself a red. Cahill proved himself the cleanest player, picking up a solitary yellow card.

In the final two parameters, Luiz loses out fairly comprehensively in terms of losing the ball – unsurprisingly, given his reputation for flakiness – but utterly destroys his competition in terms of chances created. The interesting flip side of Gary Neville’s accusations last year is that whilst Luiz might be adventurous for a defender, this can reap huge dividends in attack. With the other four defenders registering five chances created or fewer, Luiz’ 18 looks mighty in comparison. [2]

What is David Luiz worth to Chelsea?

Now we come to the part of the article where we have to step away from the comfort blanket of stats and figures and take a trip into the world of intangibles and opinions. First things first – and to get it out of the way – there can no longer be any denying that Luiz deserves to be considered one of the Premier League’s elite defenders. Though he can be beaten in the air and his ground duels in particular need some work, he is a clean tackler, has excellent anticipatory skills, and perhaps most crucially has massively improved his reliability in regards to giving the ball away. There are plenty of other auxiliary factors to consider, but they mostly balance themselves out – his poor discipline counteracted by his swashbuckling attacking play, for example.

With that in mind, what is he worth to Chelsea? Top echelon Premier League defenders don’t come cheap, and given that Luiz is, at 26, a perfect tradeoff between potential and current ability, his value is likely to rise even more. However, £35 million is a sizeable chunk of money, surely enough to cover those factors and more. As such, we need to look a little deeper.

It is fairly obvious that Chelsea don’t need the money. Bankrolled by Roman Abramovich, the club hasn’t sold a key player that they wanted to keep more or less since the Russian took over. Whilst this doesn’t affect Luiz’ value to the club in itself, it does affect his transfer market price, given that Abramovich has something of a higher threshold when it comes to ‘normal prices’ (see: Torres, Fernando).

In terms of Luiz’ actual value to the club as a footballer, however, there is another potential factor that could boost his worth. To pop back into the realm of hard facts and figures, his stats are, like the old David Luiz, rather erratic. Clear victories in some parameters are offset by large defeats in others. But the most interesting thing to consider is their relation to his central defensive partner, Gary Cahill. Cahill is a talented, solid, perhaps somewhat underrated defender, but importantly his strengths contrast almost completely with Luiz’. Cahill’s strengths are in the air and in the tackle, a fine example of the oft-vaunted ‘traditional English centre-back’. He is tidy, a clean player who makes few mistakes. On the other hand, Luiz is his near-polar opposite, an exciting, speedy and technical player (though Cahill’s technique is not to be sniffed at either) who throws caution to the wind and pushes up the field in order to try and intercept the ball early, before sparking a counterattack with an incisive pass. The two of them complement each other perfectly, and that is arguably the biggest argument in Luiz’ favour.

As such, Chelsea’s laundry list of attributes a prospective new like-for-like centre-back must have includes: technique, pace, anticipation, a fantastic haircut, a connection with the fans, enough quality to be considered top tier but enough youth to be considered as having potential, and the adaptability to come into the Chelsea team and settle as a first teamer within about a week. The pool of top-level ball-playing centre backs of Luiz’ ilk is small enough, and when coupled with the formidable list above it dwindles to nobody. Luiz’ value to Chelsea is rooted in his near-uniqueness, and that is the major reason why, to his club, he is worth so much. Couple this with Abramovich’s vast wealth, and for now it looks like Chelsea fans can rest easy that their cult hero will be staying in London.

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[1] In adherence to these two parameters, I had to rule out some other potential candidates. Jan Vertonghen, for example, spent roughly a third of his season at left-back, skewing statistics. Likewise, although Per Mertesacker or more pertinently Laurent Koscielny were both superior players for Arsenal over the course of the season, their minutes played were respectively too high and too low to consider.

[2] It must be noted at this point that Luiz did play a few games in midfield for Chelsea, which could have improved these stats. However, his good passing accuracy (81%), high shots total (56) and high dribble attempt number (37) all point towards an attacking presence no matter the position he plays in.