When Chelsea paid Benfica €25 million for their defender, David Luiz, it was a signal of intent. Worried about teams learning how to ‘park the bus’ at Stamford Bridge and escape with a point, Carlo Ancelotti forked out for a player who has the ability to unlock deep lying defences with his attacking instincts. While Luiz is doubtless a solid and athletic defensive player, he has been signed predominantly for his eagerness to link up with midfield and forward lines. After only a handful of games in England Luiz already seems more capable of revolutionising Chelsea’s attacking game than a centre forward for whom Chelsea paid twice as much.
Attacking from deep
Luiz is a modern day sweeper, if you like. At Benfica he played at left back or in the centre of defence, but regardless of his starting position invariably looked to forage at any given opportunity. Scheidts Football Miscellany points out if Luiz was English there is no way he would be a defender; he is far too good on the ball for traditionalist British coaches to see him as a defensive player. He has the skill and flair of a trequartista, not to mention the hairstyle. Nonetheless a place in the back line suits him well as he can attack from deep and cause havoc, as nobody will be quite sure who should be picking him up as he moves between the lines. Teams facing The Blues could do worse than designate a forward player to keep an eye on Luiz’s rampages and track him back when he does.
Other such players include Daniel Agger of Liverpool, Thomas Vermaelen of Arsenal and Tiago Silva of Milan, but none of them go forward with the same frequency as Luiz. For a team employing one of this breed of attacking defender it is essential they include at least one midfielder who is capable of slotting into the vacated position during a game.
Chelsea have an abundance of defensive midfielders (Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel, Ramires) who can all cover at centre back, and this is probably why Ancelotti was so keen to utilise this tactic. While John Terry likes to stride out of defence to good effect, he is losing his pace (which was always average at best) and stamina, and will probably not cross the half way line in open play too often when playing alongside Luiz.
This season Arsene Wenger employs both Alexander Song and Jack Wilshire in defensive midfield positions in a 4-2-3-1 structure, which allows for the creative instincts of Thomas Vermaelen as well as freeing fullbacks Gael Clichy and Bacary Sagna. At Liverpool, Daniel Agger is commonly regarded as one of the best ball-playing centre backs in the Premier League. He too is helped by a duo of defensive players shielding the back four, in the form of Lucas Leiva and A N Other. Unfortunately we have not yet seen Liverpool unlock Agger’s potential as an attacking force, as their poor couple of seasons along with the Dane’s injury record has hindered the development of this tactic at Anfield. Meanwhile, Milan’s typically Italian outlook includes not two but three defensive minded midfielders, who can all step in to play in Silva’s position.
Which came first?
We are faced with something of a chicken-egg situation: some teams have bought in an attacking defender because they have defensive midfield players, while others sign defensive midfielders to protect their team when their sweeper fancies a stroll into opposition territory. With Chelsea it’s the former. For Arsenal, Wenger has a history of signing defenders who have the talent to play further forward, in fact William Gallas was so eager to join the attack and score goals he even wore the number 10 shirt. However, when the Frenchman was at the club Arsenal were often vulnerable to counter attacks, as they only employed one holding player (Song). This season it is no coincidence that despite Wenger’s refusal to sign a recognised world class centre back, The Gunners have been far more dependable at the back (if we ignore their horror show against Newcastle, anyway).
The ramifications of an attack-minded centre back could be significant. Does the opposition assign one of their centre forwards to track a sweeper’s advances? Or does the midfielder who is usually tasked with picking up the holding player have to be shrewd enough to notice when the two have swapped roles?
Employing the sweeper as an attacking threat usually only reaches its full potential when facing an inferior side who are likely to cede possession and field position happily. Alternatively, a strong team who has gone a goal up in an important game may look to defend their lead in numbers – see Liverpool’s surprise victory at Stamford Bridge. Luiz was brought to make at right back in an effort to combat Liverpool’s retreat but spent most of his time in The Reds’ half.
Not such a new concept
While the position of the sweeper has been around for decades, since the advent of the Premier League in 1992 and the domination of the basic 4-4-2 it has rarely been employed in England. Spain’s international supremacy has seen many international teams adopt their 4-2-3-1 formation, which allows defenders and midfielders to switch much more freely. By protecting the central defenders much more deliberately and effectively than a 4-4-2, defenders are granted the liberty to join attacks.
Chelsea have been playing with at least one defensive minded midfielder since they signed Claude Makelele in 2003, while Liverpool adopted the double defensive midfield formation under Rafael Benitez’s tutelage. But until Luiz’s arrival Chelsea depended far too much on their fullbacks to support attacks. Negating Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa was a failsafe way of stifling Chelsea under Luis Felipe Scholari, and his over-reliance on the Brazilian tradition of fullbacks providing thrust down the wings saw him sacked. Now Branislav Ivanovic is the incumbent right back, although he is a better player than given credit for, he does not have the pace or dribbling ability of a true wing back. Luiz gives Chelsea a plan B – but will it be enough for them to usurp Tottenham Hotspur or Manchester City and claim a top four finish?