Maurizio Sarri is revolutionising Chelsea football, but every such endeavour needs a leader. His best option may also be an unexpected one. David Luiz may not strike everyone as immediate captaincy candidate, but a closer took tells a different story.
As an expat living in Russia, I was constantly taken aback by the deep literary knowledge of its people. It would manifest itself in a variety of ways: a bus driver quoting Pushkin or a reference to Shakespeare on a billboard advertising SIM cards. My favorite though was in the furnished flat I rented – a small statuette of Don Quixote that rested on top of the piano. I have never seen anything like it anywhere in Western Europe or North America. It isn’t surprising that Don Quixote is popular in Eastern Europe; Eastern Orthodox Christians have a rich tradition of the yurodivy, or “Holy Fool.” The yurodivy revealed the vanity and folly of the audience. Quixote does the same. His foolishness is beautiful, and, therefore, wise. Russians can exist in that paradox in a way most of us in the West cannot. I bet David Luiz is hugely popular there. Perhaps Maurizio Sarri is big Cervantes fan. It would explain – along with the Brazilian’s excellent range of passing – his continued presence in Chelsea’s back line.
Luiz’s return to the starting lineup is not the only change Sarri has brought to west London. He has instituted the proactive football Roman Abramovich has craved for the last 15 years. Antonio Conte warned Chelsea must be prepared to suffer before matches; Sarri insists his players have fun. He is the only manager to ever rebuke Eden Hazard for coming too far back. The Stamford Bridge faithful must constantly be pinching themselves, unable to believe that this is the same team that completely ceded possession to Guardiola’s Manchester City last spring. This is a revolution.
As any student of history will tell you, however, a revolution needs leaders. The Italian boss has spent the last two months stalling on naming a permanent captain though. Hazard’s ongoing contract negotiations are rumoured to include the captaincy, but Cesar Azpilicueta has worn the armband on matchdays. Yes, the little Belgian captained his nation to a 3rd place finish at the World Cup, but one suspects he was given the armband because of his inherent likability (and being really, really good at football). But after the last minute victory over Japan, for example, it was Lukaku rallying the troops and encouraging them on. Simply put, Hazard is too passive to captain a side like Chelsea.
It is a tricky situation because the incumbent captain, Gary Cahill, is a fine leader. Despite having a relatively poor season, he still managed to make England’s World Cup squad largely because of his experience and influence. Unfortunately for him, he is a million miles from Chelsea’s starting XI under Sarrismo.
Azpilicueta is the holdover vice-captain. The Basque defender is a consummate professional. The best illustration for this came from 2017’s title celebrations: when others were seen with champagne and beers, he was walking around with his protein shake. He is a man who leads by example. When Jose Mourinho asked him to play left back, he locked down Chelsea’s flank. When Antonio Conte needed a right-sided center back, he was a revelation. He is the perfect player for an autocratic manager; he does what he’s told, and he does it well. Is it any wonder Mourinho once said his perfect team was 11 Azpilicuetas?
Life is different under the new regime, however. Sarri has not just brought in attacking football, but a loosening of off-field restrictions. Brown sauce, a curious concoction for those outside of the United Kingdom, is once again allowed at Cobham, and players can sleep in their own beds the night before home game. Proactive football within a more relaxed environment requires proactive leadership. Leading by example is not enough.
One candidate to fill the vacuum could be Cesc Fabregas. He has experience, having captained Arsenal at the tender age of 21. One of my favorite things about the Catalan playmaker is the subtle way he admonishes teammates for immaturity on social media; it is done with a wink and a smile, but also from a position of natural authority. Like Cahill, however, it is difficult to see how Fabregas will break into the starting lineup at Chelsea.
So, the Blues need a captain who is a big enough personality to command respect in a relaxed atmosphere, able to speak his mind to the boss, and a regular starter. The answer is staring us right in the face, but we cannot see him for his big, goofy hair. I’m talking about everyone’s favourite Brazilian (and if he isn’t your favourite, you might want to examine your priorities in life), David Luiz.
I can already hear the objections, but let me put forward my case. The first objection is usually that he’s too rash to be a club captain – essentially some form of Gary Neville’s assessment that he played as if he was “controlled by a 10-year-old in the crowd on a Playstation.” I ask you, ladies and gentleman of the jury, is it possible a player can mature and grow? When Neville made that pronouncement in 2011, Gary Cahill had only just cemented his place in Bolton’s starting lineup and Jamie Vardy was playing non-League football. However, Neville’s catchy turn of phrase stuck. As a result, every performance from the flamboyant center back is judged with a healthy dose of confirmation bias. For example, who do you think has more defensive errors and errors leading directly to goals since the Brazilian’s return to English football: Luiz or the steady, reliable Cahill? It’s Cahill, of course, but he does not have the same reputation as a loose cannon.
Some might object he does not take his role seriously enough. It is easy to recall him dancing happily in a silly hat in front of supporters after winning the Champions League in Munich. It is harder to remember the context. He returned early from a hamstring injury to anchor the defense with Terry and Ivanovic both suspended. He worked incredibly hard to pass a late fitness test and played the full 120 minutes as the match went into extra time. As a result, his right hamstring still bears a physical notch from the exertions of that night. Luiz put his body on the line for the club and has the scars to prove it. But because he jokes around and regularly throws a shaka, and we assume he’s a larker.
The Chelsea defender has a light-hearted demanour, but it has a purpose. N’Golo Kante is famously reserved; it is easy for such personalities to be overlooked in a dressing room full of big characters. Luiz recognized this and went out of his way to engage the shy Frenchman. Yes, it was in a joking manner, but it belied an earnest objective to make sure everyone’s voice was heard. This awareness of team dynamics was present early in his career as well. When Benfica legend Luisao was out of the squad, a 21-year-old Luiz deputized as captain. One does not give a leadership role to one of the youngest players in the first team because he is a bit of a laugh.
There were reports last season of David Luiz questioning Antonio Conte’s approach and of dust-ups between the two. Some might construe this as immaturity or impudence. With the benefit of hindsight, however, it is another argument in favor of his leadership abilities – he served as a representative of his teammates and confronted the boss. Every Chelsea player appearing in front of a journalist now mentions how happy he is now that Sarri has arrived; it is easy to read between the lines. Conte’s intensity brought out the best in the squad 2016/17, but his fiery style left many burnt out last season. A fifth place finish, a meek exit from the Champions League, and a dismissal for gross misconduct underscore the inefficacy of Conte’s methods in 2017/18. If you or I confronted our supervisor over his behaviour and upper management fired him for gross misconduct, we would be considered for the vacant role as a straight shooter with great leadership potential.
One of the most neglected topics when discussing what makes a good team captain though is how little the armband actually matters during the match at the weekend. A match is a small percentage of a player’s working week. A professional spends most days at the training ground, trying to entertain himself while traveling, or fulfilling obligations from the media office. Whether it is cheering on teammates in a Cobham table tennis tournament (the Spaniards in the squad, incidentally, are quite good) or surprising a young fan by showing up at his house for dinner for Chelsea TV, Luiz excels in these environments.
The role of the captain also entails quite a bit of mentorship to young players. It is telling that David Luiz is mentioned in just about every interview with a young player in Chelsea’s squad. Ethan Ampadu and Andreas Christensen regularly speak of Luiz’s influence. These young players listen to him because they see in him epistemological authority as he guides players to recognize what it means to be a professional. This sort of mentoring is all the more remarkable because any improvement from either of those two young defenders puts the 31-year-old’s place in the team under threat. Losing a berth in the starting lineup at this point in his career heralds its end. The rational conduct in this situation is to defend that spot by any means necessary and not to aid one’s own downfall. As fans of a football club, we should praise the Brazilian’s brand of “irrationality.”
That kindness extends beyond his teammates. Luiz left home at 14, and knows how hard it can be to be away from home and adapt to a new culture. He has created a community for his countrymen that join him in the Premier League, regardless of club colours. He celebrates call-ups for fellow Brazilians, invites younger players over for dinner, hosts birthday parties, and helps homesick newcomers find items that remind them of home.
Leaders should guide others to an understanding not just of how the world is but also how it should be. The floppy-haired defender’s empathy and positivity reveal our own reflexive cynicism and pettiness, and it is uncomfortable to have one’s vulnerabilities exposed. When confronted with our own moral failings, we are presented with a choice: to heed the admonishment and grow or dismiss the message by any means necessary. The easiest route is to discredit the messenger. So, we tut-tut his naivete as a means of justifying our own negativism. The fact that we are so quick to dismiss his leadership qualities says more about us than it does him.
In this, David Luiz resembles Prince Myshkin in Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Idiot. The novel was inspired by Don Quixote and is built around the premise that a truly good and kind man can no longer function in society. Most of the other characters mistake Myshkin as an idiot because he extends forgiveness to those who wrong him, is earnest rather than ironical, and lives open-heartedly. He is a yurodivy. There are some, though, that hear his message of radical charity and see the error of their own outrecuidance. It is through this hero that Dostoevsky asserts “Beauty will save the world.” Beauty is not just some artistic flourish. It is a confrontation with darkness. It does not just reflect how world is, but how it should be – how it CAN be if we were to live without ego and conceit. And who better to lead Chelsea Football Club into that brave new world than the grinning boy from Bahia?