As the ball was headed down toward Riyad Mahrez on Wednesday evening, there was a surreal sense that you knew what was about to come. David Luiz took a slight step forward before panicking and retreating hurriedly.
The error in judgement had already occurred. Moments later, Mahrez was hauled down, and Luiz was on his way to an early shower.
The nature of such calamitous mistakes is so routine at this point in Luiz’ career that the sending off was almost pre-determined. In the end, Pep Guardiola’s team cruised to a 3-0 victory, that may have occurred anyway, as evidenced by the reverse fixture in December which saw City blitz the Gunners, by the same scoreline.
Still, the predictability of the defeat and the lapses in the concentration of Luiz is a continuing cause of concern for Mikel Arteta and Arsenal.
While the Brazilian did own his mistakes in an interview with Sky Sports directly after the game, and that is certainly admirable, he also alluded to the fact that he should have chosen a different path and not delayed a resolution to his contract talks. Certainly, this is the crux of the issue.
Did Luiz and his agent, Kia Joorabchian, purposely delay contract negotiations until just over one week until his contract was up on June 30th? If so, why?
The most worrying thing about Luiz, as Gary Breen alluded to on Thursday's OTB AM, was that this is a well-established trend at this point in the 33-year-old’s career.
There are numerous examples of his defensive frailties at this point.
At Anfield, earlier this season, a tug on Mohamed Salah’s shirt resulted in a Liverpool penalty. An ill-judged lunge on the halfway line allowed the Egyptian to speed away for Liverpool’s third that day; a challenge that was eerily similar to his judgement in the lead-up to Mahrez’ winning the penalty on Wednesday evening.
There is little sense that Luiz has learned from any of these mistakes. He defends against pacey attackers with such carefree aggression that it usually costs him dearly. At this time, there is little evidence to suggest that will change.
At Chelsea, Antonio Conte managed to protect Luiz by playing him in the middle of a back three of César Azpilicueta and Gary Cahill in which he wasn’t required to defend too much, leaving Luiz free to create from deep; something in which he is exceptionally accomplished.
Additional security was provided by Nemanja Matić and N'Golo Kanté in front of Luiz, as shown here in an analysis of Conte’s system by Tifo Football.
When speaking to Miguel Delaney of the Independent last year the former youth director, João Paolo Sampaio, then of Vitorio, in Brazil, whom Luiz featured for before making the move to Benfica in 2007, believed that this was precisely the position and formation that would get the best out of a player that possessed strong technical skills, and precise passing ability. “I thought he had so much technical ability that he could direct play,” said Sampaio, at the time.
Throughout the 2016/17 season in which Conte’s Chelsea secured the Premier League title at a canter, they conceded just 33 league goals across 38 games. In comparison, Arsenal have already conceded six more times this year, and there are still nine fixtures remaining in the Premier League.
In essence, a team with the defensive liabilities that Arsenal possess can ill-afford to play someone at centre-half like Luiz, who some would argue is better suited to playing as a defensive midfield player.
The consistently poor performances for Arsenal, and the swirling discussions surrounding his contract, cannot have helped the defender to focus and will certainly affect his confidence if he is asked to return to the starting line-up following his suspension.
Can Arsenal challenge the likes of Liverpool and Manchester City with a back four led by David Luiz? Do they need to overhaul the current squad to progress? In light of the anticipated restricted finances all clubs will face as a result of the pandemic, do they have the means to even do so?
Should Arsenal wish to commit to Luiz and offer him a new contract, they will have to find a solution to get the best out of a player that seems long past his best. They will need to find some way to instil newfound confidence in a man who former teammate Mark Schwarzer once described as someone who wears his heart on his sleeve and when it is not going well for him it is, "written all over his face."
Arsenal face a myriad of challenges to return to their former glory, and perhaps Luiz' plight epitomises the uphill battle that the Londoners face.
If the Gunners decide to let Luiz go, then he has a dilemma in front of him. Should Luiz opt to remain in the Premier League, a move to a smaller club who may have less possession on average than Arsenal could see his defensive weaknesses exposed further?
In either situation, Luiz will have to adapt his style of play and, finally, rid himself of these routine mistakes. Or else, he may continue to drift aimlessly.
Written by Ruairi Carberry.