Damien Duff reached back into the recent storied history of punditry on Wednesday when he described David Luiz’s performance as ‘Playstation stuff' as the Brazilian and PSG battled out an often comic 2-2 draw with Manchester City in the first leg of their Champions League quarter-final.
Duff was invoking Gary Neville of course, who coined the term about the then Chelsea defender back in 2012. Neville said Luiz played like he was being controlled by a ten-year-old on a Playstation. He later spoke of his regret at the statement but the stigma remained. Luiz was tagged a clown figure and nothing he has done since has shaken off that label particularly to Premier League fans.
There can be little argument that Luiz sometimes does his bit when it comes to living up to the clown act. He needed fourteen seconds to complete a particularly Luiz-ian foul on Sergio Aguero to earn himself a yellow card and a second leg suspension and his contorted attempts to clear David Silva’s through ball for Kevin De Bruyne’s opener was more reminiscent of a drunk plunging out the front door than a world class defender.
In between, Luiz was once again a peculiar kind of driving force for PSG, winning a debatable penalty and scuttling forward whenever he could to try and influence the tie. There are dozens of instances in games where Luiz powers forward on the front foot, dispossesses a centre-forward and starts an attack but none of these make for particularly good vines and thus the larger picture with him sometimes gets lost.
Neville, perhaps feeling a little guilty for his labelling of Luiz, participated in a debate with Jamie Carragher on Monday Night Football back in 2014 about the Brazilian where Neville made the point that perhaps England - with its flat back four and notion of centre-halves as stoppers first - had it wrong and the likes of Luiz had it right.
Carragher disagreed and in Luiz’s case, the sight of him anguishing, flat on his back in the Maracana in July 2014 as Germany methodically picked apart Brazil lent weight to the more traditional idea of what a defender should be.
Last week, in the far less nuanced surroundings of BT’s ‘Fletch and Sav’ Micheal Owen emerged from his usual elevator music mode of analysis to proclaim the problem with Everton’s John Stones; he’s simply too good.
Owen believes that Stones’ ability on the ball would mean he could comfortably play for Barcelona right now without a problem. He along with Glenn Hoddle dismissed the notion of Stones’ errors this season being an issue, highlighting once again, his ball playing prowess and ignoring the near season worth of evidence that Stones has positional issues and is prone to errors.
Here is where the lines get blurred when it comes to British interpretations of centre-halves. Often, a foreign defender who is comfortable on the ball ‘has a mistake in him’ and any British centre-half who displays a modicum of passing ability is labelled a ‘ball playing’ centre-half. The label has always intrigued yours truly, that there is a need there to highlight that this defender can play a little and in the case of Stones and any other promising centre-half who can thread the occasional pass into midfield; mistakes can be made and forgiven because of this ability.
This is not to downplay the obvious talent Stones has. Last Sunday, he was calm and composed during Everton’s loss to Manchester United, one meaty challenge on Anthony Martial showed his meaner side and he hit one peach of a pass to Aaron Lennon that took out three United defenders.
Yet David Luiz routinely displays these types of skills and is pilloried for his mistakes and dismissed as a clown. He is seen as something of an absurdity, a mop haired, overpriced circus act who charges forward and can’t defend. Calling Luiz a ball playing centre-half is an insult not a compliment. Daley Blind has been quietly excellent for Manchester United this season yet a suspicion remains about him because he is a player first and a defender second.
Perhaps the origin of the ‘ball playing’ centre-half label has its roots in insecurity, we are meant to take for granted that British centre-halves can defend, the oddities are the ones that can play. It can be flipped for imported centre-halves, we know they can play and we suspect they can’t defend.
Carragher could not let Wednesday pass without a tweet.
Kevin De Bryune is a star, David Luiz has not changed!
— Jamie Carragher (@Carra23) April 6, 2016
And he’s right. Luiz remains a risky defender who tries to influence the game.
But isn’t that exactly what England want John Stones to be?