David Luiz is a risk for Chelsea, but Antonio Conte has reason to be happy
It's no secret that David Luiz was not Chelsea's first-choice option to bolster their central defence. The club had pursued a range of center-backs, most notably Napoli's Kalidou Koulibaly and Milan's Alessio Romagnoli, without success. Chelsea were stuck. Indeed, if manager Antonio Conte hadn't signed off on Luiz in the last 72 hours of the transfer window, this deal might never have happened.
On Tuesday night, 24 hours before the transfer window shut, Chelsea had all but given up. PSG were refusing to budge, saying it was not about money; Luiz simply wasn't for sale. Needing a warm body in any case, Chelsea made contingency plans and prepared to take Aymen Abdennour on loan from Valencia.
Overnight, though, PSG's stance softened. According to multiple sources, part of it had to do with some aggressive lobbying from Luiz and his representatives. Yes, he had three years remaining on his contract, but he wanted to take the opportunity presented. Few clubs want to deal with a player who would rather be elsewhere.
Part of it was down to Unai Emery. Luiz had started every game this season, but the PSG manager had really been impressed with 21-year-old Presnel Kimpembe, the man who partnered with Luiz in central defence. Kimpembe was ready to be a regular. And with Marquinhos and Thiago Silva both on their way back (the former from the Olympics, the latter from a hip injury), Emery had three serviceable central defenders he really liked.
Part of it -- because we're all human and what's recent sticks in our minds -- may also have been Luiz's poor performance in PSG's 3-1 defeat against Monaco on Sunday night. Was he really worth going to war over?
But what do Chelsea get, other than the answer to a trivia question? (David Luiz is the third-most expensive center-back of all time and is also the ninth-most expensive, the only guy to figure in the top 10 twice.)
Conte's main priority was depth in defense. Depth of any kind, really. He was far from comfortable going into the season with just five battle-tested defenders: Cesar Azpilicueta, Branislav Ivanovic, Gary Cahill, John Terry and Kurt Zouma. Especially not when Zouma, who suffered a horrendous injury back in February won't return until October, and even then, it's unclear what condition he'll be in. And Terry turns 36 before Christmas.
Above all, Conte wanted options, and in Marcos Alonso (who arrived from Fiorentina for $33.5 million) and Luiz, he now has them. Alonso can play left-back or as the left-side center-back. Luiz has played center-back and central midfield. Zouma can play center-back but has also filled in as a central midfielder and right-back. Ivanovic can play right-back or center-back and Azpilicueta can fill either full-back role.
With Chelsea's personnel, Conte can play a back three, something you can't really do without a ball-playing center-half like Luiz, or a back four. He can then figure out whether he wants to stick with 4-2-3-1, revert to some version of the 3-5-2 he used at Juventus, whip out the 4-2-4 he used to win Serie B in his Siena days, conjure up a 4-3-3 to make room for Cesc Fabregas or, indeed, any other scheme swimming around in his head.
Conte is a manager who craves control, and control becomes meaningful only when you have options. Options become even more important than sheer talent because a clever manager can find the right scheme to turn good players into great ones, whereas 11 great players might not fit together into a coherent team. (If you need further persuasion that this is how he thinks, go back and watch Italy vs. Belgium or Italy vs. Spain at Euro 2016. Scheme beats talent in his world.)
Of course, that's not to say that Luiz isn't talented. Even his detractors -- and there are many in England, where he's the butt of jokes second only to Mario Balotelli and possibly Eliaquim Mangala -- concede the guy is big, strong, mobile, athletic and excellent with the ball at his feet. Where he comes up short -- here, you think back about Gary Neville's quip about playing as if he was controlled by a kid playing FIFA 16 -- is defending, which is admittedly rather important for a defender. His stance in one-on-one situations is often unorthodox; he makes poor decisions and he switches off more often than you would like.
It's not an ideal situation. But in "ConteWorld," a parallel dimension where the manager has boundless faith in the power of hard work and repetition to make ordinary footballers perform like extraordinary ones, that can be fixed. You can teach a guy to defend. You can drill the right response for any situation into him so there are no decisions to make, just automatic reactions to execute. And, as for lapses in concentration and human error, if you hang out with Conte for two hours at training for every day, you learn to stay focused in double-quick time.
Moreover, despite the way some love to lampoon Luiz -- mainly because when he looks bad, he looks really, really bad -- he was actually consistently solid for much of last season. When he's good, folks never remember. When he's bad, they never forget.
Still, it's a leap of faith. Luiz had five different managers in his first spell at Chelsea, and to a man, they all struggled to get him to live up to his potential at center-back. For this to work, Conte has to succeed where Carlo Ancelotti, Andre Villas-Boas, Roberto Di Matteo, Rafa Benitez and Jose Mourinho came up short. That's what you call a tall order.
Is it a gamble? Sure. Even the notion that Luiz is a natural fit for a back three because he can pass the ball out of the back and there will be an extra center-half babysitting him is a stretch when you consider that he's never played in a 3-5-2.
Did they overpay? Sure. You usually do when you acquire a starter from a club like Paris Saint-Germain ... unless it's Zlatan Ibrahimovic and he lets his contract run down. In fact, Chelsea probably overpaid for Alonso too.
Does it matter to Conte? Probably not. It was late, he needed a live body, the market was closing, and the alternative -- with all due respect -- was Abdennour.
Conte may not have gotten the guy he wanted, but he got a guy in Luiz who can do the things he wants. The question is whether the manager can get Luiz to stop doing the things he doesn't want.
Gabriele Marcotti is a senior writer for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @Marcotti.