London – It was actually David Luiz who had first volunteered the word “risk” in relation to his return to Chelsea. He was on the turf at Stamford Bridge last Sunday conducting a post-match interview in French with William Gallas, his team-mates’ title-winning celebrations crackling all around and a Premier League winner’s medal round his neck, when it cropped up in passing as he lingered, momentarily, on the life he had left behind at Paris Saint-Germain.
The theme was revisited in a stuffy media tent at the champions’ Cobham training base on Thursday but whereas the Brazilian had addressed Gallas through a beaming smile, this time his response bordered on the prickly. Probably with good reason. Why did he consider his return to Chelsea to be a risk? “You know,” he snapped back, albeit through a smile that hinted at disbelief. “If you want me to be honest, be honest with me. Of course, you know. I was winning everything in Paris. I was there for two years and won all the titles in France. I had a great life, great credibility with the club … I had everything.
“But then I took a risk to come back to the one country that was not that happy with me. Where they always criticised me a lot even after winning the Champions League, the Europa League or where I’d played all the games. That’s why it was a risk. And I love the risk. If you don’t take risks in your life – in your professional life but also in everyday life – you never feel anything new, so I [chose to] taste something new. I don’t like to stay always with the easy life but I’m happy now because I took the right decision.”
There is no arguing with that. David Luiz is a natural born winner. Securing the Premier League means he has won the title in Portugal, France and England, to go with the Champions League and Europa League from that first three-and-a-half-year spell at Chelsea.
He boasts an FA Cup winner’s medal from 2012, despite sitting out the victory over Liverpool with a hamstring injury picked up in the semi-final – he would play the European Cup final against Bayern Munich in considerable pain but still end victorious – and goes into Saturday’s showpiece with Arsenal hoping to win another while influencing matters on the pitch.
The list of honours is startling and yet there had been incredulity when news filtered through late last August that the centre-half was returning from France. Therein lies the source of David Luiz’s frustration. Life at PSG may have been as comfortable as it was successful but the real risk was confronting the reception that was waiting back in England, where so many assumed he was the same entrancingly flamboyant but error-prone player who had departed for £48m in 2014. Antonio Conte had been scouring Serie A for solid, dependable types. The Brazilian’s reputation hardly fitted that mould.
Yet his displays this season have proved the watching world wrong. Admittedly, he has benefited in the middle of a three-man defence, where he can be the ball player with more rugged and safety-first team-mates at his side, but the anticipated litany of blunders has simply not materialised. These days the mistakes are so rare – there was one difficult afternoon at Old Trafford, when Marcus Rashford was in the mood, but precious few others – that they feel exceptional, which would explain his bristling at the regular reminders of failings first time round. “I heard a lot of bad things when he arrived, that he was ‘not a defender’,” Conte said. “But we were sure we were signing a really good player we could lift up again to be one of the best defenders in Europe and, I hope, in the world. He has good technique, he’s strong, he starts our possession and has the personality to do this.”
That spell in Paris did change him. The Brazilian was always highly motivated and competitive, and retains that joyful zest for life, but his game developed at PSG. He returned a more accomplished player and a more mature man, even if the wild celebrations of the past few days have brought flashes of the free-spirited David Luiz back into the public eye. Where once he tapped into a reputation as the joker in the dressing room, these days he considers himself one of the motivators; a leader. He has taken N’Golo Kanté under his wing, ensuring the quiet man in the Chelsea midfield is properly involved, part of the gang. They are an unlikely pair but the 30-year-old saw it as his responsibility to make the new man feel at home.
Similarly, where many at Chelsea once feared David Luiz’s focus was continually being drawn to a possible move to Barcelona, now he is settled, content and at ease with his surroundings. He has moved – not back to central London, where he used to own a penthouse flat overlooking Putney Bridge, but to sleepier Surrey. “And, if you want to know about the money, I cut my salary to come back here,” he said. “But it’s OK, God has given me a lot, so I’m happy with this. Did I come back different? Always the same question … I think I try to improve as a person, as a brother, as a son, as a friend every day.
“If you don’t think in this way, if you don’t want to learn, then one day everybody will pass you, so I try to improve every day. The day I arrived back here I spoke with Conte – a great person, a great character who is passionate and loves his football – and he tried to explain his philosophy to play football. He said to me: ‘You are the player I want in my team and to improve my team.’ So I said to him: ‘I’m going to work hard for you and for the team’ and that’s it. I’ve been working hard a lot since the beginning of my career and to play 10 years consecutively in big clubs is not easy, and I try to give my best every season.”
He has brought it to Chelsea. A team who had languished 10th in the division last term have carried all before them.
“So I am the magic, no? The difference?” the Brazilian at the heart of their defence said. “No, of course I’m not. Two years ago they also won this title. Last season was not a good season for Chelsea but this season, we have done great since the beginning – and not just because of me. Because of everybody. Because of the commitment, the desire, the mentality we put on the pitch every day. That’s why we deserve it.”
If his was a risky return, then his gamble has paid off handsomely.
The Guardian Sport