It was a goal this otherwise uneventful match hardly deserved.
With Valentin Stocker having fouled Ramires in the 94th minute of Thursday’s Europa League semifinal first leg between Basel and Chelsea, Blues defender-turned-midfielder David Luiz stepped up to take the resulting free-kick in the final act of the game.
From about 25 yards and slightly to goalkeeper Yann Sommer’s right, David Luiz took only a slight run-up before arrowing a low, hard drive past the Basel wall and into the back of the net at the far post.
Only seven minutes earlier Chelsea had conceded a late equalizer from the penalty spot after Cesar Azpilicueta was harshly judged to have impeded Stocker inside the area, but whether or not the guests deserved more than a draw became irrelevant after the last-gasp winner.
By virtue of his last-gasp winner, David Luiz was the hero on this night, although his overall contribution deserves mention as well. Typically deployed as a central defender in a Chelsea career that reached 100 games at St. Jakob-Park, the Brazilian operated in the centre of midfield on Thursday and put in the sort of performance that will likely have reprising the role before long.
As a defender, the 26-year-old’s abilities are easily apparent.
At 6' 2" he is a commanding physical presence (although his prowess in the air, particularly on set-pieces, could use some work), and he has the sort of instinct and passing ability that combine to make him a threat out of the back. His up-field runs are generally well-timed; his through-balls thread needles.
In other words, despite a slow start to his career in English football, David Luiz has proven to be worth all of the €25 million Chelsea paid Benfica for him in 2011. In fact, he has exceeded expectations.
When Carlo Ancelotti and the Stamford Bridge brain-trust acquired David Luiz just over two years ago they probably didn’t know they’d be getting a player who would one day fit just as nicely into the centre of the park as he did along the backline. Sure, they recognized his versatility—he had occasionally been used as a right-back at Benfica—but the thought of him as a midfielder likely didn’t register.
The thing is, central midfield just might be where he is most useful.
Against Basel, David Luiz had the freedom to involve himself in the play—to touch the ball more often than he had, for example, against Rubin Kazan in the previous round. When on the back-foot, he provided a reliable shield in front of John Terry and Branoslav Ivanovic, and when in possession he permitted his teammates more freedom than they’d otherwise have had.
This was especially true for Ramires, who has never looked quite comfortable in tandem with John Obi Mikel. But alongside David Luiz the Brazil international appeared far more willing to scamper into attacking positions and involve himself in the buildup play. His 47 touches on Thursday were considerably more than he managed against Rubin Kazan and he was required to go in for the tackle far less often.
David Luiz, for his part, recorded an 81 percent passing accuracy against Basel and touched the ball 48 times, breaking up two dribbles. He didn’t break up any dribbles against Rubin Kazan, touched the ball just 42 times and completed only 62 per cent of his passes.
The numbers (provided by WhoScored.com) would seem to indicate a midfield role is better for both David Luiz and Chelsea, but the thing about a player like this—and something the Blues should never take for granted—is that he’ll be willing and able to plug any hole in the squad without the manager having to worry about a drop in quality.
That’s the sort of versatility you can’t put a price-tag on.