It was only Monday morning last week, when there was already so much doubt about Chelsea’s entire season, but Antonio Conte already had a sharply clear idea in his head. He called David Luiz over and told him that, no matter what happened, he would be playing in midfield for the champions’ trip to Wembley to play Tottenham Hotspur.
There was a bit of bristling about that when the decision was finally announced around 3pm that day. The Brazilian has played there before for Chelsea but has always been a bit rough around the edges in the role in a way that seemed to reflect his entire first spell at Stamford Bridge, and the entire situation seemed to reflect the difficulty that Conte had in picking this team with so many absences and doubts after the shock 3-2 defeat to Burnley. No matter what team he could have selected, it seemed, it involved a compromise; another problem arising elsewhere in the side that was so dangerous against a team like Spurs.
Except, on the day, there was no compromise - or at least none visible. There was only conviction, especially from David Luiz.
He was brilliant; “an amazing performance from David… a point of reference for the other players”, as Conte put it. The 30-year-old was the key to the manager’s solution to a tough problem, and the wonder now is whether he can also offer one solution to the club’s problems in the transfer market.
Conte still wants to bring in four players, but there have already been suggestions from inside the club that David Luiz’s performance is causing him to reconsider the targets, to go for different options that could at last unlock a few routes to business. The Italian has wanted Danny Drinkwater, but has so far found Leicester City completely unwilling to do business for anything less than £40m. It could yet see Chelsea divert that attention to Virgil van Dijk, who remains a player they like, and who could yet leave Southampton for the right money - despite their strong stance.
Given the type of fee that would involve, it would immediately see David Luiz usurped as first-choice central centre-half, but that would be no problem if his first position became midfield.
There is also a fair argument that it would suit him just as much.
While David Luiz has occasionally been erratic in the position before, there was none of that against Spurs. He was always there obstructing their play, ensuring they could only create half-chances and flashed crosses, while generally creating trouble for them. His energy just greatly suited the role, and it’s hard not to put this down to Conte’s specific type of coaching.
The manager famously likes to literally walk - and sometimes abrasively grab - his players through shape work, and worked on that from Thursday to Saturday before the game. You could see the effects in how David Luiz moved, and how he spoke afterwards.
“My job was to run,” he said afterwards. “I was running a lot. I had to cover the space of fantastic players like [Christian] Eriksen and Dele Alli. They always play very well between the lines so I was trying to close this gap and not leave space for them to create.
“It was a clever game. You need to understand when you play against a very good team, sometimes you can keep more of the ball but sometimes you need to try to surprise them on the counter-attack with one touch. I think we did great in a clever way.”
It may yet prove a clever long-term solution. It is often said by those within the game that David Luiz is excellent… so long as he doesn’t have too much tactical responsibility, and this is the real effect of Conte’s approach and system. It gives him clear instructions, as well as clear back-up in a midfield that also had debutant Tiemoue Bakayoko and N’Golo Kante.
It had a big effect on Chelsea’s win over Spurs, and could yet have an effect on their transfer business.