Only two days before Aston Villa’s 2019-20 Premier League campaign got underway at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, Douglas Luiz put pen to paper on a four-year deal at Villa Park.
It was a long time coming, the signing of Luiz was touted for several weeks before the new season began – a £15 million fee for the Brazilian a snip in the £143 million outlay Villa spent on their return to the top-flight.
Playing with a swagger only Brazilian ballers can strut, blonde locks and dyed cornrows to boot, he looked the part as Villa counted on their new man to balance a midfield three alongside John McGinn and Jack Grealish.
Villa reluctantly agreed to install a buy-back clause in Luiz’s contract, allowing Manchester City to welcome Luiz back to Pep Guardiola’s squad if desired within two summer transfer windows – but Villa are poised to offer the midfielder an improved deal that will stave off any talk of a swift return to the Etihad,
‘You’ve got a really good lad there’, was the high praise perfectionist Guardiola told Villa boss Dean Smith about a player he let slip through his fingers in 2019.
The Catalan has spoken publicly about the buy-back clause in the midfielder’s contract and insisted that Luiz was firmly in his plans when he signed from Vasco da Gama in 2017.
“He would be here if a work permit were possible if the Premier League said it would be possible but now he is at Aston Villa,” complained Guardiola last year.
“We have an option to get him back but sometimes life is like this. We wanted him because last season we had problems in that position because we didn’t buy a holding midfielder.
“We wanted him before so we thought about it but the rules with the work permit meant it was not possible. I thought he would be here with the pre-season he played last year in the States, he was really good. I think he had the quality to play with us but he could not do it.
“The talent is always there, we’ll see at the end of the season what his level is but the quality is always there. We spent £12-£14 million because he’s a player with a huge capacity to play with us. I’m so sad and disappointed for Douglas, he could have played, he’s shown many good things.”
Luiz went through a long process last summer to ratify his deal to Villa, but the former Brazil Under-21 captain did not arrive at Bodymoor Heath until just a few days before the start of the campaign.
He was excused for a couple of rusty displays despite netting Villa’s first home goal back in the Premier League with some aplomb. Shaping his body perfectly to impart the optimum degree of whip to crash the ball off the crossbar and past Aaron Ramsdale – the bar was still shaking as the Holte End erupted, witnessing Villa’s first goal back in the big time for three years.
A cracker against Norwich to add a fifth to proceedings on Norfolk wasn’t bad either, and clearing a goal-bound effort off the line in the crucial reverse fixture in December demonstrated Luiz’s versatility. Though, in the midst of Villa’s worst run of the season before lockdown hit, Luiz failed to show what he’s all about.
Lacking consistency is possibly to blame, but Villa fans can excuse the odd performance for a player with bags of potential to perform at the highest level of European football. As the Premier League resumed for Project Restart, Luiz became not only a mainstay but after Jack Grealish, the first player on Smith’s team sheet.
Deployed as a deeper-sitting midfielder following his impressive loan spell at Girona, Douglas offers quality in a capacity altogether different to what’s available in Villa’s midfield ranks.
Villa were considerably stronger in the defensive phase with Douglas’ protection offering the necessary foil for Tyrone Mings and Ezri Konsa post-lockdown. The Brazilian brings about comfort and confidence on the ball to complement his terrier-like defensive play. He’s easily identifiable as a proper, all-action South American midfielder.
Dean Smith had hung out various of his first-team players to dry for lacking the quality and belief to get a result at St Mary’s in February. He suggested he has far too many “training ground players” in the dressing room – and Douglas Luiz may well have been one. Without fans, Luiz can play his own game, concentrate on systems and instructions passed on from Smith and teammates alike.
Though, it’s not just simply stadium closures that have helped Luiz bed in at Villa Park and more importantly Bodymoor Heath. During the Coronavirus lockdown period, Luiz passed a statutory English exam because of his works visa.
Douglas Luiz settling in Birmingham: Language exams and John McGinn’s Scottish burr
Luiz has been at the very heart of Villa’s resurgence up the Premier League. Regularly the best player in training despite a slow start to his career in the West Midlands, since lockdown he’s been translating his level of performance in training to matchdays in the most competitive league of them all.
Although his English remains a work in progress, Luiz is starting to become fluent in the language of English football.
“Lockdown served as a period of reflection for us to look back at our mistakes,” Luiz told the Guardian. “The period just before that was a difficult time for us. We were lost. So the mental aspect of being able to reflect on our errors was very important.
“When I arrived at the club I had only a couple of days before I started playing, so I didn’t have time to train regularly with the group or adapt to the players and find out what they were about.
“In lockdown, I was able to do a lot of fitness work and that’s what allowed me to get to the level I’m at now. I’m very happy that I helped Villa stay in the Premier League and now it’s time to prove we deserve to stay here. The Liverpool game was a wonderful night — a great team performance. I think everyone played really well.
“Last season we were unlucky at times against some of the top teams, so it was a nice feeling to beat one of them. Liverpool are an outstanding team, so it was a magnificent achievement for us.”
After handing out the 7-2 mauling of reigning champions Liverpool, Villa have adapted to more pragmatic approaches to games – wins on the road against Leicester and Arsenal prove how effectively Villa have carried out Smith’s meticulous planning.
“We’ve been doing a very good job“, Luiz added.
“We had time to work. It was a very different season than the one in which we fought not to be relegated. This strengthened us so that we can do our best this season.
“We had signings that were essential, that adjusted the team, the coach has been doing a great job and we could beat the current champions. We want to continue doing our job to stay in the Premier League and aim for something bigger.”
Before the November international break, Villa were the only side left in Europe’s top five leagues to have kept clean sheets in every one of their fixtures away from home this season – and Luiz’s role has been crucial to the defensive stability of Smith’s team.
Villa’s boss has also attributed Luiz’s off the field work as a contributor to Villa’s upturn in results.
“The exams were an external thing, you have to do certain ones to continue with your visa,” Smith said.
“He’s [Luiz] passed that now, and the lads have been having a bit of a laugh with him because he keeps saying things like: ‘The television is next to the table!’”
The camaraderie on the training pitch and top performances on a matchday, Luiz has finally settled in the second city. The numbers that make sense of Luiz’s impact post-lockdown is evidence that he will continue to play a major role in any success Villa manages this campaign.
The most startling statistic that demonstrated Luiz’s impact on Smith’s side during Project Restart was the number of xG against Villa. Before lockdown came, Villa conceded an xG of 2.35 per 90. This was by far one of the worst in the league. However, after the restart, that value dropped to 1.17 per 90 – an improvement largely down to Luiz’s performances.
Before the league’s restart, the Brazilian had one of the lowest defensive duels won %, with 49.18%. This was a low ratio for a defensive midfielder, as he engaged in a relatively low number of defensive duels, only attempting 6.10 per 90. The average for the Premier League was 7.32 per 90, so Luiz wasn’t the holding midfielder Villa required at times last term.
Interestingly though, after the restart, the 22-year old had the highest defensive duels won %, with a staggering 67.85%. Luiz won almost 20% more defensive duels, which is surprising as Villa lost more. This success % is by far the highest in the league for defensive midfielders, only challenged by Chelsea’s Mateo Kovačić with 63.92%. Furthermore, this success was far greater than the league average of 57.44%.
Through little fault of his own, Luiz was made to work harder for a starting berth as Villa’s new-look squad scavenged for Premier League points last term. His midfield partner would often change, Villa would often find themselves backs against the wall and for Luiz, it was far from Manchester tiki-taka at times.
John McGinn even confessed that he couldn’t understand his midfielder partner for over half the season.
“I played with Douglas Luiz for the first half of the season before I got injured and he genuinely couldn’t understand a word I said,” McGinn told the Daily Record.
“I don’t know if he spent the lockdown with his tutor online but fair play to him because it helps so much when he can understand ‘man on!’
“I don’t think they know what ‘man on’ is in Brazil. There were a lot of players all from different leagues and countries kind of flung together and because of the money that was spent, people just expected us to gel instantly. But it really doesn’t work like that, especially in a league where you get punished for making mistakes.”
Luiz hadn’t played a minute of English football despite signing for City in 2017 until came off the bench at the all-new, grand-spanking Tottenham Hotspur Stadium in Villa’s first game back in the top-flight.
Despite his disadvantaged start to life at Villa Park, Smith encouraged Luiz to learn on the job.
“Football is about relationships on the pitch and knowing one another, strengths and weaknesses, he needed to get to know the players more,” Smith said.
“The language has helped that. But the break has also helped him become a fitter player. What gets forgotten is he walked in the door two days before the Tottenham game at the start of the season.
“There wasn’t an awful lot of pre-season Douglas had with us. Now he’s got a really good understanding of what we are about.”
Luiz made five-goal contributions in his first 25 games for Villa in all competitions, with starts and appearances off the bench adding to Luiz’s inability to nail down a consistent run of games. Perhaps Smith had used McGinn in all of Villa’s returning Project Restart fixtures – despite his obvious lack of match fitness – alongside Luiz to promote familiarisation for the young Brazilian at the heart of a Premier League midfield.
Until he sustained a season-ending blow at Turf Moor on New Year’s Day, compatriot Wesley became good friends with Douglas as you’d expect. It’s not often Villa has a couple of Brazilians to shout about.
Aston Villa want Luiz to stick around for good
A new contract is likely to be offered to Luiz, who moved to Villa from Man City over 15 months ago. City’s buy-back clause will be removed as part of any deal Villa offers Luiz, who has remained tight-lipped over a return to the Etihad.
In an interview with Brazilian media outlet Globo Esporte, he said: “About Man City, I’ve been doing my job at Villa, I don’t really have conversations with City or Guardiola.
“But it’s a job that went together, I had help from City with Villa to be able to play in the Premier League. It’s a very good thing to be able to play there without any difficulty.”
Before helping Villa clinch survival on the final day of last season at the London Stadium, Luiz also added that he was keen to make a name for himself at Villa Park.
“I have a four-year contract with Aston Villa, and my objective is to continue here, and to make history with the club that opened the door for me. Right now, my goal is to drag this team out of trouble and to keep them in the Premier League.
“I’m not thinking of anything other than winning games for this club.”
After making it four out of four in the opening weeks of the new Premier League campaign, home losses to Southampton and Leeds stumped Villa’s record-breaking progress, with results that Luiz branded as ‘embarrassing’.
It’s proof that the club’s culture is improving, there’s little room for error amongst a proud bunch of Villa players this season. Without a lack of leaders either, Villa’s squad have grown tighter through last season’s disappointments. Luiz is also looking to step forward on the pitch and in the dressing room.
“Since I arrived here, I’ve always considered myself to be a leader and always wanted to be one,” he told Sky Sports.
“But it’s been complicated because I entered the hardest league in the world where I didn’t speak the language, so it was tough to communicate and to show that you really are a leader.
“After this break [Project Restart], I’ve had the chance to demonstrate my true qualities and of course, before the season started, I didn’t get the chance to do a pre-season. That’s not an excuse, but it meant I didn’t have the same amount of time to train.
“Now I’ve had that time, and I’ve been able to reflect on what the coaches want. I understand this better now, and that’s helped me on my return.”
While Villa’s chiefs and fans alike hope to see Luiz back at Villa Park when supporters look to return to stadiums next season, it might be off the back of what Luiz has described as a potentially ‘great season’.
Speaking to VillaTV, he said: “I’m very happy at the moment, the team is in a good place.
“He [Dean Smith] considers me to be an important player in the squad, I know what I’m capable of and I know what I can do to help,” he explained.
“I think we have what it takes to have a great season. I’ll be there to support my teammates, train hard and give my all in games.”
Luiz’s rapid progress has been noted in his own country, too, where he hopes to follow a fine modern tradition of holding midfielders which includes World Cup-winning captain Dunga, Fabio Capello favourite Emerson Ferreira and Arsenal ‘Invincible’ Gilberto Silva.
He was Brazil’s first choice in the role for their recent World Cup qualifiers against Bolivia and Peru and played the full 90 minutes in those victories. In fact, Luiz has started all four of Brazil’s recent World Cup qualifiers.
Representing the Verde-Amarela is the pinnacle of any Brazilian’s career who retain an unconditional pride and passion for the five stars that are sown above the Brasileira de Futebol logo. Current Brazil national head coach Tite is aware of his responsibility to bring through a new crop of young talents.
Having represented Brazil at numerous youth levels, captained the Under-21 side and won silverware for reserve Seleção teams, Douglas was itching to get his senior opportunity. It came in October, last year, against South Korea as Brazil won 3-0 in a friendly.
Albeit a ten minute cameo, Luiz’s first cap was one he’ll back on with much fondness as he became an exclusive member of the 18 Brazilian Premier League players to have notched over 400 caps between them, with a mix of experience and promising futures aplenty.
“Flair, creativity, guts, physicality. All of those words describe the Brazilian players,” according to Villa’s midfield star.
“Brazilian players are really a master of their own talent. There have been some incredible players, and it is that natural style, natural feel, the happiness, the dribbling, the physical features.
“Ronaldinho, in my opinion, was the best at all of those things. He was able to take that happiness, that physicality, and that’s what makes Brazilian players different.
“I watched him when he was at Barcelona and in the national team, and it was the way he played the game, his essence, the joy he brought to the stage. He was my idol.”
Like the many talismanic No.10s to have graced the continent before him, Grealish is Luiz’s answer to Villa’s magical creative spark.
“Jack certainly has elements of Brazilian football to his game. He likes to show off his skills, he is joyful on the pitch, he is quick, he can dribble, so he is a very important player and he will continue to develop.
“With Jack signing a new contract and players like Ross Barkley and Emiliano Martinez joining the club, we are clearly developing every season, getting better and bringing in international players.
“Unfortunately I play in a different position to Ronaldinho and Jack, and in my role, it’s hard to be joyful all the time. You have to be more serious but I do try to let that ray of sunshine come on to the pitch.”
For every mesmeric, dazzling Grealish run, exquisite Ross Barkley pass or Ollie Watkins goal, Douglas Luiz is quietly going about his dogged duty to ensure Villa’s second season in the top flight under Smith is one to remember.