Football clubs need uniting figures, mentors and leaders at the best of times. In unprecedented times like these, when the lives of so many have been put on hold and are up in the air indefinitely, that has ramped up to another level.
Eyebrows were raised when Arsenal paid £8m to sign David Luiz from Chelsea last summer, but he immediately filled a crucial leadership role for the Gunners then – and even more so now.
A year removed from the departure of Arsene Wenger, Arsenal were already starting to see significant shifts last summer as the transition period fully kicked in. Older heads like Per Mertesacker and Laurent Koscielny had moved on, the former out of the dressing room and into an academy role, and the latter back home to France after a fractious saga.
Luiz was an opportunistic surprise signing in the final hours of the transfer window.
The Brazilian has never been among the world’s most revered centre-backs. His tendency for occasional rashness on the pitch over the years can make him a liability at times and it came as a major shock when he became the world’s most expensive defender in 2014.
He’s certainly far from a bad player, yet it is his personality that makes him a huge asset.
Luiz walked into an Arsenal dressing room in August in short supply of leaders. Everything you see or hear of the 33-year-old suggests he has been a perfect character for that.
The former Premier League and Champions League winner always comes across as affable and friendly, the type who is approachable in the dressing room and on the training ground and more than happy to put an arm around any of Arsenal’s emerging kids and offer help and guidance.
Indeed, Spanish centre-back Pablo Mari, who joined Arsenal on loan from Brazilian club Flamengo in January, has found that out first hand.
“He’s helped me loads: anything I needed, he was there,” Mari has told The Guardian. “David is so intelligent, great in the dressing room, always joking but the first to pull on his overalls to work.”
Luiz is always upbeat, laughing and joking, but he also understands and appreciate the value of hard work. That is something that has made him particularly impressed by Arsenal youngster and fellow countryman Gabriel Martinelli in recent months.
“He wants to improve, he wants to learn, he understands he has the opportunity of his life. He wants to change his status, he wants to be part of the team, he wants to be part of the club,” Luiz told Gunners legend Ian Wright in a lockdown feature for adidas London x Arsenal.
Talent alone is only part of the battle to become a top footballer and Luiz knows it.
“I think this is a very important thing for players to understand,” the player said.
Humility and appreciation is also a key part of his own character.
“I have to be thankful to God because I have health. Then after that, the opportunity to do what I love. I’m still doing that because I still love football,” he told 90min in September.
Luiz also values mental health, which is fragile across society in general in this moment.
“I have to be [happy]. Sometimes, it is up to us to understand that and to say, ‘Wait’. Okay, I have some little problems, but everybody has. To be reaching this life, I think, is to have mental health,” he went on to explain in that same interview.
“We have to have good mental health and enjoy life, and remember everything that you have.”
All those traits and values point to a leader and a mentor, someone who can help protect morale among footballers who are temporarily without purpose. With many younger players emerging at Arsenal, that is even more important than it might be at another club with an older squad.
“The emotional side is very important.
“I’m happy because I am [digitally] connected with everybody, because I can share with them. That’s why every day I’m trying to share a bit of my energy to help people.
“We have to adapt and carry on doing what we are doing, have discipline, eat well. We’ve had some meetings to discuss what we can do together, how we can train, and discuss [what is happening in] the world.”