That Arsenal, once so synonymous with defensive ineptitude among their Premier League rivals, have become a poster child for diligence at the back is remarkable enough. That they have done so with David Luiz, throughout his career derided as a defender who can only be relied on to make costly errors, featuring regularly is another.
Sunday's 0-0 draw with Manchester United marked the Gunners' fifth clean sheet from their last seven league games, a run of fixtures in which they have conceded only twice and taken 17 points from a possible 21. Even before then, Mikel Arteta's backline had not been as wobbly as it had in past seasons.
In 2017-18 Arsenal made 15 errors that lead directly to opposition goals according to Opta. The following year they led the league again with 12. By 2019-20 that had decreased to five, none of which came after the first game of the Premier League's post-COVID restart. This season they are one of only five teams not to have made a single error that led to a goal.
Recent weeks have seen the foundations at Arsenal solidify, freeing up the forwards to score the goals that dragged Arsenal out of their pre-Christmas malaise. The outstanding Rob Holding has been the one constant in the back four during that run with Luiz having got his opportunity after injury struck both Pablo Mari and Gabriel. He has seized it in authoritative fashion, culminating in his man of the match display to hold Edinson Cavani, Bruno Fernandes and company at bay at the Emirates Stadium.
Less than six months on from setting a new record for penalties conceded in a Premier League season with five, Luiz looks to be the steadying influence he was under Antonio Conte and Jose Mourinho at Chelsea, both managers who have a reputation for defensive excellence that Arteta may eventually earn if Arsenal's current trajectory continues. The Gunners boss, however, is quick to deflect any credit for his centre-back's recent consistency.
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"That's credit to [Luiz] because he trains really, really hard," Arteta said. "This season has been really tough in the beginning, he has been through some injuries but he kept at it, he understood his role in the team, he's one of our leaders and he's so willing to keep improving at his age.
"He's always looking at his games, his clips, all the time asking questions. When that happens you can still improve as a player. That's why he is performing in the way he is.
"He knows the things that he's really good at and the things where there's still room for improvement. He's won everything, he's really honest with himself and it's a joy to work with him."
Luiz, signed from Chelsea in 2019, swiftly established himself as an influential figure in the Arsenal dressing room and was one of the influential figures whose dwindling faith in Unai Emery prompted the Arsenal hierarchy to part ways with their former manager. In the worst moments of Arteta's reign there was speculation – strongly denied by club and player – that relations were similarly cool but in the aftermath of the Manchester United draw the 33-year-old was glowing about the "great job" his boss is doing.
Players young and old speak glowingly about the influence of Luiz in the dressing room and in particular he has taken young forward Gabriel Martinelli under his wing since arriving in the summer.
|Season||Errors leading to shots||Errors leading to goals|
2019-20 (18 games before Arteta's appointment)
2019-20 (20 games under Arteta)
|2020-21 (21 games played)||6||0|
"He's a great example for them," Arteta said of Luiz's influence on Arsenal's younger players. "He's got a good mixture between some banter and some stick with them.
"They all listen to him because of who he is and what he has done in the game but as well they see how he behaves every day, how professional he is and how he goes about the job. He's one of the key role models we have in our team."
Such influence might encourage Arsenal to extend a contract that expires at the end of the season with the club set to lose Shkodran Mustafi by the summer at the latest and prepared to consider offers for Calum Chambers. Arteta stopped short of confirming plans for fresh terms but equally Luiz will not be short of
"We haven't [talked] yet. There are still a few months to go on that. I talk to him all the time about this kind of thing so we're in a good position.
"What I want is he keeps performing like this until the end of the season."
That Luiz will continue in such a consistent form is certainly not guaranteed based on his past but it does appear that he and Arsenal are finding the solidity that eluded them for so long.