Aston Villa remain in relegation trouble – but Douglas Luiz’s form since the restart is a source of encouragement. Sky Sports’ Ben Grounds spoke to the Brazilian about how his leadership qualities are now coming to the fore.
“God willing, I can shine in the Premier League. So I hope I cannot just talk the talk but also walk the walk and that’s my main aim.
“I came here to learn but, more than anything, to dream big and to be a leader on the pitch.”
When Douglas Luiz became Villa’s 10th signing last summer, completing a £15m switch from Manchester City, the 22-year-old Brazilian midfielder was itching to make up for lost time.
A Villa vs Man Utd
July 9, 2020, 8:00pm
At the Etihad, he never played a first-team game under Pep Guardiola, spending two seasons on loan at Girona due to a failure then to procure a UK work permit.
But he arrived in the Midlands with plenty of pedigree, having been named Player of the Tournament at last summer’s prestigious Toulon Tournament as he helped Brazil U21s win the competition.
Luiz believes those leadership qualities are now coming to the surface.
“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, 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 had time to think and reflect on what the coaches want. I understand this better now, and that’s helped me on my return.”
The period of quarantine has allowed Luiz to improve his English through regular classes, whereas his learning was naturally interrupted through having to focus on matches prior to the enforced lockdown.
The midfielder now communicates better with team-mates and technical staff and he used the period away to hone his role as a defensive screen, producing just one touch in the opposition box in the five games since the restart.
Noticeable from his appearance, striking bleached blonde hair and lowered socks, the man from the favelas of Nova Holanda has never forgotten his roots.
His mother Maria, after all, was a hairdresser, and while his focus remains on the present, Luiz has an indelible reminder of his past.
“The tattoo on my right leg means a lot to me,” Luiz continued. “It’s a homage to myself as it’s my first goal as a professional for Vasco da Gama. They’re a club to which I’m eternally grateful as they took me in, they fed me and they opened the doors to me to be a professional.
“My hair is how it is as I always like to be stylish and in Brazil and in Spain, I knew people who could do my hair and take care of me! Here, at the start I didn’t know the right person, so I decided to go back to short hair.
“It’s nothing new to me as I had it like that when I was young as well, and I just felt like keeping with it. I’ve since dyed it to add a bit of style, and it’s something I like to do. I like to stay good-looking!”
Luiz has substance, as well as style, and while a club the size of Aston Villa share the player’s lofty ambitions, neither can afford to leap too far into the future; the side have perched inside the relegation zone since February 29, and the focus over the next three weeks must be limited to survival.
Villa are in danger of being marooned in the bottom three and while Luiz is not giving up hope yet, game management has been a major contributing factor to the team’s demise this term.
Only West Ham (24) and Bournemouth (20) have dropped more points from winning positions this term than Villa (19), while only Newcastle (12) have committed more errors leading to goals (10).
Villa have been leaking goals all season, one fewer than the league’s most porous defence – Norwich – while only Bournemouth have kept fewer clean sheets than Villa’s five. All the various metrics point to them being among the competition’s three worst teams this term, but there is still time to turn things around.
Manager Dean Smith has looked to tighten up by reverting to a back three since the restart, and that has been reflected in the games being less expansive and more compact.
In Villa’s opening 28 games of the season, they had an xGA of 2.13 – by far the worst in the division – while they averaged 1.2 goals a game. In the five games since the break, Villa have the third-best expected goals against – 0.74 – but they have only scored twice in five games.
Since the Premier League restarted, Smith’s side have taken just two points from five matches to leave them four points from safety ahead of hosting Manchester United on Thursday, live on Sky Sports.
Villa secured a battling 2-2 draw at Old Trafford in November, and Luiz added: “We can take confidence from that game but also from the growth we’ve demonstrated since the break.
“The mentality of the group is strong because we played well against Liverpool, and the training has been good. The fans can see the improvement we’ve made, but of course it’s tough to talk about positive things because the results haven’t been there.
“Now is the time to fine-tune on the development we’ve shown. That means making the right pass in the final third to a team-mate.
“Our focus must be on getting the three points, not on securing another draw. Watford managed to win on Tuesday, so the gap is four points. Now is not the time for negative thoughts.”
Having come through the ranks at hometown club, Luiz will have certainly dreamed of nights like Thursday, faced with the challenge of consigning Manchester United to a first league loss at Villa Park in almost 25 years.
Guardiola brought him to Manchester with a view to succeeding Fernandinho in the City midfield, and the dethroned Premier League champions retain a buy-back option on the player.
The Catalan was impressed by his performances during a pre-season tour of the United States, but the signing of Rodri from Atletico Madrid paved the way for a transfer after Smith met Guardiola at a League Managers’ meeting last summer.
Aston Villa have spent £145m over the last year – second only to Real Madrid across Europe and beyond over the past two transfer windows – but the club were in need of bodies having largely relied on loan signings to gain promotion.
That said, very few of those arrivals have had the same impact as Luiz, whose 37 appearances in all competitions is more than any other Villa player this term. Another five games will determine the club’s fate for next season, but Luiz appears destined for a bright future.
“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.”
Whether or not Villa manage to avoid the drop, they will be desperate to build their future around leaders like Luiz.
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