The evolution of Aston Villa's Douglas Luiz
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‘You’ve got a really good lad there’. High praise from perfectionist Pep Guardiola, as he told Aston Villa manager Dean Smith about a player he reluctantly had to let slip through his fingers at Manchester City to join Villa in a £15million deal; Douglas Luiz.
The midfielder Douglas, and striker Wesley, are the Midlands club's first ever Brazilians. Both won their first senior caps for the Seleção this week. Douglas is still 21, but Guardiola isn’t the first top manager he has earned public approval from. Brazil head coach Tite sang the praises of the player during Douglas’ days at his native Vasco De Gama, following some impressive performances which earned him a £10million move to Manchester City in 2017.
Work permit issues followed, leading to two seasons on loan in La Liga with Girona. Between those couple of years was a short playing stint with City, in the 2018 International Champions Cup pre-season tournament. This gave the youngster the chance to play against quality teams including Borussia Dortmund and Bayern Munich. Guardiola liked what he saw and bemoaned the work permit problems, insisting ‘Douglas has the ability, and quality to play - we decide he can play’. However, the issue was out of the Catalan's hands. Villa were eventually able to meet the criteria which City wasn’t, which includes several factors including whether Douglas is amongst the highest earners and best players.
When City missed out on signing Jorginho in 2018's summer, Guardiola wanted to utilise Douglas as a defensive midfielder in his Premier League squad for the 2018/19 term. However, the Brazilian isn't a typical Guardiola enforcer. Where the City boss likes the player to drop between the centre-backs, allowing them to spread play while giving the full-backs space to push forward, Douglas likes to join the attack and get in shooting positions himself. This is perhaps why he is thriving under Smith at Villa. Although Guardiola and Smith both employ a 4-3-3 formation, the two systems are extremely different. Smith likes all three of his central midfielders to commit to the attack, rather than one of them staying in a more defensive role. For a dynamic, tenacious player like Douglas, this allows him more freedom to express his attacking qualities. Fans have seen the benefits already; with two spectacular goals, scored against Bournemouth and Norwich City respectively.
Douglas has started just six of Villa’s 12 Premier League games so far, owing in part to a late start following his summer exploits with the Brazil youth side. He picked up the award for best player of the Toulon Tournament, too, while also lifting the winners trophy in the process. Classed as a deeper-sitting midfielder following his role at Girona, Douglas offers something different. Rather than winning the ball and giving it to a more technically gifted teammate, the 21-year-old is willing to carry the ball forward himself.
Ever since his former years at Girona, Luiz has shown a willingness to get about the pitch while using his physicality, showing an extra dimension. Not only that, his underrated ability at trying those audacious long balls is another asset to an ever-improving individual. Douglas boasts an average pass success rate of 86.5% this term, though it's his shooting ability that has caught the eye of everyone, including his teammates on the training field. Villa's Marvelous Nakamba stated: ‘Now it’s normal. Even in training he always scores those fantastic goals.’
Guardiola has spoken publicly of a buyback clause in Douglas’ contract, and with Fernandinho now seemingly required at centre-back while getting up there in age, Rodri will need back-up; especially with Manchester City’s busy schedule. İlkay Gündoğan has been used as a defensive midfielder but is more comfortable playing further forward. However, they may be better off waiting to see how Douglas develops in the Premier League before considering activating the clause. The Cityzens do have some reasons to be concerned, mind, after Villa boss Smith chose to leave Douglas out of the eighteen-man squad for a game back in September - simply because he thought there were better options available.
Villa appeared considerably frailer in the defensive phase without Douglas’ protection, though. The 21-year-old brings something to the table that not many of Villa's other players can. His comfort and confidence on the ball are above his years, complimenting his terrier-like defensive play. We're talking about a typical Brazilian. A player with flair, a player who excites. Sure, Douglas is by no means the finished article, but when you watch him in full flight, it's easy to see why Guardiola was so reluctant to let him go, while Tite continues to value him so highly. Jack Grealish is widely considered to be the diamond of Smith’s Villa squad, but in Douglas Luiz, they may well have discovered a hidden gem...