97th minute game-winning penalties are supposed to be tense affairs. Deep into stoppage time, three points in the balance, the line between success and failure thin enough to crack at any moment - no wonder the Villa Park terraces watched through webbed fingers as Douglas Luiz stepped up to the mark against Crystal Palace on Saturday.
His demeanour could barely have been more different. Calm and poised - despite having to wait a full five minutes for the decision to be confirmed - he took control of the situation, taking 15 seconds of his own to steady himself before sending the goalkeeper flying the wrong way.
Only then did he break character, a wide smile breaking out as his teammates mobbed him in the corner.
In finding the back of the net, Luiz became the first Aston Villa player to score in four consecutive Premier League home games since 2006. It also sealed Villa’s ninth straight home Premier League victory, a record stretching back into last season’s incredible charge to seventh place.
An important caveat here is that three of those four goals have come from set piece situations. Two were penalties, one was a free-kick against Tottenham Hotspur, the other against Brighton & Hove Albion when he surged onto a cutback in the box.
But all but one were critical strikes, either winning the game or scoring first to establish the tone. He has become a player who steps up during Villa’s hour of need, consistently playing a leading role in the club’s biggest and most important moments in more than a decade, promotion from the Championship aside.
The goals he’s scoring simply represent a new, valuable layer to what was already a pretty remarkable midfield skill-set, one that has evolved every season since he joined the club in 2019. Comparing the two versions hammer home how many parts he’s added to his game.
He arrived at Villa Park amid a backdrop of Pep Guardiola fury, as Manchester City had been unable to get a work permit for him even off the back of a loan to La Liga and some sparkling performances at the Toulon tournament for Brazil. In spending £15m and making him a key player, Villa were granted the permit City couldn’t wrangle.
His first appearances made it instantly clear he was levels above technically, able to move the ball cleanly and quickly even under pressure. He cracked the tried-and-tested midfield triangle of Jack Grealish, John McGinn and Conor Hourihane - one that led the club to promotion via a 10-game win streak - pretty fast, starting 28 Premier League games in his first campaign.
In his second season, he learned defensive discipline. Dean Smith deployed him as a lone No. 6 for chunks of it, forcing him to measure his steps and enabling him to brush up on his positional understanding. His third season was a real mix, then his fourth season started rough, Steven Gerrard pushing him out of the team. Perhaps that’s why he developed the trait of scoring directly from corners? He did that 3 times, probably just trying to get his manager to notice him.
Unai Emery put a stop to those questions the moment he walked through the door in November 2022. He immediately installed Luiz as a key component in his classic 4-4-2, asking the Brazilian to do a bit of everything in midfield, combining all of the qualities he’d learned over the years: tempo control, slick passing, build-up mastery, positional nous and, now, providing clutch moments in front of goal.
📊 Douglas Luiz Aston Villa stat ranking:— WhoScored.com (@WhoScored) September 21, 2023
⚽️ Goals - 2 🥇
💪 Tackles - 11 🥉
🧠 Interceptions - 3 🥉
🎯 Pass success rate - 88.6% 🥉
👀 Accurate long balls - 20 🥇
🔐 Key passes - 5 🏅
🌡️ WS Rating - 6.91 🏅 pic.twitter.com/tXNHjWCZ5k
A statistical look at his season so far lays that out neatly. He’s Villa’s joint-top scorer in the league (2), third for tackles (11), third for interceptions (3) and first for accurate long balls (20). He’s also one of few players who has come out of the two heavy defeats to Liverpool and Newcastle United with any credit, able to maintain a consistent level to his own performances.
That paints the picture of an all-rounder; a player who has spent four years piecing together a midfield skill-set that now stands in the upper echelons of the strongest league in the world. It also paints the picture of a man who has matured to the point of not only being a staple in the team, but a welcome difference-maker at the time of need too.
None of this should surprise, of course. Guardiola’s talent ID is close to flawless, so when his rage began spiralling at the loss of Luiz back in 2019, there was little doubt the Brazilian would become a star.