While the Rafalution™ (defined as ‘having the appearance of progress, but in reality destroying from within’) embodies much of what is currently wrong with Chelsea as a football cloob (sorry, it is contagious) the serious lack of direction from those above will continue to hamper any hopes for a positive development of a young squad. While there are many levels of idiocy to the aforementioned statement, in terms of the squad we seem to have forgotten that the midfield matters most. The number of times under Benitez that we have been so categorically outplayed in midfield is verging on the ridiculous. Whether it was being outfought by West Ham, outwitted by QPR, out Chelsea’d by Swansea or just outrun by Newcastle the balance and make-up of our midfield needs a serious rethink in the summer.
All season long there seems to have been an order from the powers that be to implement a 4-2-3-1 formation at any cost. While it worked in patches for Di Matteo ultimately the high octane “score more” style was deemed to be too cavalier.
Looking back to the start of the season Chelsea had arguably four natural fits for the holding roles in this particular shape. Therefore, allowing Meireles and Essien to leave without replacements during the transfer window was quite frankly a stupid decision that has already cost us points. The reason Emenalo attracts such criticism is that for all the good he may have done (Oscar, Hazard, Courtois, De Bruyne etc.) if he is truly in charge of the playing personnel why did he let both players leave? For such a lavishly assembled squad we lacked bodies in such a crucial area and still let two players go.
The double-pivot in midfield is an area that requires a delicate balance between those playing there. Two offensive midfielders, such as Ramires and Lampard, are often overrun by average sides because their positional play is weak without the ball. Both are an okay fit with a definitive holding player alongside them, but without that solid presence neither are particularly adept at screening the defence. The chasm in front of our back four against Reading, Southampton and Newcastle in recent weeks directly contributed to the shift in momentum in each game and contributed to the loss of points.
Conversely, playing two defensive midfielders stagnates play. The Swansea game that featured both Romeu and Mikel in front of the back four highlighted the need for some attacking intent in one of the positions. It was a dour showing from the pivot that highlighted the need for craft in one of the deeper roles. When you combine that lack of ball circulation with a statuesque centre forward results are hard to achieve.
I was certain that the club would address this in January, particularly as a departure from a 4-2-3-1 seemed unlikely. Spurs securing Lewis Holtby and Newcastle acquiring Moussa Sissoko for under £2m each shows that quality players were available for the right price. Despite Romeu’s long-term injury and knowing that Mikel would be in Africa we still did sign anyone. Just how exactly are we meant to push on as a club when our only options in a formation seemingly forced upon the manager are both ill suited? Or is Benitez that inept that he refuses to change the shape of the side despite everything pointing towards it being a necessity?
There is a case for Oscar eventually stepping back to become a deep lying playmaker. We certainly miss a linking influence within midfield. Oscar’s combination of incisive passing, exquisite dribbling and exceptional vision would allow him to marshal the tempo of a game superbly. Playing him deeper might negate some of his influence in the final third, but as we have seen with Lampard starting deeper does not dictate you must stay there.
My preference in the summer remains signing Étienne Capoue from Toulouse. An athletic, aggressive, robust and technically sound midfielder who would replace everything that Chelsea have lost since the Essien/Ballack days. He breaks play up, makes plenty of tackles, has a physical edge and would certainly not break the bank. If other clubs can sign talented young players for affordable sums of money, so should we.
For the remainder of this season there is certainly a question over who will provide the best balance in the double-pivot. The return of Mikel makes one of the slots a simple selection. For anyone still not convinced by his talents just look at how porous our midfield have been in his absence. In particular the protection of the back four has at times looked non-existent. Mikel walks back into a midfield that desperately needs structure. Though, interestingly enough, he recently flourished for Nigeria in a more box-to-box role – more like how he played excellently with Meireles earlier in the season.
My personal choice, albeit perhaps not the most popular, would be to pair John Obi Mikel with David Luiz and using Lampard as the first rotation option. The blend of physicality, athleticism, aggression, passing and control you would achieve by playing them side-by-side usurps anything offered by another pairing. It would allow Luiz to drive forward with the ball, take more risks and utilise his full range of talents in an area we need them most.
I would like to see Lampard rotate in when we play at home or a weaker team, with Luiz moving back to centre-back. We have potentially over 70 fixtures this season – hence my reticence in playing Lampard on a weekly basis. Does he need to play against a combative midfield when he might be best served elsewhere? Burning Lampard out at 34 is certainly not an option and despite what his detractors say he still has much to offer.
What remains crucial is Chelsea address this area in the summer as it is an easily exploitable weakness. Lampard is likely to depart for pastures new and given his level of productivity is essentially irreplaceable from that area of the field. We need a blend of technique and brawn to perfectly compliment an exciting attack. There is little point in spending big on a striker, or using Hazard/Mata if we do not provide them with a midfield who can both initiate and break up attacks effectively. This link could be the difference between a title winning tilt and another season of playing for the Top Four Trophy.
My starting XI for the remainder of the season looks like this: Cech; Azpilicueta, Cahill, Terry, Cole; Luiz/Lampard, Mikel; Hazard, Mata, Oscar; Ba.
As always comments are welcome. I am especially interested in your starting XI’s for the remainder of the season. You can follow me on Twitter @JoeTweeds. Please do take your time to look at the Chelsea Supporters Trust, which POA are heavily in favour of.