Where Chelsea stand – Part 4 – Defensive Midfield
Defence and goalkeeper are done, so now I’m moving on to what has been the subject of much criticism this season – the pivot. I’m bearing in mind that we might not be seeing the 4-2-3-1, and that a more likely formation next season is the 4-3-3 that was used under Jose Mourinho.
Either way, there’s one clear flaw with the centre of Chelsea’s midfield that’s been evident all season. There is nobody that can sit back, keep possession and slow down the pace of the game to protect a lead. This was seen in the first couple of games of the season, against Manchester City and Wigan, when Lampard and Mikel were overrun by the opposing midfields. After the catastrophe in Monaco to throw away the Super Cup to Atletico Madrid, Lampard-Mikel was sacrificed in favour of Mikel-Ramires. The logic behind the switch was that Lampard’s attacking tendencies left Mikel on his own to defend counter-attacks all too often, and Radamel Falcao brutally exposed that. Ramires, as a quicker and more disciplined midfielder, was more adept at preventing a swift counter than Frankie. This worked wonders initially, and inspired some brilliant results away at Spurs and Arsenal.
But suddenly, everything turned sour. Chelsea’s midfield was overrun by Fernandinho in the Donbass Arena, and a few days later Mark Clattenburg arrived with a bang to stop Chelsea’s fantastic league form in its tracks with a series of outrageous decisions to ensure that Chelsea lost to a Manchester United team they would surely have otherwise beaten. More dropped points to Liverpool and Swansea, followed by defeats to West Brom and Juventus lost Di Matteo his job. Rafa Benitez was hired to the fury of basically everyone, and that hardly worked. Under Di Matteo, there was basically no rotation at all. The team was almost always Cech; Ivanovic, Luiz, Terry, Cole; Mikel, Ramires; Mata, Oscar, Hazard; Torres. If Di Matteo could have been accused of not rotating the squad enough, the reverse can be said of Benitez. In fairness, Chelsea’s fixture list was horribly congested, but he never allowed the team to settle and establish well-oiled partnerships. Cahill and Azpilicueta rotated in and out of the defence, Lampard and Romeu rotated in and out of the pivot while Moses, Benayoun and Marin rotated in and out of the attack.
With FSW’s hare-brained schemes we’ve seen horrendous capitulations against Corinthians, West Ham, QPR, Southampton, Man City, Swansea, Steaua Bucharest, Brentford, Fulham and Reading. There are probably some more that I’ve wiped from my memory. Would any of these have happened under Di Matteo? Possibly, but only one or two of them.
And the single biggest factor for this has been the lack of an established first-choice midfield. Luiz has been experimented with to mixed results, Mikel has been at AFCON and Romeu has been injured, which left Lampard-Ramires as the double pivot for most of the winter. The Lampard-Ramires combination has been catastrophic for many reasons. Neither of them are great passers, both are overly attack-minded, they leave a huge gap between defence and midfield and neither is a reliable ball-winner. When Luiz or Mikel have played, these problems have rarely, if ever, been evident. The recent game at Old Trafford is a perfect example; with Lampard and Ramires starting together, Chelsea bombed forward at will and in numbers, but were horribly exposed by the quick counters led by United’s wingers. United were 2-0 up after 10 minutes, and unlucky not to be further ahead by half-time. But when Mikel and Hazard replaced Lampard and Moses, we were back to a Di Matteo special of the Mikel-Ramires pivot and Mazacar supplying the striker. Chelsea were completely dominant for most of the second half, and really should have managed four or five goals. As it was, the match finished 2-2 and will be replayed on Easter Monday.
But even after seeing this, FSW hasn’t maintained the Mikel-Ramires pivot. They played together against Steaua, but it was back to Lampard-Ramires against West Ham. Although Lampard-Ramires worked well against the Hammers’ negative approach, West Ham, and especially Carroll, had plenty of opportunities to get back into the game, and I can’t help thinking that Luiz and Mikel would have done a much better job. It’s fairly obvious that Rafail has absolutely no idea what Chelsea’s best midfield is. Here are his options.
Central midfielders on Chelsea’s books: Frank Lampard, John Obi Mikel, Ramires, Oriol Romeu, David Luiz, Nathaniel Chalobah, Josh McEachran, Oscar, Kevin De Bruyne, Michael Essien, Nathan Ake, George Saville, Ruben Loftus-Cheek, John Swift, Lamisha Musonda, Tika Musonda, Charly Musonda, Charlie Colkett, Isak Ssewankambo, Anjur Osmanovic, Billy Clifford, Connor Hunte.
So yeah, that’s almost too many players to count. But when you pick the bones of that, we’re actually a bit thin on the ground. Lampard and Essien will probably leave in the summer. Luiz has played most of his career at centre-back, and so has Chalobah. In any case both Chalobah and McEachran will probably be on loan next season, and KDB and Oscar have hardly ever played in central midfield. Ake and Saville aren’t ready for much more than easy Capital One and FA Cup games, and all of the other youngsters need several more years before they’ll be ready. Romeu has been injured for half the season, and Barcelona have got a buy-back clause for him. This only leaves Mikel and Ramires as realistic first-team starters. That’s nowhere near enough depth. Sure, Romeu is likely to be around and healthy next season and Luiz can be a great midfielder. But there are still some huge gaps to be filled in the midfield.
Michael Ballack was never truly replaced. As hard as Ramires has tried, he just isn’t the same thing. Makelele has been downgraded to Mikel. Lampard has to replaced, so does Michael Essien. As appealing as a midfield trio of Luiz, Ramires and Oscar might look (and I have been shouting for it all season) they don’t really have the steel and resilience of the old Makelele-Essien-Lampard midfield axis.
Clearly, legends like Lampard and Essien will be very difficult to replace, but I think it can be done. One man that has been in the headlines in the last few days is Yaya Toure, who is rumoured to be on the verge of leaving Manchester City. According to his agent, Toure will buy out his contract at the end of the season, making himself a free agent. There are a very select group of clubs that could afford to match Yaya Toure’s wages at Man City. Chelsea, Real Madrid, PSG and Anzhi Makhachkala are the only clubs that could realistically get Yaya Toure. Real Madrid seems unlikely due to Toure’s Barcelona connections and I can’t imagine Toure wanting to buy out his Man City contract to play for Anzhi.
That only leaves Chelsea and PSG as possible destinations for Yaya Toure. In any case, the Real Madrid links are due to Jose Mourinho being a big fan of Yaya Toure. There’s next to no chance that Jose will stay at Madrid, and it’s looking increasingly likely that the Special One will be coming home to Stamford Bridge next season. The articles concerned tend to agree that Chelsea are leading the Yaya Toure chase, with Real Madrid and Anzhi also interested. I haven’t heard anything about PSG showing interest, so are the stars aligning for both Jose Mourinho and Yaya Toure to come to the Bridge next season? The deadline set by his agent for City to give Toure a new contract was yesterday, so is Toure on his way out? As always, it’s nothing more than rumours at the present time, but there’s rarely this much smoke without some fire, and the prospect of Toure leaving is becoming a very real one.
But would it make any sense to sign a 29-year-old midfielder on £220k per week with a huge signing-on fee, probably about £22m? My answer is yes. The situation would be very much like that of Robin van Persie last summer. He moved to Man United at the same age, on the same salary and at a slightly higher cost. United’s finances are much, much worse than Chelsea’s but nobody is saying that van Persie wasn’t worth signing. I’m convinced that Toure would have just as much of an impact, bringing his sheer size, strength and energy coupled with good pace and technique and accurate passing and shooting. I’d even say that if Chelsea signs Yaya Toure, we will win the Premier League next season. But could he really replace Essien or Lampard? The stats say so:
But is there someone younger and cheaper out there than Toure, but just as good? Quite possibly. One player who may also be available is Alex Song. Like Toure, he possesses great physical strength and stamina, as well as good pace and an excellent through ball – so good that he managed 14 assists last season. He was signed by Barcelona for £15m last summer, but hasn’t been able to break into the first team (no disgrace, given the quality of Barca’s midfield). It’s hard to imagine that Song would be desperate to stay at a club where he isn’t playing, and he would go straight into Chelsea’s first team. Given that he’s only played in 12 of 28 league games, and many of those were as a substitute, a £12m bid might be enough to tempt Barcelona to sell. At only 25 years of age, that would be excellent business.
A younger, cheaper but no less talented option might be Celtic’s Victor Wanyama. The 21-year-old Kenyan excelled in the Scottish outfit’s Champions League run, which included victories over Barcelona and Spartak Moscow before being ended by Juventus. Wanyama held the fort in the centre of midfield admirably against Barcelona both at home and away. Celtic were very unlucky to lose 2-1 in the Nou Camp to a late Alba goal, but were magnificent in their 2-0 home win over the Catalans. Wanyama headed the first goal, and screened his defence brilliantly in the face of the likes of Iniesta, Xavi and Messi. Against Juventus, Celtic totally outplayed the Bianconeri for most of both legs, but were undone by slack defending from Efe Ambrose, clinical Italian finishing and a lack of a genuine goal threat. But the way that Wanyama controlled the midfield against the much-vaunted Marchisio-Vidal-Pirlo combination was extraordinary, and enough to prove that he is well on his way to being one of the world’s finest box-to-box midfielders. After the second leg against Juventus, Neil Lennon conceded that it will be tough for Celtic to keep hold of many of their star players. Wanyama shouldn’t cost more than £15m, which would be a bargain.
There is one major disadvantage that is common to Toure, Song and Wanyama, however. They are African, and being African means going to the Africa Cup of Nations for six weeks during the most important phase of the season every other year. So let’s look at some non-African alternatives. The player that immediately springs to mind is one of the men that were dominated by Wanyama, but ended up winning 5-0, and that is Arturo Vidal. We needn’t worry too much about his games against Celtic; we saw first-hand what Arturo Vidal can do, first at Stamford Bridge and then at the Juventus Stadium back in the autumn. While Pirlo was contained by Oscar, Vidal and Marchisio ran riot in midfield. Vidal scored in both games, and provides exactly the sort of skill-set that we should be looking for: speed, stamina, great passing and tackling, good finishing and endless energy. With 10 goals already this season, Vidal could be an excellent replacement for Lampard, Essien or Ballack. The 25-year-old Chilean might be expensive and hard to get, but he would be perfect for the Blues.
So far I’ve avoided mentioning the man whom many Chelsea fans regard to be the missing piece in the puzzle; Everton’s big-haired Belgian Marouane Fellaini. He’s been linked with Chelsea for a couple of years now, and he’s stoked the fire himself with some well-chosen comments about being interest in Chelsea and wanting to leave Everton to play in the Champions League. Romelu Lukaku has also spoken about the prospect of linking up with his compatriot Fellaini, so there has to be at least something in this.
Fellaini may be big, strong, versatile workmanlike and prolific, but he isn’t very quick or a great distributor, and he has an awful disciplinary record. If Fellaini went into the centre of midfield, he’d take the place of either Mikel or Ramires, and I’m not sure he’d be a great upgrade on either. If he played just behind the striker, as he has done for Everton, that would a) reduce our creativity in the attacking band, b) break up the devastating Mata-Hazard partnership and c) make Chelsea’s attack much more predictable.
The only way to avoid these problems, as far as I can see, would be a 4-3-2-1 with Ramires, Fellaini and Oscar in midfield and Mata and Hazard behind Lukaku. But this still raises the question: why spend £25m on Fellaini when Mikel can do the job? This is why I don’t think Fellaini is the cure to Chelsea’s ailments.
The simple alternative is to promote from within, and there is an outstanding candidate in Nathaniel Chalobah. The 18-year-old has excelled in his box-to-box midfield role on loan at Watford this season, and has been one of the best players in the Championship. He’s probably a year or two away from being a first-team starter, but I’m in no doubt that that is what he will eventually be. Why spend £25m on the fully developed, fully priced version when you’ve already got a player who will be just as good in a few years’ time? One solution could be: get Yaya Toure, loan out Chalobah for another season, and then have Chalobah tutored by Toure to prepare Chalobah to replace Toure when the Ivorian leaves. But I wouldn’t want to get a Wanyama or a Vidal if it blocked off Chalobah’s path to the first team, which seems like it might well be the case. I know that what we want to do is have the strongest possible first team, but if we can save the money and invest it in our youth that would be ideal.
All of these players are box-to-box midfielders, replacements for Michael Essien rather than Frank Lampard. Replacing Lampard will be incredibly difficult; nobody else has ever scored 10+ goals in 10 consecutive seasons in one of Europe’s top 5 leagues. That includes strikers, and only Zlatan Ibrahimovic comes close. Fellaini might get close to Lampard’s goal tally, but those goals have come from playing as a second striker. At Chelsea, he’d have to be a central midfielder, and he’s never had great goalscoring record when he’s been deployed in the centre of midfield.
If you’re looking for someone to replace Lampard’s goals, the best man on the market looks like being Shakhtar Donetsk’s cut-and-paste attacking midfielder Henrikh Mkhitaryan. The 24-year-old Armenian has racked up a sensational 19 goals and 7 assists in his 20 league games this season. He was a crucial part of the Shakhtar team that signalled the beginning of the end for Di Matteo by dismantling Chelsea in Donetsk, and on Thursday he announced, “For every player to play for the strongest clubs in the world is a dream, and I will do everything possible to move this summer to a different team.”
Like Fellaini, Mkhitaryan has mostly played as an attacking midfielder, but is equally adept as a central midfielder or as a second striker. But Mkitaryan’s goal record is more than twice as good as Fellaini, and offers much more pace, flair and creativity than the giant Belgian. With Mkhitaryan having basically handed in a transfer request, he should be available to any top European club, and Chelsea would be making a big mistake if they don’t try to get him.
A more direct replacement for Lampard could be another player plying his trade in Ukraine, the young Brazilian midfielder Giuliano of Dnipro Dnipropetrovsk. The 22-year-old Brazil international is Dnipro’s star player, and with his seven goals and four assists he is a big reason why they are only one point of a Champions League place. They face a three-way fight with Metalist Kharkiv and Dynamo Kiev to make the Champions League, and if Dnipro don’t make it they could well be forced to sell their most prized asset. He’ll only have two more years left on his contract, and Chelsea’s growing horde of Brazilians could persuade Giuliano to come to the Bridge (if he needed persuading to swap Dnipro for Chelsea).
If money is no object, then there are three stand-out candidates to replace Frank Lampard in the Bundesliga. The most obvious (and the best) is Borussia Dortmund’s wunderkind Mario Gotze. At only 20 years of age, he’s become one of the hottest properties in European football. With 14 goals and 16 assists at a rate of one every 89 minutes in one of Europe’s most competitive leagues, it’s easy to see why. He wouldn’t directly replace Frank Lampard (I certainly wouldn’t want him to play in the pivot) but he could easily play as the AM in a 4-3-3, the position that Frankie played under Mourinho. Gotze would be a luxury purchase, he’d cost around £40m and would be hard to lure, but he would walk into any team in the world right now. The prospect of him, Mata, Hazard and Oscar in the same team is heavenly…
Returning to reality, a similar sort of purchase could be Schalke’s 19-year-old sensation Julian Draxler. The German international has become the lynchpin of a Schalke side that have slipped out of a Champions League place in recent weeks, but with 10 goals and 5 assists Draxler has made the football world sit up and take note. At 6ft 2in he’s a different type of player to Gotze, but no less creative or talented. He’s another player that any club would love to have on their books, and if Schalke can’t push their way back into the Champions League then Draxler could spark a bidding war. Any club wanting Draxler will have to pay at least £20m for his services, but if that took him to Chelsea I’d be ecstatic. Whether or not Draxler would want to join Chelsea, who have ridiculous competition for places in his position is another question entirely. As with Gotze, he couldn’t walk straight into the pivot, but he could replace the 2006 version of Lampard to a T.
As a natural central midfielder who can play in the pivot, the band of three or in a 4-3-3, Bayern Munich’s Toni Kroos would be a perfect fit. He’s only 23, with his best years ahead of him, and is a regular for both Bayern and the German national team. Kroos isn’t a natural goal-scorer like Lampard, but he does have nine goals this season for Bayern plus two in two and a half games for Germany, giving him a very respectable rate of a goal every 2.9 games. As good a signing as Kroos would be, he would be very difficult to lure and would probably cost north of £25m. The only realistic scenario in which Bayern might be tempted to sell is if Bayern use some of their huge cash reserves to invest in a versatile midfielder to upgrade Kroos. However, there really aren’t many players that would be an upgrade over Kroos, so the German midfielder looks unlikely at best.
Finally, my personal favourite, Miralem Pjanic. The bearded Bosnian has developed into an excellent box-to-box midfielder for a Roma side that are in danger of missing out on European football altogether next season. They currently hold the final Europa League spot, but Inter Milan are level on points with a game in hand. Should Roma be faced with a 2013-14 season without any European football, the likes of Pjanic, Erik Lamela and Marquinhos could all become available.
Pjanic may only have 7 goals so far this season, but it must be remembered that he’s only 22 years old, the same age as Lampard was when he joined Chelsea and 7 was Frankie’s goal tally in his first season at the Bridge. 13 assists in 26 games is excellent, and this is all for a not-especially-strong Roma side. He’s a very similar sort of player to Lampard, quietly controlling the game from deep before ghosting into space on the edge of the box to score. He can play in the pivot, behind the striker or even on the right wing, but central midfield is his natural position, and he is probably the most direct replacement for Frank Lampard that is available.
Release: Frank Lampard
Sell: Michael Essien
Loan: Nathaniel Chalobah, Josh McEachran, Nathan Ake, George Saville
Buy: Arturo Vidal, Victor Wanyama or Yaya Toure plus Henrikh Mkhitaryan, Giuliano, Mario Gotze or Miralem Pjanic. Ideally Vidal and Gotze, though Wanyama and Pjanic would be fine.