For most of the last decade, Chelsea have been the beneficiaries of Frank Lampard's rather remarkable goalscoring record. Outside of SW6, Lampard is belittled for racking up goals on deflected shots and penalties, but Chelsea fans know just how good he is at sneaking in behind the defence at just the right time to sweep the ball home from a cutback. Granted, he's a good passer, defends reasonably well and can shoot from range - whether that be from dead ball situations or during open play, but it's his finishing ability that makes a difference to the club.
One might say he's the typical midfield poacher, but that would be a little misleading. He's not the typical midfield poacher because there really aren't any other ones to compare him to. In a world of box to box midfielders, defensive masterminds, deep-lying playmakers and trequartista, Lampard sticks out like a sore thumb. The midfielder who scores most of his goals from eight yards. How odd.
Of course, it's remarkably effective, too. Chelsea wouldn't have had the success they've enjoyed since Mourinho arrived if Lampard hadn't been there. But, as we saw last season, the club must soon face a reality where our current number eight can no longer be relied upon to be a driving force, and if he keeps picking up injuries it could happen as early as this year. So, what do we do? How do you replace such a unique player?
Well, you don't. Looking for a midfield poacher in Lampard's mould would take years. They're just not a common enough breed for Chelsea to reliably secure a player like within the next few seasons. A direct substitute for Lampard is totally out of the question. So what then?
Well, if you can't replicate a player, nothing stops you from replicating the impact of said player on the table. No matter what your thoughts are on statistical analysis in football, at the end of the day you have to believe that each action of a given player has a certain impact on the final standings. We'll call that P, for points.
If PLampard is a certain figure (and I don't pretend to be able to figure out what that might be), then to replace him one simply needs to add those points back somewhere else. Goalkeeper? Defence? Striker? It's kind of irrelevant where you re-find those points, only that you do. You don't even have to replace him all at once - if Lampard was replaced by an average player and the rest of the team was 20% better, the Blues would be strolling to the title. Of course, since you're losing a midfielder who plays fairly high up the pitch, it probably makes the most sense to replace most of our hypothetical PLampard with an attacking midfielder.
So, who've we got who could do that?
If you read that in an 'aha, this is the answer' tone I would invite you to go back and revisit it with a rather glummer outlook. Perhaps you can punctuate it with a swearword. Nothing against Benayoun the player, of course, but he's manifestly not the replacement for a man who's found his way into the pantheon of Chelsea legends.
There's nobody else on the team who one might really expect to manage, though. John Obi Mikel, Ramires and Essien all play far deeper. Josh McEachran looks better suited to a deep-lying role. Yuri Zhirkov can't hold position in the centre. 'Gael Kakuta' keeps popping up into my head, but right now he can't even play winger. When Lucas Piazon, who's just finishing up his involvement in the under-17 World Cup (where he was excellent) is your best bet for an internal replacement, you don't have an internal replacement.
And so Chelsea must look for an extenal solution, and probably soon. Chelsea were forced to play with a midfield three without anyone suited to take up advanced duties for much of last season thanks to Lampard's groin injury, and one would imagine that they're loathe to repeat the experience. This is why we're being linked to the likes of Javier Pastore and Samir Nasri, both of whom are players who could conceivably play central attacking midfielder at Stamford Bridge (Pastore, for my money, is the far better option, but good grief he'll be expensive).
Nobody will do what Lampard does, but that's not actually that relevant. If we end up with a midfield passer instead of a midfield scorer, that doesn't mean we don't score just as many goals as with Lampard - they'd just come from different places. Yes, the strikers would have to drift a little further inside to make up for the less competent late runs, but it would be made up for by the trequartista role being played far more competently.
Last year, Chelsea tried a midfield diamond, but didn't have the correct personnel - at one point using striker Nicolas Anelka there for two games on the trot. This problem still faces them, but it's actually symptomatic of a much larger issue - we currently have no way of making up for Frank Lampard when he's hurt or ineffective. A long-term replacement must be found, and he must be found soon.