I'd like to start off on the defensive. I am not saying that Torres or Sturridge are acceptable strikers or that we shouldn't also look to upgrade that area of our game. I'm merely making the case that the most valuable asset we could procure during the January transfer window would be a stalwart, technically-gifted central midfielder with exceptional vision.
"What do they have that we don't?" and "Where is our weakness?"
Bobby and Luigi smile for the cameras while in the act of mutually-attempted murder - via 25.media.tumblr.com
Clubs that succeed in international football can vary greatly in style, shape, composition, and even kit color and name, but what is undeniably the common denominator is the high quality of their players. Good clubs outside of the elite top seven* can combine star strikers like Borussia Dortmund's Robert Lewandowski with creative attacking players like Mario Gotze to produce results, and can even take their teams to the top of their respective domestic tables. Others, like the Milito/Cambiasso partnership at Inter Milan, are less impressive while still offering good effect. Regardless of the potential domestic success, squads that rely heavily on those types of partnerships to produce goals don't always fare well on the international stage.
*including Chelsea, that's the two Manchesters, the two Spanish giants, Bayern Punich (like it? I made that up just for you) and Juventus
What do these teams lack that keeps them from reaching the coveted status of "Europe's elites"? I would argue that it is the relative lack of quality in the deeper area of their central midfield. Keeping in mind that many other factors come into play when we attempt to make such a broad generalization, I'd like to build a positive case for this hypothesis, rather than eliminating all of the other factors, and anyone is free to post their qualifications in the comments section.
In my humble opinion, the same answer can be supplied to the two most important transfer window questions, "What do they have that we don't?" and "Where is Chelsea weakest?": the deep-lying playmaker.
In order to explore this further, I'll briefly note the rest of the best and their players that fit this role, then I'll take a look a Chelsea's roster in this area. But first, some general notes on what this position demands.
The Deep-Lying Playmaker
"That's it lads! Group together now! I want you veritably on top of one another!" - via sport.ripley.za.net
The role of the deep-lying playmaker (henceforth "the DLP") comes down to the ability to disrupt the attack of the opposition and subsequently transition the team from defense into the offensive upon gaining possession. What this requires above all else is the attribute of vision. Defensively, this player ought to be able to see the other team's passing lanes (and the best can sense which are most favorable to their opponents), and fill them, preventing easy passes and closing down outlets. This allows teammates to press the player with the ball and force a turnover of possession. This talent is vital to stopping counter-attacks like the ones that Shaktar Donetsk used to great effect against us. When in possession, the DLP's vision serves as a catalyst for breaks and chances. Getting the ball into open space for players to run onto, catching the defense on their back foot with a lobbed pass to a goal-bound attacker, and helping the team to avoid immediately turning possession back over to our opponents: these are all areas that rely on this player with vision.
Next, we turn our attention to Chelsea's options in the area of central midfield.
Chelsea's Central Midfielders
In my estimation there are four: Ramires, Oscar, Lampard, and Mikel. Mata and Hazard are defensively inept, and Moses is meant to be a winger. And seriously, don't kid yourself about Romeu (McEachran is a ways off as well). First up for discussion, our more defensive two:
"Guys, this is ridiculously cute, but seriously, it's time to start the game." - via www3.pictures.zimbio.com
Ramires: I love Ramires. I promise. He's great at so many things, and I will always remember that goal that brought us back against Barcelona when all hope had faded. He presses the ball better than any other midfielder and can run for days. He makes those powerful, surging runs that get us out of trouble. He links up well with his Brazilian brethren when they join him on the ride. However, while is tackling is strong, he does not see the field as we need him to. Sometimes his fault is the misplaced pass. Other times, it's simply the failure to see the outlet, and dribbling into a wall of defenders. Sometimes he marks lackadaisically while pressing over-zealously. He is a good player and a good tool for Chelsea, but he lacks the vision necessary to be a DLP.
John Obi Mikel: Mikel has really come into his own this year. He has cut down on sloppy passes and simple defensive errors, and even occasionally looked dangerous getting into the opposition's penalty area. But let's not get carried away. This is a true Blue that deserves a special place in our hearts, but if we want to be elite, also on our bench. He is an above average defensive midfielder in the Premier League, but he will always lack that natural eye for the pass that starts a move, and his good tackling will be overshadowed by his less-than-good defensive awareness. Again, a great tool, but not what we need against the best opponents.
On to the next two:
Oscar: "Don't hurt him! He was just trying to help the team!" Lamps: "I got this, Robbie. Time to straighten out who's supposed to be the goal-scoring midfielder around here." - via images.football365.com
Frank Lampard: I started this year thinking that this could be a season where Frank demonstrates his usefulness as something more than merely a goalscorer disguised as a midfielder. An incredibly intelligent footballer, Lamps has the knack for finding just the right pass that unlocks the team, and his off-ball movement is more than sound. Sadly, this season has demonstrated that his age and lack of familiarity with defending will keep him from becoming a relevant force for Chelsea's future. Frank Lampard will forever be my favorite Chelsea player, and should he leave for the MLS soon, I wish him well and will remember him always as a London legend.
Oscar: Another precocious Brazilian, I'm not entirely sure he's not the answer to our problem. Oscar has the vision and the skill to play both sides of the pitch well, but right now he is still adapting to the league, and I'm not sure that we ought to be stealing away one-third of the formidable Mazcateers when they seem to be the best thing we have going for us. No, I'd rather keep him in the band of three and look elsewhere for someone perhaps more physical-suited to English football.
In my estimation, none of these are of the caliber that Chelsea needs to play this particular role. They may provide Chelsea quality in some areas of the pitch, but not where I'm talking about needing it. Now, we'll look at the other top teams and their respective DLPs.
The Best of "the Rest of the Best" (excluding CFC):
Remember when this guy missed that PK? Good times. - via static.guim.co.uk
The ever-reliable (and actually, in this instance, credible) source of Wikipedia had this to say about the deep-lying playmaker:
"...he plays a key role in breaking up opponents' attacks, shielding the ball when in possession, and then setting up counterattacks for his teammates." - Wikipedia on Association Football tactics and skills
And that is exactly what these six (ish) examples do.
Bayern Munich - Bastian "Das Boot" Schweinsteiger: I chose to feature a picture of Schweinsteiger because, well, I hate pretty much everyone else on this list. This guy does it all, and he is a huge part of the reason that Robben and Ribery have been so successful at keeping Bayern at or near the top of German football (but not the top of Champion's League football, hehe).
Juventus - Andrea "Tricky Hobo" Pirlo: Oh, this guy. Put him on my list of love/hate-able Italians. Fans who watched this summer's Euros or Chelsea's campaign to defend our Champion's League title know Pirlo all too well. Getting on in years, his influence will soon wane. Unfortunately, not soon enough for the Blues.
Manchester City - Yaya "Indomitable Foeman" Toure: Yaya arrived at City after they had made the switch from lovable losers to mega-rich mediocrity, and he has been, in my opinion, the single-most important factor (yes, even greater than David Silva) in their rise to Premier League glory. This man is perhaps a glimpse of what Ramires could be if he'd only take steroids and use a real-time HUD during games.
Barcelona - Xavi "DJ Xavi D" Hernandez & Alexandre "Voodoo Hair" Song: Although Barcelona was widely considered the best club in the world, they went out and purchased the Song. Why splash the cash, you ask? Other than the simple answer of "they can", they didn't have an elite central midfielder in Busquets or Mascherano, and they wanted one. Xavi is the Maestro for sure, but when his passing vision is combined with Song's ability to troll the central third defensively, well, just watch out for Barcelona this year. In fact, if you don't already, watch them. Not only are they fun, but you'll see my point. You''l see Song regain possession and dish it to the nearby Spanish blowout immediately.
Real Madrid - Xabi "Spanish Zoolander" Alonso (think "really, really, ridiculously good-looking"): A very solid example, Alonso is not the most physical of presences in midfield, but in the Spanish league, he doesn't have to be. Putting the dangerous balls through to the creative Ozil and out wide to Ronaldo, the Spanish Zoolander is a massive part of the deadly Madrid attack.
Manchester United - Paul "Old Man" Scholes/Ryan "Other Old Man" Giggs/Darren "Scotsmen's Scotsman" Fletcher/Michael "You don't get a clever nickname" Carrick*: The two old jokers. Okay, seriously, I'm not a huge United fan, but you have to respect the ability of both of those guys in their twilight years. Both have assumed a deeper role as their careers have gone on, and each is a very skilled passer. Giggs and Scholes could be criticized for their tackling, but their awareness and positioning are responsible for United's consistency. As for the tackling force that was supposed be Fletcher, and the bitter disappointment that is Carrick (once called the English Xavi), I imagine they'll be riding the pine come spring as Sir Alex finally gives in and goes after a solid central midfielder. He'll be looking for one that can do everything that he's been expecting of this foursome.
*Sorry, I'm tired.
It isn't rocket science; with the way that teams are going to play CFC (by parking the bus) as our reputation precedes us, the only space that will be available will be found on the counter, and we will need a deep-lying playmaker, a do-it-all midfielder that can do what the boys at Barca and Bayern failed to do to the Blues last spring: break down the fortress.