Chelsea FC were linked to a host of quality midfield talent over the last season. We eventually managed to secure none of them, including narrowly missing out on our top priority. Mindful of the deficiency that was noted across various points last year, the club is seemingly ready to plug a gaping hole in the side, as this time, we are definitely in for a vital signing in the center of the pitch, and quite possible a marquee one too.
It's reasonable to imagine the players who'd top our target list this time around would arguably be same as last year. We came within an obstinate chairman of snatching Spurs' best player last season, and if early rumblings are to be believed, Modric wasted no time submitting a transfer request as soon as the season ended. Add to that a rich showing in the Euro, and I can only see calls for his capture getting louder. At the same time, Europe has enough midfield talent for us to find a fine guy for the job, should Spurs dig their feet in again, cue fracas.
So with that in mind, how about taking a look at three other targets that can do a useful job for us? What I'm looking for in potential recruits, is that they be technically sound with the ball at their feet, have sufficient defensive awareness and gumption to contribute defensively in not only reactive but also proactive suppression tactics like a press, as well as the ability to recycle possession, relax/accelerate the game's tempo, & orchestrate attacks. It's a highly varied skill set, and very few excel in all aspects. So with that in mind, we have here, Javi Martinez, Joao Moutinho, & Yann M'Vila.
Javi Martinez, Athletic Bilbao: At 23, Martinez is yet another multi-talented gem we've gotten so accustomed to seeing emerge from Spain in the last 3-4 years. Primarily employed as a holder/defensive screen in front of the backline, his constant hard-tackling, sensible possession & distribution of the ball, interceptions, and an ability to absolutely dominate attackers into submission, and non-stop threat in the air have made him for me, a must-have player in a team that prefers a multi-dimensional approach to attacking.
At 6'3", Javi stands as tall as Terry, and like him, is just exceedingly dominant in the air. It helps that there aren't many players in Spain that can dwarf him, but in all I've seen of him, he never gets beaten in the air, and is just as good winning aerial challenges in the opposition half. No surprise then that an overwhelming majority of his career goals have come through set-pieces, so yep, he's an irresistibly massive aerial threat. With the ball at his feet, Martinez is a thrifty one, rarely making a poor decision or giving it away cheaply. The fact that he has on average, suffered more fouls per game (1.8) than conceded (1.6) is testament to his immaculate ball holding ability as well as his tackling. Although he has the built for it, I haven't seen him drive forward often with the ball, preferring to release it for better positioned teammates. He's also equally comfortable playing diagonals to players in advanced positions, with a good long ball accuracy of 5.6 per game.
Javi Martinez isn't without his share of flaws, for one, I find him quite immobile as a player, which is obviously a disadvantage pairing him with someone like Mikel. At the same time, for all of his technical skill, Martinez isn't very adept at picking gaps through the opposition defence with his ground passing, but that could also be down to the fact that he doesn't habitually venture too far up the pitch. This, combined with his lack of mobility/agility mean he isn't a very viable option when an extra man need be pushed forward while chasing a game. Martinez also had his share of discipline issues last season, getting himself sent off 3 times, something largely unexpected from a player so often appreciated for his concentration & focus.
Joao Moutinho, FC Porto: Of the 3 alternatives I've considered, Moutinho's the oldest at 25. At the same time, we could also say his game is also the most developed. Of all his abilities, I'd say his tactical reading of the game is his biggest asset. I note he possesses superb understanding of his teammates' positions, because he's lethal launching counterattacks from any third of the field. His responsiveness in tight situations for me, is the single most distinct advantage he possesses over any other alternative in the passer role.
Moutinho is fairly good with the ball at his feet, not afraid to dribble past a couple if closed down, while also pretty adept at picking out teammates in virtually every position. I'd say he is somewhat like Lampard, in that if he sees an opportunity developing out wide, he'll spray the ball wingwards without thinking twice about it, something that will be especially significant, since in a possible new system, with Hulk & Hazard, those areas could now represent ostensible creative and goalscoring threats. He boasts a passing accuracy of over 80%, and seems to satisfy the possession controller requirement quite well.
His defensive endeavor is where Joao is particularly different, since he brings much more than I'd usually expect from a strictly non-DM. His tremendous work rate & endless stamina make him an ideal box-to-box option if needed to frequently vacate his pivot spot & add a man up front in a counter attack or when trailing. His understanding of the game would certainly give him an advantage adjusting to the synchronized nature of Premier League football. At 5'7", despite being tiny compared to Martinez & M'Vila, Moutinho is a very combative player. 16 bookings in about 50 games at Porto suggest he certainly isn't one to shy away from rough duty, and I can see that constant harrying presence of his in the middle being a real pain for teams that prefer to attack with pensive build-ups. I can't say I've noted any particularly glaring flaws in his game, just that he does a lot of things nicely without being outright unbeatable at any.
Yann M'Vila, Stade Rennes: Let's be honest, I've liked Javi Martinez for a fairly long time, but if there's one player who's grabbed my attention, and really grasped it, it has to be the 21 year old Frenchman. He's lined up for Rennes at defensive midfield, but also shown plenty to suggest he's pretty fit for a more adventurous box-to-box role. To count merits, I'd say what characterizes YM is astonishingly good vision (even though he lines up pretty deep by Chelsea position standards), brilliant passing range, precise sense of position, and very tidy tackling. One could almost liken him to a younger Javi Martinez, or an older improved Ilkay Gundogan 2.0.
For starters, the aspect of his game that stands out farthest is how ridiculously good a passer he is for a DM. With a pleasant 83% passing accuracy over the last 2 seasons, and a truly impressive average of nearly 8 successful long balls per game, M'Vila isn't merely a deep passing option, he's a creator & play-switcher all by himself. His intelligence in distribution, as well as the fact that he's always right up there near the top of pass completion tables really makes me question why he was developed for a specific holding role in the first place. His possession recycling ability too is among the very best, and with a little more imagination and experience, he'd make a superb game controller, while also serving as one half of an unbreachable defensive screen if played in a pivot beside a dedicated holder. His role with France kinnndd of resembles such an example.
Defensively, M'Vila is just as impressive. He's easily one of the best young tacklers, if not the best, in Europe right now. Making 3.1 successful tackles per game, with only 0.8 fouls conceded on average, and a tally of merely 8 yellows in 83 appearances, he's probably be the most disciplined player you can hope to have when an opponent's knocking the ball around in your own half. Contrary to what I'd expected, M'Vila makes fewer successful interceptions per game, 2.5, to Javi Martinez's 5.2. Yann's also has my vote when it comes to focus & tenacity, and with the amount of development ahead of him, it isn't entirely of the question to expect him to convert to a dedicated central midfield role. A fine example he'd make too.
Final Word: A definitive choice between the three is again a difficult one to make, since all of them could end up improving the team and accomplishing the expected tasks in their own different way. On one hand, you have a guy like Martinez, who'd actually be bringing to the table two world class players, a midfielder and a center back, for the price of one, and would offer us so much, either as a steely yet cultured passing specialist, or as a superb successor to Terry, if need be. At the same time, supreme tactical discipline is something that will always yield consistency, adaptability, and add a cutting edge to a team's defensive & offensive armory. So in terms of finding a positional successor to Lampard for both 4-2-3-1 & 4-3-3 systems, Moutinho is the ideal pick. Then again, Yann M'Vila's unmatched vision from deep positions in an attribute very rarely found, and in the right environment, it could, alongwith unerring defensive ability, blossom into fantastic, dominant midfield superiority, and unmatched attacking variability. Each one has merits to
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