Though the beginning of this season brought lots of success through a more "attractive football," Chelsea's new "build from the back" approach and basically "pass the ball into the net" approach has truly seemed like a failure. With a trio as good as Eden Hazard, Juan Mata, and Oscar, one would think that Chelsea should be winning every game. The problem is not the trio themselves but the support behind them.
Chelsea's 4-2-3-1 has been used since it was first integrated by AVB to allow Mata to roam free behind the striker. Since then, the formation has seen mixed results. Sure it was the system we used when we won the Champions League but now this season there is not even silverware (not yet at least) to even justify its use. Now this post is by no means an attempt at saying that the formation should be changed (though I personally would prefer a Mourinho-esque 4-3-3) but more an attempt at saying that it has been horribly used.
Through the season, the double pivot in Chelsea's formation has seen different players juggled around. It has seen Frank Lampard with Mikel, Mikel with Ramires, Mikel with Romeu, Luiz with Mikel, most recently (and Benitez's seemingly favored) Ramires with Lampard, and one that intrigued me the most, Ake and Ramires.
Mikel and Lampard is the most unbalanced of the bunch because it basically turns the formation into a 4-1-4-1 because Lampard would never stay back, which would leave alone Mikel to try to defend counter-attacks on his own. This set up was also too slow and the attackers were more obligated to drop back and get the ball. Mikel and Lampard were never able to afford the attackers quick passes that would jump-start quick plays.
Mikel and Ramires seemed to work best consistently when it came to attacking force but equal defending. The problem again though was that Ramires is not the greatest passer and his touch isn't the greatest either. Mikel does have more assistance on defense though with Ramires but again They do not have the ability to quickly generate chances for the attacking midfielders (This is not completely true as Mikel has the ability and is quite good but he is usually sacrifices his attacking abilities to protect the defense) and so again the whole team's build up lay is slow.
Mikel and Romeu were probably the best defensive pairing of all the tries but the worst when it came to attacking. Both players provided great cover and were always distributing the ball well. The problem again though was that most of their passes were not key in generating attacks and it left a great gap as if 6 players were back defending and 4 were up attacking. Unfortunately this experiment was cut short as Romeu was injured.
Luiz and Mikel was personally my favorite of all the duos tried in the double pivot. This again was not able to fully mature into something that both players could adapt to because of Mikel's participation in the African Cup of Nations. This et-up had promise though, especially when it was showcased in the Club World Cup. Mikel would stay back and be assured that he would have proper cover while Luiz, full of energy, could be setting up quick plays, lofting balls over the top of opposing defenders, and even pinching in with some defense splitting through balls. Of course Luiz was very wasteful when it came to executing his passes. He had great vision but could not consistently execute the pass properly and would also unnecessarily shoot from distance, thus wasting a chance. Again, the pivot just does not seem that strong in the key passing department which appears to be the reoccurring problem in Chelsea's pivot. I would like to see more of this duo tried out though because with proper training I do believe this duo could become very successful.
The duo that Benitez has seemed to use a lot recently is the duo of Lampard and Ramires. This is probably one hat exposes Lampard's inability to defend the most. Two attack minded players in the pivot does not spell good things for Chelsea when they are playing counter-attacking teams. Lampard going up and Ramires with him leaves a huge gap that basically acts as a huge signal for teams to counter and take advantage of the huge space ahead of them. The Newcastle game is the perfect example of the midfield leaving the defense (though even the defense felt they should go up and leave the back exposed cough... Ivanovic... couch...) when they scored the tying goal to make it 2-2. It was a classic case of whole team goes up and there is no midfielders even helping in defense. This resulted in an easy counter-attack for Newcastle that cost Chelsea their lead. This duo should probably never be used in this formation again.
The final and the one that has really interested me was the Ake and Ramires partnership. I understand that it was against Middlesbrough but just the way the game flowed because of them. Though Ake is a center-half by trade, he has caught the eye of many with his performances as a defensive midfielder with the Youth and Under-21 teams. Against Middlesborough, he was everywhere. He broke up play greatly, he distributed the ball well, and he knew when to get up and when to stay back. Him and Ramires seemed to be on the same page and both took turns somewhat on the attack but were both very disciplined. Ake also drew the most fouls out of any Chelsea player that day. Though he was not adventurous with his passing, he knew when to make the RIGHT passes, was not wasteful, but and helped the attack without sacrificing defensive responsibilities. What impressed me the most was his discipline and his intelligence on and off the ball with him only just turning 18. This may not be a future set up but a good one to look out for nonetheless.
Now the point in this analysis of the duos in the pivot is too point out the biggest problem. If you look at the all the duo's mentioned (except the last), the same problems arise: a lack of consistent quick distribution to the attacking midfielders that could create a quick play. All the defensive midfielders we have cannot consistently create those key plays from great passes. Chelsea does not have a Steven Gerrard, a Xabi Alonso, a Yohan Cabaye, a Luka Modric, or a Bastian Schweinsteiger. For the 4-2-3-1 to work efficiently, a player of this type is needed. Somebody is needed who can create a play out of nothing consistently, whether it be a defense splitting through balling or an over the top through ball. Somebody is needed who can spot runs made by the attackers. At the moment, there is nobody in the current squad apart from Luiz who can even spot them let alone attempt to execute them on a consistent basis. As mentioned, he is not reliable in these instances because most of these are just attempts and the passes themselves are never successful. Many see the solution as buying somebody of that calibre to compliment a defensive midfielder like Mikel. What many don't realize is that the club doesn't need to spend a penny to find somebody they can mold into this role. Chelsea has had him, for a while.
Josh McEachran, currently on loan at Championship side Middlesbrough, who just turned 20 may be the answer to the double pivot dilemma. From the get go, this boy has showed promise. Carlo Ancellotti showed faith in him in the 2010-2011 season. You could see that he was preparing him to be his key player. Carlo may have seen Josh as the perfect player to be molded into the Pirlo role. He was certainly playing in his position when he played. In the games he played, he was put at the base of a Chelsea midfield and immediately showed how he could dictate the play. He has quick feet, is a good tackler, and a great passer. He is the type of player who can start counter attacks from just a swift dispossession. Examples of this can be found anywhere on Youtube. He is perfect in the pivot because he loves to dictate the flow of games. He not only can create great counter-attack but he is also disciplined in his position and likes to create things from deeper. He does not just go up, he has no problem defending and his great tacking skills also make him perfect for the role.
A player like Josh cannot just be ignored. He is clearly the component that Chelsea need. He adds something to the team that nobody has and is a hard worker, which is can only be positive for any squad. His loan at Middlesbrough has been great for him because he has gotten consistent game time, which is something he greatly needed. With the Chelsea formation of 4-2-3-1 clearly not changing anytime soon, the club needs to take steps into putting the right players in the right positions. As many people once said about Andre Villas-Boas and his tactics, you can't fit round pegs into square holes.