Something we've been hearing with increasing regularity this season is how Chelsea are in dire need of a midfield playmaker - the 'creative' type that opens up opposing defences with vision and clever passing through the centre. Yes, this is something that Chelsea sorely lacked last year and quite possibly a major cause of Fernando Torres turning into a hilarious parody of a footballer, but is it a 'need'? I'm not so sure. Here's why.
If you think of Chelsea's best attack-minded midfielders of the last few years, you'll probably end up with Frank Lampard and Michael Essien. One is known for his late runs into the box to finish off moves, and one for his dynamicism. Both are great players, but hardly creators - we recall John Terry's assessment of the England team at the 2010 World Cup, where he claimed that of all the players on the roster, only Joe Cole and Wayne Rooney had the talent to 'unlock' a defence. That's hardly an endorsement of Lampard's propensity to create, even after a great season from him.
So, if Chelsea didn't have a midfield playmaker, how did they win so often? The likes of Deco and Michael Ballack didn't actually feature regularly enough to be changing our calculus, nor were they good enough to be starters on a fully healthy Chelsea team. What's going on here? The answer, probably, lies in the team's shape.
Chelsea play a 4-3-3 system in which one midfielder stays deep while the other two central players make driving runs forward. We'll use John Obi Mikel as the holding player behind Frank Lampard and Michael Essien, but the shape works in more or less the same way regardless of who's there. The full backs (call them Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa) get forward to the best of their ability, safe in the knowledge that the spare midfielder is covering, meaning that fullbacks can be used as the primary source of width when the players' skill allow.
This, in turn, means that the wide forwards are expected to cut inside and let the fullbacks come around them on overlapping runs. It's a key element to the system and the reason players like Danny Sturridge (and, in the past, Arjen Robben and Joe Cole) have been positioned on the flanks - the intent isn't to stay wide but instead to come inside and do something.
That's the key to a 4-1-2-3 - you can use the midfielders to control the game (Essien, when he's on) or other functions (scoring goals with Lampard). Where you need creators is at left and right forward - it comes as no surprise that Florent Malouda lead the Premier League in chances created (according to Opta, anyway) despite a relatively indifferent season. When Chelsea are able to open up defences, it's from moves coming form wide positions, not central ones.
Which isn't to say that a playmaker in the Paul Scholes or Xavi Hernandez mould wouldn't be welcome, of course. It's always good to have some flexibility, and having a player like that would be extremely useful - realistically, a player 75% of what those two greats are would be pretty ace as well. The problem is that they're hard to find. i don't think Yossi Benayoun is really a solution, nor do I believe Josh McEachran is ready to start for Chelsea*. In a market where the best option is probably Javier Pastore, we should probably treat midfield creativity as a luxury, especially when presented with a huge abundance of talent on the wings.
*Note: I have come around to the belief that McEachran will eventually be a very deep-lying midfielder a la Andrea Pirlo, which means he needs to improve his tackling and decision-making before he's ready to make a major impact with the club. He's not far off though.
Wide forward is where Chelsea need to improve, more than anywhere else. Neymar, Alexis Sanchez, Eden Hazard, even Hulk are all creative players in their own right, and they're probably more easily obtainable (at least, more numerous) than a top-class trequartista. In my view, at least, we should probably stop worrying about midfield creativity and instead focus on improving our wide play and let the central players do other jobs.
After all, that's the hand we're being dealt right now.