Chelsea's 2012/13 campaign has been rather thoroughly derailed by problems in both attack and defence. The squad's structural issues have already cost Roberto di Matteo his job and seen the Blues fail to make the knockout rounds of the Champions League. How can they turn things around in January? By making a play for Marouane Fellaini.
The Champions of Europe are a flawed team. They were a flawed team when they won their title in May, somehow surviving a three-match onslaught to emerge victorious against first Barcelona and then Bayern Munich to lift the European Cup for the first time, and despite an enormous summer spending spree contrived to completely ignore the areas most in need of improvement.
Chelsea’s problems are both obvious and deeply damaging for the way the team plays. Fernando Torres has never been a player the Blues can rely on up front; without an effective focal point for the attack the rest of the side was drawn too high up the pitch. And with the midfield in tatters, a situation not helped by the summer departures of Michael Essien and Raul Meireles, there was no way to prevent the team from becoming completely and utterly broken.
Positive early results and stylish play overshadowed the clear signs of a basic structural issue in the squad.
Positive early results and stylish play overshadowed the clear signs of a basic structural issue in the squad, but eventually said flaw bit hard, sending Chelsea into a tailspin that ultimately cost Roberto di Matteo his job. And despite new manager Rafael Benitez attempting to instill some balance to the side – with limited success – with their current personnel the Blues are unable to get their best players on the pitch while maintaining a cohesive team shape.
There’s no sensible way to get Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, Oscar and Ramires into the team at the same time. Di Matteo’s attempt, which saw the more adventurous trio stationed in front of a double pivot of John Obi Mikel and Ramires backfired spectacularly. Chelsea were overrun because the wingers failed to track back and the midfield over-extended itself, a problem which saw the Blues lose several key games, including the 3-2 home defeat against Manchester United and the 3-0 loss in Turin that effectively knocked them out of this year’s Champions League.
And Rafa Benitez hasn’t solved the issue so much as ignored it. Chelsea, second-half meltdown at Upton Park aside, are a significantly more organized side than the one Benitez inherited from di Matteo, but that’s come at the cost of dropping Oscar – the £25 million summer purchase has only started two of the six matches since the interim manager took over.
While benching one of Chelsea’s bright young stars might be beneficial in the short run, it’s abundantly clear that this club needs to figure out a way to get all of its top talent working together without compromising the team shape in the process. It’s also rather clear that they’re not going to be able to find an answer unless they make a personnel move. The squad, as currently composed, cannot get the best out of its players.
If the club truly believes that making a serious run for the Premier League title this season is possible, then that have to figure out this problem while simultaneously fixing the defensive shape and adding more power to the attack. There are several means by which they could achieve this in January – rumours about about them signing both a new central midfielder and a new striker – but there’s only one player available who has any realistic chance of solving all of Chelsea’s issues at once.
He’s Belgian, plays for Everton and has very big hair.
Marouane Fellaini wasn’t supposed to be the most potent attacking force available to David Moyes. When he arrived in England, nobody was very sure what he actually was, save for a menace – ten yellow cards in his first 17 games marked him as some combination of midfield destroyer and reckless oaf.
In Belgium, Fellaini had made a name for himself as a box-to-box midfielder with surprising technical skills for his size, known for his stamina as well as aerial ability. It was his standout performances with Standard Liege at a tender age which persuaded the Toffees to shell out a club-record £15 million for his services.
...the general feeling was that Everton had a ‘merely’ good player on their hands, not a truly great one.
He lived up to the billing, finding a home for himself as a primarily defensive midfielder who contributed on set pieces, and was named Everton’s Young Player of the Year by the fans. As a destroyer, he ranked among the Premier League’s best. But defensively-minded players tend not to get the praise they deserve, and despite Moyes’ backing the general feeling was that Everton had a ‘merely’ good player on their hands, not a truly great one.
That’s changed this season.
We had a tantalizing glimpse of Fellaini’s potential as an attacking threat during his first season in the league, when he was forced into action as an emergency striker and did fairly well, but as soon as the Toffees had options available, he was shuffled back into a deeper role.
It took three years for that experiment to be repeated, and by that point the Belgian was ready to seize the opportunity. Fellaini was pushed up the pitch and rewarded his manager with a series of increasingly influential performances as Everton managed to claw their way up the table from 12th in December to seventh by seasons’ end.
And if there were lofty expectations after a superb 2011/12, Fellaini has blown them away this year. After fifteen starts this season, the 25-year-old has eight goals; his career highs in England are nineteen and five respectively. He’s been a dominant physical force for Everton, allowing them to snatch points in matches they have no real right to, and the plaudits are rolling in – Barney Roney of the Guardian even finding time to pen a several-hundred-word love note to his chest.
Fellaini’s sudden emergence as a bona fide Premier League superstar has led to some rather frenzied transfer speculation, and although Everton have him under contract through 2015, the player himself has hinted that he wants to leave, and it’s not difficult to imagine the Toffees being tempted by the sort of astronomical bid that could get thrown their way in January.
But why should Chelsea choose to make such a major splash in the upcoming transfer window? After all, the last time they made a major addition in January, it turned out spectacularly poorly for all involved. Fellaini would certainly help the Blues in the attack, if they wanted him, but it would be cheaper to go after the likes of Wilifried Bony at Vitesse Arnhem or Pierre-Emerick Aubmeyang at St. Etienne. If the Blues want midfield help, Fellaini could provide that as well, but his price tag will be inflated because of his attacking contribution.
So why go after him at all? For the answer, we’ll turn back the clock a few years.
Frank Lampard, Didier Drogba, and Ashley Cole – all driving forces behind the Blues during the latter half of the previous decade – were special players not because they represented a positional archetype taken to the extreme but because they defied being described in such rigid terms. Drogba was the epitome of a physical centre forward, but he was also a superb, intelligent creator. Cole in his prime was the standout defensive left back of his generation while simultaneously playing as a left winger. And Lampard was some horrible*combination of classy box-to-box midfielder and lethal goal poacher.
*For opposing defenders.
... consider [Fellaini] for what he actually is: The world’s best (and perhaps only) defensive number ten.
Chelsea had other key players, of course, but having three elite talents who also provided significant tactical flexibility allowed Jose Mourinho (and subsequent managers) to use them in utterly fiendish ways. Cole controlled the left flank by himself, allowing overloads to be applied elsewhere. Drogba occupied both centre backs at once while Lampard did second striker duties while helping to control midfield. If the club’s recent success has taught us anything, it’s that versatility allows players to be deployed in interesting, game-changing ways.
So instead of mentally inserting a player like Fellaini into the defensive midfield role he used to play with Everton or the second-striker position in which he’s now employed, consider him for what he actually is: The world’s best (and perhaps only) defensive number ten.
Acknowledge that, and suddenly the ghost of a system that actually maximizes Chelsea’s assets starts to fall into place. A midfield three reinforced by Fellaini dropping deep can suddenly accommodate Oscar and Ramires as shuttling players while Mikel stays deeper, giving the Blues a passer-runner-destroyer trio in the centre of the pitch.
Meanwhile, the solidity in midfield allows both Hazard and Mata to be more expressive. If Fellaini is a hybrid of defensive midfielder and second striker, Hazard and Mata both manage to combine a traditional playmaker role with that of a goal-scoring winger. Neither is a good defender, and finding a way to relieve them of their defensive duties – or rather, making said duties a happy bonus to Chelsea’s shape rather than a requirement – would allow Benitez to unleash the pair without worrying about the subsequent cost in goals conceded.
What I’m describing here would probably be called a 4-3-3, but it bears a closer resemblance to the strikerless 4-6-0 employed by Roma in 2007, which featured Francesco Totti as the furthest player forward supported by two wide players who also acted as legitimate goal threats. Chelsea would field Hazard and Mata higher up the pitch than Roma did Mirko Vucinic and Mancini, which would lead to a different defensive structure, but the concept is broadly similar.
Let's see how it would work for the Blues.
The shape itself shouldn’t come as much of a surprise – the standard defensive line is behind a midfield trio of Mikel, Ramires and Oscar, with Fellaini completing the diamond ahead of the two shuttling players and Mata and Hazard combining for the world’s tiniest forward pairing.
This enables Chelsea to do several things that they previously could not. Ramires, in a position with less defensive responsibility, is once again free to bomb forward. Hazard and Mata can interchange without worrying about compromising the defensive shape. Crosses suddenly have a target man in Fellaini, who can also drop back to draw out the centre backs and thread in reverse balls for the wide men cutting inside.
On top of that, it now becomes much easier to transition from defence to attack, which has been a significant issue for the past few seasons. The Blues are almost embarrassingly poor as retaining the ball once they’ve won it in their own defensive end, a fault that leads to what should be a quickly-repulsed attack becoming a protracted siege as Chelsea insist on handing hard-won possession straight back to the opposition.
With Fellaini’s aerial ability, Chelsea would suddenly have a Drogba analogue to whom Petr Cech (or David Luiz) could aim long passes, quickly relieving the pressure in the defensive end. Free of serious defensive duties, Mata and Hazard are also reasonable targets for quick passes in behind the opposing defence once possession is regained, giving the Blues another important outlet when they’re looking to move the ball away from their own goal at speed.
In Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1, the defensive shape relies on the wingers dropping deep and linking up with the double pivot midfielders to create two banks of four. This poses problems for the likes of Mata and Hazard, who are not particularly inclined towards tracking back and not very good at it regardless. Benitez has addressed that by fielding more a more defensively inclined winger on the right in Victor Moses, but that comes at the cost of starting Oscar.
Here, instead of using the wide players to track back, Chelsea merely collapse their midfield diamond, forming a loose pairing of Fellaini and Mikel in the centre and allowing Oscar and Ramires to move wider to reinforce the fullbacks. Not only is this a stronger second line than the one currently employed, it would also be much faster to form up when possession is lost, allowing the midfield to better support the defence when the opposition counterattacks.
On top of the benefits that would come in open play, Chelsea would see themselves suddenly become a devastating force on attacking set pieces. It wouldn’t be implausible to have four extremely potent aerial threats on the field at the same time – John Terry, Gary Cahill, Branislav Ivanovic and Fellaini are all extraordinarily dangerous for corners and free kicks – and that’s generally one more than even the most robust side is prepared to deal with.
The most beautiful thing about employing this sort of system is that it’s very easy to play with. One could drop Fellaini even deeper and sacrifice Oscar for a ‘true’ centre forward while simultaneously adding steel to the midfield. The likes of Daniel Sturridge and Victor Moses could come in for Mata should speed be more useful to Chelsea than raw creativity. A team built around Fellaini’s versatility might see Plan A countered, but with the bench options that will be available to Benitez it’s easy to come up with quick, easy tweaks that would force any opposing manager back to the drawing board.
If you want to solve all of Chelsea’s problems in one fell swoop, Marouane Fellaini is the perfect target.
Would adding Fellaini to the squad be the cheapest, most efficient way of doing things? No, probably not. Are we sure Everton would sell? No again. But if you want to solve all of Chelsea’s problems in one fell swoop – the need to field their best players in one coherent starting eleven, to better protect the defence and to add potency up top – Marouane Fellaini is the perfect target.
Whether Chelsea go after him or not is yet to be seen, but if they do pursue the midfielder, it seems highly unlikely that there’d be much reason to regret it.