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Is Chelsea's Missing Ingredient A Central Midfielder?

There was a sad David Luiz in this photo, but I cropped it out for our sakes.
There was a sad David Luiz in this photo, but I cropped it out for our sakes.

Regardless of how this season finishes and who the next manager is, there is one thing Chelsea will need to improve next season, and that is their ability to break down teams that defend deep.

In this respect, Juan Mata was an excellent signing, adding incisive passing and movement in the final third, and the £23.5 million cost of his transfer has been well vindicated by his performances.

However, Chelsea still face a problem breaking down sides when Mata isn't in the side, or isn't playing well. Chelsea's reliance on Mata is underlined by the fact that he's only failed to appear in five games this year. Two of these missed games were played before his transfer was completed, and two were in the Carling Cup, where Chelsea used a youth based team selection policy. Chelsea also struggle even when Juan Mata is on the pitch, because the playmaker has been out of form for the most part of 2012.

Five months ago ago, this blog took a look at solving Chelsea's creativity problems, identifying the need for Chelsea to move the ball faster in midfield or sign some better wingers. This was a fairly obvious conclusion, but Chelsea didn't sign anyone in January to solve this, and the problem remained.

It's an issue that all top sides face against lesser opposition. Coming up against an opponent with much more talented players, smaller clubs look to sit back, play narrow, and attack on the break. Manchester United have faced this problem for years, but they've managed to circumvent it by playing an expansive game. Sir Alex Ferguson regularly selects two contrasting wingers - one to stretch the play, one to play on the touchline opposite to his strong foot. He also plays a midfield duo of a passer and a runner, where the passer's role is extremely important. Michael Carrick and Paul Scholes may not be the most spectacular of footballers, but they are key to the side's retaining of possession and distribution. Their style of play is very much favoured by some of the world's top footballers: Xavi said as much before the Champions League Final, and after that game there was a clamour from the Barcelona players for Scholes' shirt.

The deep-lying central midfielder may be unspectacular, but it's certainly key to success in modern football. Manchester City learnt this the hard way, when they came up against defensive sides and struggled to break them down. They made moves in the transfer window to rectify this, first by attempting to sign Daniele De Rossi, before bringing in his teammate, David Pizarro, on loan.

Chelsea, by contrast, did nothing. This is a common pattern for Chelsea fans: the problems in midfield were clear as early as Ancelotti's first season, yet despite attempts to bring in Luka Modric and integrate Josh McEachran, no player has fully solved this problem.

If you break down the midfielders currently at the club, you can roughly divide them into two categories, as the excellent Plains of Almeria blog did:

Ramires, Essien, Romeu, Mikel and Meireles are all essentially the same player: ball winners who do not dictate play particularly well in the opponents half. Lampard and Mata remain the only true attacking options

While perhaps being harsh on their abilities, this roughly demonstrates the dearth of true central midfielders within Chelsea's squad, and clearly identifies where Chelsea will need to strengthen. Chelsea's overuse of Juan Mata highlights just as much, but Lampard remains the more intriguing player. At 33, he is in the twilight of his career, and his style of midfield poaching is no longer as relevant for this Chelsea side. As identified on Thursday, Lampard's been playing well in a deep midfield position, and may be a short term solution for Chelsea. The issue will remain, however, and remains an area of strengthening for the summer. In essence, Chelsea's need for creativity can be solved by reading their rivals recipes.

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