Luka Modric has been sold to Real Madrid. Nuri Sahin has been loaned to Liverpool. The elite deep-lying playmakers that were known to be on the market have been moved, leaving Chelsea with more or less exactly the same midfield they had last year. Frank Lampard and John Obi Mikel seem to be the starters in the 4-2-3-1 pivot, and for many Chelsea fans that combination could do with some serious upgrading.
It's not difficult to see why people think that way. Lampard is many things, but he's rarely in complete control of a match's tempo, and for all the good things that Mikel does, the only thing he does to the speed of a game is slow it down. Neither are truly capable of controlling the centre, and it was obvious that that was a problem for us last year.
In one of Cartilage Free Captain's many notes regarding Modric's departure (don't troll please), Ryan Rosenblatt summed up Chelsea's biggest concern from last season more or less perfectly:
Andre Villas-Boas' Chelsea team last year weren't necessarily bad. They got some top performances from some of their better players, they had some scintillating moves and at times, they looked as good as any team around. Juan Mata was the darling of the league for a while and Daniel Sturridge had all of England aflutter.
Chelsea also always looked like they were scrambling. They never really found a groove and while it would be unfair to say that they were chasing the game in the traditional sense, they pretty much were. It was just a different kind of chase.
Some of the time they were fast enough that they could outrun the game, put their opponents in their rearview mirrors and take off, but don't confuse that for being in control. And at some point, when you are chasing the game, constantly trying to outrun it, the game catches up.
Eventually, the game caught up to Chelsea more often than not. Their inability to control tempo, grab a hold of a match and play with calm overrode their stretches of frenetic attacking play, no matter how entertaining the latter could be. The game always wins out when you can't hold it.
It's bang-on -- that lack of control is what led to us conceding so late, so often, even under di Matteo, and now that their pet hobbit has left, it's happening to Tottenham as well. I'm sure we all sympathise with their plight.
But just because we can all laugh at Spurs doesn't mean our own issues don't still exist. Although Chelsea have nine points from nine to start the season, they had difficulty in both the Reading and Wigan Athletic games that seem to stem directly from our lack of midfield control. After scoring twice in the early stages against the Latics, Chelsea could afford to relax, but the complete disaster that was the second quarter of Wednesday's game, which saw Reading dominate us at Stamford Bridge, could have been far more damaging than it turned out.
Not coincidentally, those instances of the team losing control over the centre came with the Mikel-Lampard pairing on the pitch. I am not advocating the benching of either player -- both contribute in different, very positive ways -- but this is further evidence (in addition to much of last season) that that midfield does not work if we want to play a true possession game. Neither does the Mikel-Lampard-Ramires triangle that Andre Villas-Boas used, for that matter.
The Newcastle game on Saturday was a completely different story. While it wasn't a full-strength midfield for the Magpies, with Vernun Anita playing rather than the more dynamic (and significantly more injured) Cheik Tiote, it's probably fair to say that our pivot put in the best performance we've seen in a long time, completely stifling the visitors' play while contributing to Chelsea's attack. We were in control of that match from start to finish.
That sort of consistency can't be expected from Raul Meireles. It is, however, exactly why the likes of Modric and Sahin, who can pull the strings in midfield as well as acting as flashier 'creators', are so highly prized. But that value translates to a significant acquisition cost.
Modric, about to turn 27, has just been sold to Real Madrid for something on the order of £30 million plus add-ons. His wages are expected to be on par with his status as one of the game's top midfielders. According to various reports and rumours, one year of Nuri Sahin is costing Liverpool £5 million as well as the 23-year-old's £100,000 per week wages.
Thanks, perhaps, to the recent successes of Barcelona, we are living in a world where the deep-lying midfielder is being valued so heavily that it doesn't make economic sense for even a club of Chelsea's calibre to acquire an already-developed elite player* on the open market. So while we may have a Sahin or Modric shaped hole in our midfield, we're unlikely to be able to fill it immediately without spending an unreasonable amount.
*I.e. the only sort of player who can break in as a first-choice starter at Chelsea.
I think, at this point, that Michael Emenalo's strategy for dealing with our issues in midfield is evident. We applied a plaster in the form of Raul Meireles this time last year, and while he's not a great player he remains a serviceable one. At the same time, Chelsea are looking to develop their own Modric(es) rather than buy them after the fact, much like Spurs did with the man himself.
When the club bought Oscar, 20, from Internacional, many believed that the plan was to transition him from the number ten spot he enjoys with Brazil to a deeper role where he can be more influential. That hypothesis was confirmed by the player himself, who has claimed that Roberto di Matteo sees him 'in Lampard's position. Chelsea also possess Josh McEachran, probably England's most Modric-like prospect -- he's currently learning the tools of his trade with Middlesbrough after a disappointing 2011/12 campaign.
So for now, the midfield core is weaker than we'd like it to be if we want to truly control football matches. We're strong elsewhere, however, and Chelsea have taken the fiscally prudent move of looking to buy players like Oscar rather than going all-out to solve the problem right now while limiting our future financial flexibility. This team is looking good, but the really great news is that it's set up to get even better, and very soon at that.