Although the most obvious, pressing concern for Chelsea this season has been a new striker to complement and/or replace Fernando Torres, under the surface has lurked a more complicated issue. And it's not new. For the past two years, Chelsea have been suffering from a severe lack of central midfielders, and that's crippling the clubs ability to really impose themselves on games when it matters.
Under Jose Mourinho, the club was built through the centre. With Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Claude Makalele, Chelsea had the physical ability to bully the opposition and the technical quality to keep the ball once they did. Fastforward a few years, however, and Makalele has been downgraded* to John Obi Mikel, Lampard's having trouble performing consistently under a heavy workload, and the shadow of Michael Essien's career is off at Real Madrid.
*And that's not a slight.
With Chelsea stuck playing the 4-2-3-1 for the forseeable future, here's who we have available to play in the double pivot:
- Frank Lampard
- John Obi Mikel
- Oriol Romeu
- David Luiz
Of those, three are more suited to a three-man midfield, Mikel's off at the Africa Cup of Nations, Oriol Romeu's out for the season with a knee ligament tear and David Luiz is a) a centre back and b) injured. That's three broadly ineffective players (Lampard is versatile enough not to be an embarrassment deeper, but he can't keep up his performances there week after week) and Mikel.
And we wonder why it's so easy for teams to waltz right through us.
Chelsea's strength lies in the band of three just ahead of the pivot players. When the Blues are on the attack and playing a high-pressure game, it's very easy for them to control the ball. But when the central midfield -- what should be the core of the team -- is called into action, we crumble.
The sensible response would probably be to employ a 4-3-3 and accept that Juan Mata will be a little less effective out wide. But Benitez is dead-set on keeping Chelsea in a 4-2-3-1, and that means that the squad as currently composed is set up to fail him. The players in the pivot need to be able to win the ball, keep it under pressure, and push it forward without compromising their position. Can that be said of any of the six options we have listed above?
Over the summer, Chelsea let Raul Meireles go to Fenerbahce and loaned Michael Essien to Real Madrid. We knew we were going to lose Mikel for January, we knew Lampard was getting old, and we knew that Ramires can't play a possession game without looking like a confused and slightly malicious puppy. And we did nothing about it.
Michael Ballack has never been replaced. Deco hasn't been replaced. The declining performances of Michael Essien and Frank Lampard have not been accounted for. It's not like Chelsea had an abundance of midfield talent ready to go, either -- Nathaniel Chalobah and Josh McEachran are great prospects, but they're still not ready to get significant minutes with the first team.
Chelsea have the skeleton of a team that can dominate the English game and rebound in the Champions League. But the squad is still missing two key pieces, midfielders who can actually control the tempo of a match rather than being swept away by their opposition.The stupid thing is that the world isn't exactly lacking such players. Etienne Capoue's not exactly out of our budget, Benat's amazing and on a cheap buyout, and Newcastle picked up Yohan Cabaye a year and a half ago for what I'm reliably informed was a piece of gum once chewed by Alan Shearer. It's not like every competent central midfielder is commanding Luka Modric or Marouane Fellaini prices.
The squad will not be truly competitive at the business end of the table unless the midfield is fixed. We have all the attacking talent in the world, but at the end of the day that doesn't could for much when the other team has the ball. We may not buy in January, but that just means another half-season of limping along until we fix it.