Chelsea have a rich modern tradition of world-class midfielders clad in the Royal Blue. Whether in the dynamic 4-3-3 shape, which combined steel and power and stamina with attacking intent, or the classy 4-4-2 diamond from the Ancelotti era, or the once-trendy 4-2-3-1 designed to provide a solid base coupled with a midfield maestro no.10, the quality of play, and player, has been exceptional — certainly for the last couple decades that most of us remember and have experienced.
As one pages through the history, the names bring about fond memories: Frank Lampard, Claude Makélélé, Michael Essien, Michael Ballack, Juan Mata, Deco, Joe Cole, Cesc Fàbregas, Nemanja Matić and, yes, even Mikel John Obi — top class players with winning mentalities. Many have departed, few remain, and the latest recruits to the Chelsea midfield seem keen to join the list.
The first such recruit was actually off the pitch, in Antonio Conte himself. The legendary Juventus midfielder and captain was appointed head coach at Chelsea with the remit to restore balance, happiness, and success to the club.
Conte was known for strong, hard-working teams built around defensive and midfield strength. It was no surprise that Chelsea’s primary transfer targets fell into those two categories. While AS Roma’s Radja Nainggolan decided to stay in Rome, Chelsea (somehow) managed to pull off an even greater signing when N’Golo Kanté decided to leave the defending Premier League champions (and Champions League football, as a result) for a mid-table team struggling under the weight of expectations, history, and a highly unamicable separation with the best manager in club history. Kanté, for many, was not only the best midfielder in England but should’ve been the Player of the Year for Leicester City — and now, the all-action, quiet, hard-working stamina-monster joined the ranks of Chelsea midfield.
Further midfield signings did not materialise, but they did not need to. Youngster Nathaniel Chalobah, lost in the loan-wilderness for many years, made an impression on the boss and was drafted in to stay with the squad. The 21-year-old had spent the previous season at Napoli, and perhaps that indoctrination to some supposed “Italian way” helped him. Or maybe Conte finally saw the kid’s talent and decided to give him a chance. Either way, the midfield was set for the season with these two reinforcements and no major departures of note.
CURRENT STARTERS (GRADES):
After some experimentation and mixed results, Antonio Conte eventually found the right fit for his players to excel. The 3-4-3 operates around a central pairing of two box-to-box midfielders, with an emphasis on defending, closing down, and transition. Any attacking impetus is a bonus. While Chelsea have been rather dominant in this new system, there is a theoretical in-game switch that Conte can utilize to add a third midfielder at the base to further solidify the center.
N’Golo Kanté (A) – The midfielder who does everything. He truly travels all over the pitch (especially in the new setup) and every single teammate benefits from it. He leads all Premier League midfielders in interceptions with 35, and his passing ability has surprised a fair few. If N’Golo can continue to improve and add even more attacking prowess to his game, we will be watching the best all round midfielder on the planet at Chelsea.
Nemanja Matić (A-) – The Serbian powerhouse has returned to form. He, along with many other players, looked off last season; visibly exhausted both physically and mentally. He looked one foot out the door in the summer before Conte convinced him to stay. Now deployed in a role that asks him to do just a bit less, Matić has slowly returned to the level we all know he can play at. He’s winning tackles, making accurate passes, and going on loping runs into the box with that characteristic long stride of his. A flurry of assists sees him second in the league at the moment with 5.
Nathaniel Chalobah (B) – The Chelsea Academy graduate seems to be Conte’s go-to man from the substitutes bench, whether to join Matić and Kanté and solidify the midfield or to replace one of them in that box-to-box role. Chalobah has finally been given his opportunities and has proven to be capable in the Chelsea first team.
With Matić and Kanté working together so well, it’s hard to see how anyone can displace either of them in the starting lineup at the moment. Earlier in the season, when Chelsea utilized a three-man midfield setup, Oscar (C+) proved useful in a more active, hybrid role than just a pure no.10. He’s hardly played however in recent weeks and his cameo in a further forward role as a substitute wasn’t the most promising either.
It’s a similar story for former key-man Cesc Fàbregas (C), who was the lynchpin of Mourinho’s attacking plans for a couple seasons, but is far too limited for a midfield-two setup. As an impact substitute off the bench however, while also potentially enabling further tactical variation (like a 3-5-2 where he could replicate the Pirlo-role), Cesc could remain quite useful if he continues to be happy with his limited minutes.
Speaking of limited minutes, Chelsea legend Mikel John Obi (no grade) and Ruben Loftus-Cheek (D) could both be looking at January exits, one permanently, the other perhaps on loan. It’s been a tough season for RLC — Conte has yet to find a proper fit for him either in midfield or in attack.
While Chalobah is a very good backup to have, another genuine box-to-box midfielder could be useful. Chelsea have been linked with the likes of Steven N’Zonzi and Geoffrey Kondogbia, but the the names who would generate genuine excitement are the likes of Marco Verratti and Koke instead.
As usual, Chelsea do have a ton of talent out on loan as well. Young Lewis Baker is having another good seasons in the Eredivisie, while Charlie Colkett (at Bristol Rovers currently) remains one of the most technically gifted players to ever come through the Academy. Mario Pašalić is finally seeing minutes at AC Milan; his career’s upward trajectory took a hit with injuries this season, but the Croatian youngster has plenty of promise as well. And let’s not forget about Marco van Ginkel, whose history with injuries is even greater, but so is his promise. He was once part of the first-team squad; perhaps he will be again, some day.