Chelsea Tactical: The Double Pivot in Midfield, and the Options Available
This wait for the weekend seems long, doesn't it? I, for one, am itching for the club action to begin again. The World Cup qualifiers are fine, but sometimes you just want to get on with it.
It takes time to find your feet and get into the groove of things when a new season begins. And just when the rhythm has been set, if your nation calls upon you for your services, you are not in a position to say no. But it probably doesn't suit your club going forward, and certainly doesn't suit your manager.
International football has taken center stage at present. Perhaps the break from the club game came at a bad time.
Well, no time is ever bad for a healthy debate, so here goes.
Even after a summer of heavy investment from Roman Abramovich, Chelsea Football Club finds it's first team lacking cover at central midfield. A number of creative heads were roped in to add that cutting edge the Blues have been lacking in the final third for a few seasons now. However, they now appear a bit weak in an area that has arguably been their strongest over the past decade.
With the man in the hot seat, Roberto Di Matteo, seemingly intent on deploying a 4-2-3-1 with a double pivot, one is left to question the club's transfer activity in the last few days of the transfer window. Depth is an issue, and there are a number of talking points to look into.
Let us have a look.
John Obi Mikel: A Man Rises to the Occasion
Now here's a guy the fans love to hate.
Jon Obi Mikel, contrary to popular belief, has stepped up his game over the past six months. He was instrumental under Roberto Di Matteo's stewardship, as Chelsea overcame hurdle after hurdle to emerge as champions of Europe.
He has picked up where he left off last term, with assured displays in the center of the park. Composure and patience are highly desirable qualities, and the manager obviously sees these in the Nigerian. These attributes fit well in the formation currently being deployed.
And so, it is with adequate evidence that Mikel has now tied down a permanent place in the starting XI.
Statistically speaking, Mikel has been performing. A 93% pass completion from three league games is a healthy figure.
Averaging 2.3 tackles and 2.3 interceptions per game, Mikel has been working harder than most of us would like to believe.
Exciting times lie ahead at the Bridge, with the Blues having splashed the cash on some of the finest attacking talent available on the market. In spite of this, one man with far lesser attacking ambition than the new recruits has kept himself busy, doing his side of the job with remarkable efficiency.
There are few players who have been doing exactly what is expected of them thus far, and he is certainly one of them. Jon Obi Mikel has truly risen to the occasion.
The Inexplicable Sale of Raul Meireles
I was as shocked as anyone else when Raul Meireles was shown the door at Chelsea. Michael Essien and Josh McEachran had already been loaned out, so I couldn't get my head around this one.
Let's be honest now, he was not quite the cult figure at Chelsea, and I seriously doubt the Mohawk hairdo or tattoo-laden body won Meireles any popularity contests.
But what the Portuguese international did bring to the plate was hard work, determination and a combative edge.
Meireles' presence added some much-needed ruggedness to the midfield. Agreed, Raul often got the easy sideways passes wrong, but he'd make up for it pretty frequently with decisive contributions. The goal against Benfica that set up a semifinal date with Barcelona in the Champions League was scintillating, to say the very least.
Meireles was undoubtedly a handy squad player to have, but that was not all. Given his defensive qualities, this fellow would have made a great fit in the 4-2-3-1 as a starter. Perhaps I'm not the only one who feels Chelsea's most polished and accomplished performance this season came at home against Newcastle. It's no coincidence that the ex-Porto and Liverpool hard man was on the pitch at that time.
He departs with his head held high, but also leaving the West Londoners light in midfield.
The Curious Case of Frank Lampard
Frank Lampard is a living legend at Chelsea. Only a fool would contest this claim. The man has won it all in England, and recently added the Champions League winners' medal to an impressive collection of honors at the highest level.
The truth is harsh, but Lampard's days as a regular starter are numbered. At 34 years of age, he isn't getting any younger, nor does he have the stamina to play a full 90 minutes, week-in, week-out.
Frank's inadequacies came to the fore when Chelsea traveled to Monaco to take on Athletico Madrid for the UEFA Super Cup.
RDM, as we all know, loves his 4-2-3-1. Now, we must acknowledge that the two men playing in the double pivot under such a system are unquestionably the heart and soul of the formation.
The obvious tasks include breaking up play, recycling possession, and feeding the more attack-minded players.
This duo, must not, under any circumstances, push high up the pitch if they can't make up ground quick enough. This was precisely the mistake Lampard made an appalling number of times as the Blues received a pummeling at the hands of Athletico.
Now, I'm not saying Frank is done and dusted. He'd still make a great impact sub, one feels. But maybe, just maybe, it's time RDM found a player better suited to the present system, someone with age on their side.
What Are the Options We Have for Central Midfield?
With a distinct lack of options for the double pivot, Roberto Di Matteo may just revert back to the tried-and-tested 4-3-3 formation that had for long been the blueprint of the Abramovich-era Chelsea.
On the other hand, Chelsea's Champions League and FA Cup successes hinged on the 4-2-3-1 that RDM put his faith in.
If Chelsea are to continue with the latter, who will the two men in the middle be? Jon Obi Mikel is clearly a favorite of the manager's, but who do you pair him with? Frank Lampard is still around, but I think the role doesn't suit him, and his lack of pace doesn't help the cause.
Oriol Romeu would be a natural fit next to Mikel under such a system. The Spaniard made the best of limited opportunities last season, and at 20 years of age, is in line with the club's policy of building a young team for sustained success over the next decade.
Since both Romeu and Mikel are highly defense-minded, Chelsea may actually be able to field four out-and-out attackers in front of the duo, that is, a quartet with minimal defensive duties.
Ramires is a strong candidate for the same. His versatility is an asset, and he could easily play here. He's arguably the fastest player on the pitch, and would have no problems oscillating between advanced and defensive positions. Besides, he has played as a box-to-box midfielder through most of his career.
Oscar is a player I'd love to see played next to Mikel in a double pivot. His vision would allow him to do damage from deeper positions, while the Nigerian would stick strictly to the task of shielding the defense. Not short on talent, the technically gifted Oscar is confident on the ball, and is willing to track back and fight for possession.
I get a strong feeling this partnership will work, especially because it seems to have a good balance between finesse and tenacity.
David Luiz has played as a defensive midfielder before, and some believe it might be a role he will thrive in. The man nicknamed Sideshow Bob would probably enjoy such a role, as it would give him the license to attack more. But I'm certain I don't stand alone in my belief that he has to tone down his aggression to be in contention for this slot.
Here's some more food for thought: Michael Ballack, Owen Hargreaves and Thomas Hitzlsperger are all available for free, and acquiring any one of them would help plug the gaps in central midfield without representing much of a risk.
If you were the Chelsea gaffer, what would you be thinking? What would you do?