How Chelsea Might Line Up Next Season
Although this current English Premier League season isn't over yet and the next one is still three-and-a-half months away, it's never too early to start speculating on a Chelsea starting XI.
There are many variables and a number of things that will happen between between now and August, but probably the most talked about one which will affect any potential starting lineup is a replacement for interim manager Rafael Benitez.
Although not a certainty quite yet, its looks like Real Madrid manager Jose Mourinho—Jose Mario dos Santos Mourinho Felix for those of you looking to pick up some extra Scrabble points—will be coming to Stamford Bridge this summer to do his best royal blue messiah impersonation.
And with reports rumoring "The Special One" wants to bring a high-profile striker like Atletico Madrid's Radamel Falcao or Borussia Dortmund's Robert Lewandowski to Stamford Bridge with him, Chelsea fans can't help but be a little giddy despite the somewhat disappointing and challenging season.
Anyway, here's a potential Blues starting XI under the assumption Mourinho and Falcao come to West London and continue to employ their 4-2-3-1 tactical formation, although a 4-2-2-2 might suit Chelsea better if Fernando Torres, Demba Ba, Romelu Lukaku and Falcao should somehow surprisingly all end up on the same roster.
Goalkeeper: Petr Cech
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With the 30-year-old Czech international having another brilliant year for Chelsea and Thibaut Courtois likely staying on loan at Atletico Madrid as a possible enticement to land the aforementioned Falcao, Petr Cech will be the man in goal again.
And rightfully so.
All Cech—the winner of the Golden Glove in the 2004/05 and 2009/10 seasons—has done is help the Blues tie for the second-best defense in the Premier League (35 goals allowed) this season, and his 423-point EA Sports Player Performance Index tops all keepers in the Premier League.
And how many times has Cech, who is now third on the all-time Premier League clean sheets list (141), saved Chelsea's bacon again this season?
As is usual in all professional sports, defensive players never get the kind of credit they deserve, as it's too easy for the casual fan and the media to focus on goals, touchdowns, home runs and the final score.
The Blues' motto this last decade should simply be, "In Petr We Trust."
Right-Back: Cesar Azpilicueta
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How good has Cesar Azpilicueta been this season?
It took Chelsea awhile to put the former Marseille defender into their starting XI, but once "Dave" got in, it was impossible to take him out. And it's safe to say the Spaniard has won the spot which was previously held down by the steady Branislav Ivanovic.
Although he's still awaiting his first goal for the Blues, Azpilicueta is worth his weight in gold on defense, especially this season, which has seen John Terry, Ashley Cole and Gary Cahill all suffer injuries.
His footwork, speed, pitch awareness and decision-making have been phenomenal for a first-year Chelsea player, and at 23, Azpilicueta should be holding down the right-back position for years to come in West London.
A very easy choice for Mourinho or whoever ends up taking over the managerial hot seat in Uncle Roman's Flying Circus, it's nice to know the Blues also have 18-year-old Brazilian Wallace now signed to serve as a long-term backup to Azpilicueta and waiting in the wings.
Centre-Back: Branislav Ivanovic
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Like Cech, Branislav Ivanovic has never really gotten his just due, but at Chelsea, that has been a very hard thing to do for those having to play under the long shadows cast by club legends like Terry, Cole, Frank Lampard and Didier Drogba.
Seeing how this is Ivanovic's preferred position and that he has been getting a lot of playing time at right centre-back lately, a guy like Mourinho would likely love to have the imposing 6'2" Serb in his starting lineup.
At 29, Ivanovic still has some years left in him, and his physical presence is important for an evolving club which does start a number of smaller players at times.
Ivanovic, who is also a big header threat, has proven he can score too, and he has seven goals in all competitions so far this season and ranks third of all defenders in the Premiership in the EA Sports Player Performance Index behind only Everton's Leighton Baines and Manchester United's Patrice Evra.
Centre-Back: Gary Cahill
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Probably one of the three toughest calls in this speculative exercise, but I'm giving the nod to Gary Cahill here despite all John Terry has done for the club during his storied career.
The 27-year-old Englishman and former Bolton Wanderers star, who is now coming back after a knee injury, has scored six goals to date and ranks second of all Chelsea defenders and 18th of all Premier League defenders in the EA Sports Player Performance Index.
One reason Cahill would be preferential as a starter here is to help try to preserve the 32-year-old Terry (seven goals in all competitions), and using the captain as an option off the bench or as an alternative to Cahill when he needs a rest or gets injured makes perfect sense.
And to have two tough, smart guys like Cahill and Terry to choose from at centre-back is something most teams in European soccer can only dream of, let alone the combined 13 goals in all competitions.
Truly a nice problem to have for whoever ends up being in charge for the Blues.
Left-Back: Ashley Cole
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As hard as it is to pick between Terry and Cahill next season as a theoretical designated starter—most of us know that distinction is sort of a non-reality in professional football/soccer—it's easy to plug Ashley Cole into the left-back spot.
At 32, the Englishman, who is slowly recovering from a hamstring injury, is no spring chicken, but with Cole signing a one-year contract to stay at Stamford Bridge earlier this year after rumors suggesting he was definitely headed to Ligue 1 and Paris Saint-Germain, his inclusion here is a no-brainer.
Cole's understudy, Ryan Bertrand, has played wonderfully lately and is an extremely nice and versatile option to have on Chelsea's bench and should eventually take over for Cole somewhere in the not-too-distant future.
And nobody will ever be able to say Bertrand didn't learn from the best.
Defensive Midfield: David Luiz
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Possibly the most controversial inclusion here because of the idea to move him up to the defensive midfield, but 26-year-old David Luiz has really proven he can handle the position, and Benitez deserves a little credit for having the intelligence and onions to start him there when he deems it necessary.
A Chelsea starting XI without Luiz just doesn't have the same energy level or leadership in it, and the fuzzy Brazilian should be out there for all big games. He has proven he can bang the occasional free-kick and possesses a style similar to Drogba and Cristiano Ronaldo where he kicks the top half of ball and makes it dip violently.
Also, having Luiz in the central midfield means he will be less likely involved in the somewhat reckless tackles he has shown a penchant for since coming to Stamford Bridge.
The position also lends itself more to Luiz's carefree style, and seeing a defensive midfielder tearing up the field to be part of the attack is much better for one's blood pressure—for managers, teammates and us fans alike—than seeing a defender doing so.
And we all know Luiz likes to be as much a part of the offense as he does the defense. Maybe even more.
Another wonderful reality here is that if Luiz starts in the midfield and the Chelsea manager wants to substitute in another defensive midfielder—like the current perceived starter here, John Obi Mikel or Oriol Romeu—then Luiz can simply be moved into the back four, a position at which he is very experienced.
And after this season, nobody would really be surprised if one day Luiz becomes Chelsea's next captain.
Defensive Midfield: Ramires
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The kind of speed and agility Ramires possesses combined with the tactical formation and the surrounding players lends itself perfectly to putting the 26-year-old Brazilian in the attacking defensive midfield spot.
With seven goals and eight assists in all competitions, Ramires is a very offense-oriented player and, like Bertrand and Luiz, is very versatile and can be employed on the right wing, as he often is.
And should rumors of Frank Lampard's departure end up being true, then penciling in Ramires' name here is the most logical thing.
Now if the Blues somehow land Everton's Marouane Fellaini, which is still a distinct possibility, although Toffees manager David Moyes said in the Daily Mirror he wants the big guy to stay at Goodison Park, the big Belgian would be an automatic plug-in here for me, no matter how good Ramires ultimately is at the position for Chelsea.
Advanced Midfield: Eden Hazard
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How nice for Mourinho or whoever ends up being Chelsea's next manager to have a talented 22-year-old on his roster like Eden Hazard.
The young Belgian currently ranks third of all midfielders in the Premier League in the latest EA Sports Player Performance Index, only behind sensational teammate Juan Mata and Tottenham Hotspur's Gareth Bale, who was named both the league's Young Player of the Year and PFA Player of the Year on Sunday night, beating out both Hazard and Mata for the latter.
Obtained last summer in the Blues' massive summer transfer window spending spree, Hazard (14 goals, 18 assists in all competitions) has impressed everyone and lived up to the hype with his brilliant creativity on the pitch and Lionel Messi-like footwork.
Advanced Midfield: Juan Mata
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Really? No, seriously. Really, brother?
You want me to make a case why Juan Mata should be starting in the middle of Chelsea's advanced midfield? I believe this time could be better spent by giving you Southern Mama's seven-layer dip recipe or something of substance rather than telling you why the best playmaker in the Premier League should be in the Blues' starting lineup.
Anyway, like his running mate, Mr. Hazard, Mata was a candidate for the PFA Player of the Year, and the now-25-year-old Spaniard—who celebrated his birthday Sunday—is an adept passer, can score when he has to, is pitch-smart and has a calm demeanor which serves both himself and his teammates well.
Mata no doubt developed these wonderful characteristics with the help of his namesake and father, Juan Manuel Mata Rodriguez, who played football himself in the 1980s for Burgos CF in his native Spain.
Great job there dad. We'd all like to take this moment to thank you. So, thank you.
Like Magic Johnson was to the NBA and Wayne Gretzky was to the NHL, Mata is a facilitator extraordinaire who is unselfish the majority of the time until it serves him and his club well to be selfish. Makes sense, doesn't it? A true teammate in every sense of the word.
In his first year at Stamford Bridge, Mata, who presently ranks second of all midfielders in the EA Sports Player Performance Index, was named the club's Player of the Year, and he also helped Chelsea to an FA Cup and their first-ever UEFA Championship League title.
And everyone remembers Drogba's miraculous header in that memorable final against Bayern Munich last May, but how perfect was Mata's pass, celery breath? Maybe you need to see it again (here), Bubba, before the title of European champions dissolves in the next couple of weeks.
Now that's a perfect pass. Down to the exact inch.
Despite the importance to Chelsea of Cech, Hazard, Terry and Lampard to a degree, for me, Mata (18 goals, 26 assists in all competitions) deserves to be named the team's Player of the Year again this season.
Advanced Midfield: Victor Moses
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I know, I know. Most of you absolutely love Oscar and the "Mazacar" line in the advanced midfield, but to me, the young Brazilian has dropped off a little bit and often looks like a frail boy playing among men, especially in the rough-and-tumble Premier League.
But that's certainly not a slight on Oscar's talents or potential with Chelsea, and like Fernando Torres, the 21-year-old seems to play better in international competitions.
Victor Moses, another addition in last summer's glorious transfer window, seems to be the perfect fit on the right wing and, if given the time and opportunity, should thrive in this young, new-look advanced midfield.
The 22-year-old Nigerian has just one less goal (nine) than Oscar (10) in 14 less starts (24 vs. 38) and appears to be a little more durable (5'10", 168 lbs.) up front than the 5'11", 146-pound Oscar.
Toss in the fact that the Tiki-Taka Twins, Hazard (5'7") and Mata (5'9"), are built more like Messi (5'7") than Bayern Munich's Bastian Schweinsteiger (6'0"), and it's probably a good idea to give the former Wigan Athletic star the chance to see if he can hang on the Blues attack from the opening whistle.
But this call is oh so close. Having either Oscar or Moses out there as a starter should work for Chelsea and Mourinho if he does comes back to the club he once managed to such success.
And having the other one on the bench—as well as Marko Marin and possibly Lucas Piazon—to use as a substitute is like having a gallon of rocky road ice cream in the refrigerator in case you get tired of eating the strawberry.
Bon appetit, Jose.
Striker: Radamel Falcao
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The toughest position to peg and the one for Chelsea which will most likely be affected the most by decisions made over this summer's transfer window—if they haven't already—is the striker spot.
And so many questions.
Will the Blues cut the cord on Torres? Will they call Romelu Lukaku back after his loan spell at West Bromwich Albion? Can Demba Ba be consistent enough to warrant a position on the squad?
And who will Chelsea end up signing, if anyone? Radamel Falcao? Robert Lewandowski? Andre Schurrle? Wilfried Bony? Someone else? Maybe two? And do the Blues even need to sign two new strikers after the kind of remarkable season the 19-year-old Lukaku is having (14 Premier League goals) for the Baggies?
Well, we'll know all the answers to those questions before the summer is over, and I'm guessing that Falcao will leave La Liga for London as part of a deal which may include Courtois staying on loan at Atletico for at least another season.
Now that's not to say that Lukaku, Torres or Ba may eventually end up being better strikers in Chelsea's usual 4-2-3-1 formation, but if you go out and spend a bunch of money on a guy who dismantled you in the UEFA Super Cup with a hat-trick and who has 26 goals in one of Europe's toughest leagues, then he probably should start.
And if I were Mourinho or the next manager of the Blues, I would experiment with a 4-2-2-2 formation when Chelsea can afford to or deem it necessary to employ a more offensive attack.
Having Hazard and Mata working with guys like Falcao and Ba, Lukaku, Torres or another dangerous scorer seems to be a pretty good way to instill fear into the hearts of one's opponents. And having at least two strikers in reserve seems safer than walking the thin tightrope the Blues did at the position this year with only Torres and Ba.
A story in The Sun earlier this month claimed that Mourinho would like to have the 27-year-old Colombian in tow with him if he comes to Chelsea, and with agent Jorge Mendes representing both men, who knows if the strings for this wonderful possibility haven't already been pulled?
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So there you have it.
How Chelsea actually line up come August remains to be seen, but they certainly have the parts and the resources, thanks in great part to their billionaire Russian owner, to someday return to the form Blues fans so fondly remember.
And so strange to have to write a sentence like that about the current European champions.
Whatever happens, this summer transfer window may be just as entertaining, if not more so, for Chelsea fans as this current Premier League-record marathon season has been.
Hey, at least nobody can ever say that the Blues are a boring club to follow.
Follow me on Twitter: @KevinStott11