Chelsea FC: 6 Midfield Options for Andre Villas-Boas in the 2011-12 Season
Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich spent over £70 million to bring in a world-class defender in David Luiz and striker in Fernando Torres to Stamford Bridge in January, but it is the midfield that Villas-Boas seems most likely to strengthen prior to the start of this season.
With a 4-3-3 seeming the most likely formation that the Portuguese tactician will opt for, who will the three players be that are given the responsibility of controlling the midfield when the season kicks off away at Stoke on August 13th? Or will Villas-Boas surprise most and change the strategy that has been used most consistently during Chelsea's most successful spell in their history, instead changing to a four or even five man midfield?
With many talented midfielders already at the club, including the likes of Frank Lampard, Michael Essien and Ramires, as well as rumours circulating that Chelsea are keen to sign creative players in Luka Modric and Javier Pastore, it could well be the most difficult decision that the new Chelsea boss has to make.
Here are six options in midfield that I feel Villas-Boas may choose from this summer.
Lampard, Mikel, Essien
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The trio used at Chelsea for the opening few games of last season—Lampard, Mikel and Essien—have played together at the club for the last five seasons and it would be a system most likely to see Mikel playing in the "Makelele role" in front of the centre backs to allow Essien and more often Lampard to make forward runs into attacking positions when the Blues are in possession of the ball, hoping to score and create goals as Lampard has done so consistently over the last few seasons.
With all three being experienced members of the Chelsea side, it would be a tried and tested strategy that would not force the club in spending any more money on new signings in this area.
However, Lampard is now 33 years old and suffered from his first significant injury problems last season, forcing him to miss over three months of it which has led to suggestions that it may be time for him to feature less prominently in the starting eleven. Essien has also suffered from long-term injuries and, although he played most of last season, his form was some way short of what Stamford Bridge fans have been used to.
Mikel has been a decent player for Chelsea since his arrival in 2006, but he is certainly not in the same calibre as former holding midfielder Claude Makelele, leading many people to believe that he should be in the team as a back-up rather than a first-team regular.
Lampard, Essien, Ramires
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Ramires' slow start to last season drew criticism from many Chelsea supporters, myself included, however he adapted to the English style of football during the middle of it after being given more first-team opportunities as a result of the injury to Frank Lampard, and by the end was firmly established as a regular starter within the Chelsea line-up.
His superb solo-goal against Manchester City in March may have been the highlight of his campaign, but it was for his outstanding fitness levels that earned him his nickname as "the Blue Kenyan" during his time at Cruzeiro and this is certainly appropriate for him at Stamford Bridge. His non-stop box to box running could be the perfect partner for Frank Lampard, who isn't likely to be able to maintain his own incredible fitness levels as he gets older.
Michael Essien is one of the best midfielders in the world at playing in the holding role, however it may seem foolish to sacrifice his abilities going forward by limiting him to playing in front of his own defenders.
Lampard, Essien, Modric
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After recently having a £22 million offer rejected by Tottenham for their Croatian playmaker, Chelsea look set to improve their bid with news that Modric has told the North London club that he wants to move across the capital.
Despite Samir Nasri and Wesley Sneijder also being mentioned as players that could be on the agenda at Stamford Bridge, Modric is the most-likely acquisition and could provide the creativity that Chelsea lacked at times during the 2010-11 season.
It would take a brave man to drop fans' favourite Frank Lampard to the bench as he has averaged 20 goals a season over the last seven years. Modric, Essien and Ramires haven't managed anywhere near this between them in the Premier League and so taking out Chelsea's vice-captain doesn't seem like much of an option unless a higher proportion of the team's goals could be scored by the forwards.
If Modric is to move to Stamford Bridge and Villas-Boas opts for the 4-3-3 formation then he will be likely to start alongside Frank Lampard, which would combine goals with creativity, and Essien would be the preferred choice to sit in front of the defence, providing the insurance Lampard and Modric need when they join attacking moves forward.
Ramires, Essien, Lampard, Malouda
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The 4-3-3 formation may have been used for the last few years, but if Villas-Boas was to look for an alternative system a 4-4-2 may be considered.
Florent Malouda has been mostly used as the left forward of our front three since he was signed from Lyon in 2007, but he would certainly be capable of playing as a left midfielder should this formation be used; the man difference in his role would be that he'd be required to track back more than he is used to.
This formation would allow Fernando Torres to have an out-and-out strike partner, like he had in Spain's Euro 2008 victory alongside David Villa when the pair were both selected in the UEFA Team of the Tournament. When Torres played with Didier Drogba this season, one of the two was usually forced to play wide on the right, whereas in this formation they would be able to play together through the centre, and this could also prove to be effective with Falcao if he joins the club as has been rumoured.
One disadvantage to this, however, may be the imbalance between the left and the right flanks. Ramires is capable of playing on the right side, however he is not as much of an attacking player as Malouda, and with Ivanovic playing behind him the right flank will not be as dangerous a threat going forward as Ashley Cole and Malouda would be on the left.
This could be a problem as opposing teams would look to neutralise Chelsea's threat on the left, knowing that most of our attacking play will come on this side of the pitch.
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A formation that has been used at Chelsea in the past, the diamond could be used in midfield to enable Torres to have a partner up front like in a 4-4-2. The difference with this, however, is that the four in the midfield are all quite central, allowing the full backs to push on and provide the width in the team.
With Mikel capable of being the holding midfielder in front of the centre backs, Essien or Ramires could play as a box-to-box midfielder, meaning that they can support the forwards on attacks but also track back to defend when the Blues haven't got possession. The box-to-box midfielder could play alongside the playmaker of the team - Modric if he signs or Frank Lampard, although I think Lampard may now be suited to be the more attacking player of this midfield quartet.
In this role, he would be able to support the forwards in attacks but not have as much defensive responsibility as the midfielders behind him. An alternative player who would be perfect for this attacking midfield role would be Palermo's Serie A Young Footballer of the Year Javier Pastore, although his price tag, said to be around £45 million, does seem to be a block in Chelsea's pursuit of the 22-year-old Argentine.
This formation does have its disadvantages, as we saw when the team was managed by Phil Scolari. Despite starting the season strongly, opposing teams soon learnt that Chelsea's only width came from the full backs, and so when this threat was nullified it proved very difficult for Chelsea to break teams down through the centre.
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This option would be similar to the 4-4-2 except that there would be one player providing the link between midfield and attack rather than having two strikers.
Although Villas-Boas will be given the freedom to pick his own team, there will be a lot of pressure on him to start with Fernando Torres up front after Abramovich spent £50 million on the Spaniard in January. The Russian owner will be keen to see that his money was not wasted; Torres has only scored one goal in his first eighteen appearances for Chelsea and so the formation may be somewhat based around the way he is suited to.
At Liverpool, Torres was supported by Steven Gerrard who played in this role between the midfield and attack. His 65 goals in 102 league games for the Reds suggest that it was very effective, so it may be a system worth trying to help him find his best form.
Yossi Benayoun is someone capable of playing in this role and has forged a great understanding with Torres in the past, but after his achilles injury kept him out of the majority of last season it remains to be seen whether he will ever return to his best at the age of 31.
Attacking midfielders such as Pastore and Arsenal's Samir Nasri who have been linked with a move to Stamford Bridge may also be suited to the role, but Villas Boas' decision on how the midfield lineup at the start of the coming season will ultimately depend on who the club are able to sign and which players impress him during preseason.