A summer of strengthening for Chelsea has brought the European Champions into the limelight, and made them one of the leading contenders in almost all competitions where they’re involved. This perception has, to a certain extent, been backed up by the early season performances of some of their signings like Eden Hazard, and the resurgence of Fernando Torres. However, their wins against lesser opposition (all due respect to these teams) have allowed them to paper over certain cracks that need to be addressed.
As brilliant a man-manager as he is, Roberto Di Matteo tends to sometimes fall short on the tactical side of the game. Starting the Super Cup with Mikel and Lampard in the center of midfield was probably not the best move on his part. While the Nigerian has, over the years, proven to be a consistent performer, he is far too defensive, and tends to slow down the pace of Chelsea’s attacks, and this renders the darting movement of the likes of Hazard and Torres rather ineffective, as these are players who benefit from a quicker tempo. One may still make a case for the inclusion of Mikel in the starting 11, simply because of the sturdy defensive support that he provides to the back four. His performance last weekend against Newcastle United at Stamford Bridge was top class, both in terms of ball retention, and break-up play, but his major weakness is his low work rate. The Atleti made him pay for this on Friday night, with several speedy counter attacks tearing through the midfield area that he was supposed to control. Mario Suarez and Koke in particular made him seem invisible.
The other half of Chelsea’s deeper midfield combination that night was Frank Lampard. Avid followers of Chelsea will probably note the steady decline of Lampard’s powers over the last couple of years. Andre-Villas Boas was always averse to starting him in the center due to the fact that Lampard just didn’t seem to have the legs anymore. Friday night’s performance seemed to vindicate this opinion. Invaluable as his contributions have been to the team over the decade of service he’s provided to Chelsea, perhaps it’s time for us to accept that he may have to start playing a more peripheral role now, akin to Paul Scholes at Manchester United. While none can doubt his prowess on the ball, and as a goal scorer, it his work rate that is a cause of concern for the team. Contrast Lampard’s performance on Friday, with that of Raul Meireles’ against Newcastle and one will see a distinct difference. Where Lampard seemed to be off the pace, both on and off the ball, Meireles was alert in making many interceptions and playing penetrating through balls. Lampard’s deficiencies seemed to allow the Atletico midfield the time and space they needed to cut through the Chelsea defence like a hot knife through butter, but Meireles’ work rate, and quick thinking allowed Chelsea to dominate the ball, and consequently the game.
The combined lack of work rate of the two central midfielders left Chelsea’s defence stuttering, but in terms of attacks as well, Chelsea’s chances were hampered by the fact that the midfielders could not influence the game enough. It is easy to blame the forwards like Torres, Hazard and Mata for their lack of involvement and ineffectiveness in dealing with the challenges that the Atletico defence threw down to them, but the fact is that one cannot expect these players to have the same impact they do in and around the penalty area, from deeper positions. Due to the lack of penetrating passes by the deeper midfielders to them, they were often forced to drop deep just to see the ball, let alone influence the game.
We must take nothing away from Atletico Madrid in this regard, who utilized the smallish pitch dimensions of the Stade Louis II to the best possible effect. One particular tactical move employed to great effect by Simeone and his Atletico Madrid team was to mark the Chelsea players very tightly, and close the very same players down. Every time the ball was played to one of the forwards, they didn’t really have the time or space to cause trouble due to the fact that they were marked tightly. In such situations, deeper lying players usually run into the position vacated by the marker to receive the ball, and it was in this respect that Chelsea’s deeper lying midfielders, especially Frank Lampard, a player renowned for his ability to do precisely that, failed.
The broken arrow shows what kind of movement Lampard needed to make in order to trouble the Atletico defence
The full arrows show the closing down and tracking back by Turan Arda and Adrian.
Having beefed up almost every area of the team during the summer, Chlesea do not need to go out and spend money in order to address the issues that were highlighted during the game against Atletico. The solutions to the problems are already at the club. In terms of a holding midfielder to take the place of John Obi Mikel in the starting line-up, Oriol Romeu offers a ready alternative. The La Masia graduate is both a tough tackler, and passes the ball quickly and effectively. His inexperience at the top level makes him a slightly unattractive prospect, but the easiest cure to this malady is to give him more game time. Having said that, Mikel is a player who can probably do the job in the short term, and doesn’t need to be replaced immediately.
The more worrying aspect of the deeper midfield conundrum is Frank Lampard. Replacing a club legend like him is not an easy task, as AVB found out last season. Despite his obvious weaknesses, Lampard commands a place in the heart of every Chelsea fan, and his sentimental appeal cannot be ignored. Apart from the sentimental reasons to play him, he also contributes goals regularly, and is as reliable as death from the penalty spot. However, Di Matteo probably needs to relegate Lampard to a more peripheral role for the benefit of the team. Raul Meireles with his passing prowess and experience at the top would be well suited to taking up the mantle. Another candidate is Ramires. The Brazilian turned in an unusually lackluster performance on firday night, and showed just why he is a good option as a wide man only when the defence needs to be supplemented, rather than as an attacking threat. His lung bursting runs, and endless stamina make him the ideal candidate to play in the center, so as to enable him to aid attacks, and bolster the defence, as and when needed.
In the longer run, the best candidate to replace Frank Lampard, would have to be Joshua McEachran. The young player, currently on loan at Middlesbrough in the Championship, has in his limited opportunities in a Chelsea shirt displayed excellent passing ability, and great vision. The club’s supporters and management would love nothing more than to see an academy graduate like him take a spot in the first team and lead Chelsea on to glory.
Picture Credits to: zimbio.com, allvoices.com, thehardtackle.com, ibtimes.co.uk
Diagram Credits to: this11.com