With Tottenham’s loss at Anfield last Sunday this weekend provides a real opportunity for Chelsea to solidify their position within the top four. While Arsenal won a potentially tricky away game at Swansea, Chelsea entertain West Ham at Stamford Bridge on Sunday in a match for which they are firm favourites. With Joe Cole, George McCartney and Kevin Nolan doubtful for the Hammers, Chelsea are only without long term absentee Oriol Romeu.
The previous encounter at Upton Park was a clichéd game of two-halves that highlighted one of the many fears regarding Benítez that Chelsea fans held. A first half performance of exciting and productive football was swiftly countered in the second half by Big Sam’s team upping the physicality. It was obvious to those watching the game that Chelsea were being outnumbered and outfought in midfield, yet Benítez sat idly by as it happened.
To Benítez’s credit he has improved slightly in this respect, though many might argue that simply bringing on better players is not a sign of tactical mastery. Some of the headlines and sound bites after the FA Cup game were so apoplectic in their “ha – told you so Chelsea fans!” way it was cringe inducing. The mere fact that he is not waiting to make almost pre-planned substitutions (65, 70 or 80 minutes) is an improvement and despite my feelings towards him I am happy this has changed.
Looking towards the home straight there seems to be two things in recent weeks that are apparent. Firstly, Chelsea’s strongest XI is still as good as anything in the Premier League. Secondly, the depth of those in supporting roles is nowhere near strong enough to compete through what could be a seventy game season. Juxtaposing Chelsea’s first half display against Manchester United with the level of performance in the second half is evidentiary of this belief.
The area of most concern seems to be finding the right balance in midfield. While there are definitely defensive issues they do not stagnate or impact the flow of Chelsea’s attacking play quite like the composition of Benítez’s two holding midfielders. It would not be too strong a suggestion to state that the pursuit of a trophy and a top four finish could wholly come down to these two positions.
Without getting too hipster the double pivot in a Premier League midfield tends to work on an A-B principle, whereby A is the designated holding player and B having the licence to attack. The perfect example of this was actually found at Benítez’s Liverpool – Mascherano being player A and Alonso being player B. The harmony was perfect with Mascherano screening the back four and Alonso using his world class range of passing to initiate swift attacks. A more current example would be Tottenham’s use of Sandro coupled with Dembélé.
Chelsea’s main issue in the 4231 comes from playing either an A-A (Mikel & Romeu was one of the worst midfield combinations I have seen) or B-B partnership (Ramires & Lampard lack the positional nous to play the role in a disciplined fashion and as such they expose the back four far too often). In games where the same type of player were used we saw that the A-A duo could not move the ball quick enough or incisively enough to supply Mata et al. Whereas the B-B partnership had the ability to go forward, but were positionally out-thought by relegation threatened sides.
It was no surprise therefore when Chelsea started the game against Manchester United in the FA Cup with Lampard and Ramires (B-B) and were consummately outplayed. The space found between the back four and midfield was criminal and the awareness of where United’s attacking players were was abject. The second half saw the introduction of John Obi Mikel (the archetypal A player) and Chelsea’s control of the midfield immediately improved. It allowed Ramires to perform his more natural box-to-box function, which is best seen through his second half equaliser.
The conclusion to all of this is that Chelsea’s best midfield combination going forward will almost certainly include John Obi Mikel. A hugely underrated and calming influence on the Chelsea side, he is the most effective screen of the back four currently available. Playing anyone else there has simply resulted in a very unstructured team that are cut through too easily by average sides.
Who you play alongside him will greatly depend on the opposition and form of those selected. Ramires seems to be the best option available as he provides the pace, energy and enthusiasm to diligently play the box-to-box role. Lampard is certainly not at his best there and there are fears that playing him alongside Mikel results in a midfield that lacks the athleticism to compete against physical teams.
Nevertheless, you would anticipate that there are fixtures that suit a controlled style of build up more than others and therefore Lampard slots in perfectly. Oscar is the final and perhaps most interesting option, possessing the ability to hit pinpoint passes and blessed with exceptional dribbling skills he could become the world class link player that Chelsea have craved for a few years.
I am hoping that Chelsea plan for the effective Mohamed Diamé and start the Mikel/Ramires combination that seems to be rekindling the sort of understanding that was so effective earlier in the season. I really like Diamé and think he is the type of robust athletic presence that Chelsea would do well to look for in the summer (Étienne Capoue).
Chelsea have missed a technical tank in the mould of Michael Essien/Michael Ballack since their injuries/departures and Capoue fits the mould wonderfully. It would be nice to see Chelsea reinforce the midfield area with such a signing to complement the likes of Chalobah/De Bruyne/McEachran coming through.
I am hoping for a strong(ish) side on Sunday and feel that with West Ham’s injuries we may cope without starting Juan Mata. A win of any sort will do as this is a real opportunity for the team to cement themselves within the top four.
My team: Cech; Azpilicueta, Luiz, Terry ©, Cole; Mikel, Ramires; Hazard, Oscar, Moses; Ba.
Follow Joe on Twitter: @JoeTweeds
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