Chelsea are toiling this season. Not even the most dyed-in-the-wool supporter could argue otherwise.
A plethora of home defeats – including one to Aston Villa – and draws at places like Wigan and Norwich testify to that fact. But while many would like to throw the baby out with the bathwater, it should be remembered that we are (at the time of writing) still in two cup competitions and sitting in the hallowed top four of the Barclays Premier League. And to make things even better, here are the answers to the dilemmas facing Andre Villas-Boas meaning you can all relax and watch Tottenham be reeled in from third place as we march towards Champions League glory in Munich.
Luiz Is Not A Centre Back (Yet)
The bedrock of Chelsea’s success over the last decade has been a miserly defence. Organisational generals such as Marcel Desailly and his protege and successor, John Terry, have been accompanied by skilful, mobile and – essentially – positionally sound centre back partners such as Ricardo Carvalho or Alex. This season, however, we have instead been treated to the sight of David Luiz blundering around alongside our captain, generating uncertainty on the pitch and derision from the crowd in equal measure.
There is no doubting Luiz’s footballing ability but it is his footballing brain that appears to be lacking. Every time he takes the field spectators are counting down the seconds to the first inevitable gaffe and new-signing Gary Cahill must wonder what he has to do to finally make his debut in a Blue shirt. His error-strewn displays have impacted on those of Terry, with the skipper often having to do the jobs of two men and the introduction of his England partner would do much to neutralise those problems. Technically, Luiz appears to be as good as any other player in the squad bar – arguably – Juan Mata so perhaps it is time to remove him from the danger-zone of central defence and place him in the marginally less risky right back berth while he completes his education.
This would also help solve what has been the Blues’ problem position in recent years. While he may have been the catalyst for Chelsea’s last-gasp equaliser at Swansea City, there is no doubt that Jose Bosingwa is the weakest link in the team. That is not to say that the Portuguese is not capable of good performances, just that for each positive outing there are at least two that prove costly. It is time to move him on before he causes more damage. Many supporters are clamouring for Branislav Ivanovic to replace him on a regular basis and he has certainly proved to be a very capable operator on that side of the back four. However, playing Luiz there instead would allow the Brazilian to embark on his impressive surges upfield without leaving the defence horribly exposed when he loses possession after trying one stepover too many.
Restore Power To The Midfield
As any seasoned football observer will tell you, at the highest level the match is generally won in the midfield battle. It was a battle that Chelsea used to win much more often than not with opposing teams reduced to hitting long angled passes to avoid losing the ball in dangerous areas. But in order to do that you need a combination of quick, skilful, intelligent and – unless you’re Barcelona – physically powerful footballers. The likes of Claude Makelele, Michael Ballack, Michael Essien, and Frank Lampard have each provided all of those virtues in SW6 but with the Frenchman and the German having long left the club, ‘The Bison’ troubling the treatment table on more occasions than the opposition in recent years and the ageing Englishman not a favourite of AVB, the midfield has grown ever more frail.
The new regime’s emphasis on style over substance is admirable to a point but only if matches are being won and title challenges maintained. In my mind, the persistence with Raul Meireles is the ultimate symbol of the decline in this area of the team, one that was once one of the most feared in Europe. Just to remind you, Meireles is a player that Liverpool – the same Liverpool that did not even qualify for the Thursday Night Channel Five League – deemed surplus to requirements and replaced with that tour de force that is Jordan Henderson for almost £20m.
Perhaps I am being a tad unkind to the Portugal international as he is a decent all-round footballer but I am still uncertain as to what his real strengths are. He can pass adequately but is hardly the creative spark who was supposed to unleash Fernando Torres behind opposition defences. He is covered in a collage of tattoos that would not look out of place in Strangeways but he is far from being the hard man that his image represents. His brochure also advertises an eye for goal but with just two strikes to his name since his summer arrival at Stamford Bridge – and one of them was against lowly Genk against whom even Torres bagged a brace – he is not going to get picked by too many Fantasy League managers.
Would it have not been cheaper and more effective to have used Josh McEachran as one of our regular midfield options and letting him learn his trade by actually playing? Or if a new signing in that part of the pitch was desperately needed, maybe the £12m spent on Meireles could have been placed into the fund to buy Luka Modric for whom we only just fell short of signing in August? Instead, Meireles has seemingly taken the place of club legend and goal machine Lampard while our teenage prodigy has left the club on loan. If it wasn’t for Ramires and the encouraging displays from the still-learning Oriol Romeu then the midfield would have been less effective than a paper umbrella especially when you consider that Florent Malouda and John Obi Mikel lead the list of reinforcements.
The solution is simple. When fit play Lampard. The man has scored 12 goals and counting in all competitions this season despite failing to make the starting eleven on several occasions. He is a magnet to the back of the net, just take another look at his winning goal against Sunderland. Get Essien back into the team as soon as fitness allows and make sure Ramires features; the combination of power and industry could overwhelm opponents. Keep Meireles as a useful alternative on the bench starting only as part of a rotation system or in case of injury. And finally, NEVER play Malouda in the middle of the park.
Build Attack Around Mata
While many fans are aghast at our average displays this season, there have also been some bright spots of which Juan Mata has been the most eye-catching. His performances may have tailed off during the rigorous Premier League schedule over Christmas and New Year, but that can be forgiven for a person experiencing his first season in England, one without a winter break and having been a virtual ever-present since joining from Valencia.
He has been the creative hub of the side and I shudder to think what position Chelsea would be occupying in the Premier League had the deal fallen through for some reason. While he has largely been deployed on the left, Mata has proven more effective when he has drifted into central areas and orchestrated proceedings from there. The problem with this policy is that, while it makes it difficult for opposition defences to pick him up, it leaves a huge area of the field for Ashley Cole to cover from full back which can mean a lack of width in attack or an exposed flank when possession is turned over. The Blues flourished at Old Trafford in the second half of the unfortunate 3-1 defeat to Manchester United when AVB gave him instructions to operate from the centre . This is clearly a very attack-minded option and only applicable against lesser teams or when 3-0 down at places like the nauseatingly-monikered ‘Theatre of Dreams’.
Once again the answer does not require a doctorate in mathematics. All that is required is to subtly shift the system from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 with Torres or Didier Drogba leading the line, Daniel Sturridge on one flank, Ramires on the other, Essien and Lampard providing extra thrust from the base of midfield with Mata sitting behind the striker. Some might baulk at placing Ramires in a wider position but he has proved effective in that position when required and it means we can field our strongest players. Plus, if it helps to increase Mata’s influence in attacking situations and finally release Torres from his nightmare then it would be a sacrifice worth making.