There has been a huge amount of media attention on the perceived weaknesses present in this current Chelsea team, exacerbated and highlighted by the sacking of Champions League winning manager Roberto di Matteo. Much of the focus has been on the lack of depth in the squad up front, with Torres failing to have any real impact, scoring just one goal (a fluke deflection against Shakhtar) in his last nine games. Further to this the much maligned Spaniard looks short of confidence in his own ability, with Chelsea continuously linked with moves for Falcao, amongst other strikers.
However, whilst the attention on Chelsea’s striking weaknesses is correct, it masks other deficiencies, notably in centre midfield. On paper the Chelsea midfield looks very good, the ‘three amigos’ (as they are affectionately known) look classy and effective, whilst Ramires is as good a box to box midfielder as there is. However, the midfield dynamic has clear weaknesses that are beginning to be exposed. One issue is that Chelsea look like two distinctive units, a defensive one and an offensive one, without an effective enough link up between Mikel/Ramires and the ‘three amigos.’ This leads to a great deal of space in between the ‘three amigos’ and Chelsea’s defensive shield in Ramires and Mikel, which can be exploited, as Juve did so effectively last week. By pouring midfield runners forward Chelsea were overwhelmed in these areas.
Why the weaknesses?
In some games we have seen Mata drop back into deep areas to pick up the ball and link the play, which works effectively for attacking transitions but no so much for defensive ones. Mikel and Ramires can also move out of the defensive pivot to link up. But this can leave Chelsea with a three against one if Ramires/Mikel lose the ball on a forward run. Rafa Benitez looked to deal with this against City by making sure that Ramires played in a very reserved manner against City. Ramires was instructed to play a deep role, looking to plug gaps, a bit like Mascherano used to do at Liverpool. Ramires was excellent in this role completing three tackles and five interceptions. It did however mean that he limited his forward forays which at times are incredibly effective.
One other issue in defensive transitions is that if Ramires breaks forward and Mikel is left isolated he struggles. Mikel is a relatively efficient player but arguably not good enough for the system Chelsea are playing. He doesn’t complete enough passes, with a high enough pass completion rate to be considered a deep-lying playmaker, nor does he tackle or intercept enough to be considered a defensive shield. In truth he is OK at both things but not good enough at either to be considered an effective player in a two man midfield. Chelsea need to sign a specialist in this area, for example Javi Martinez who signed for Bayern in the summer. Mikel doesn’t play enough passes to keep Chelsea ticking over, nor does he win enough tackles to be an effective ball winner. He is a bit of a mix between both, which makes him less effective in the two man role.
Chelsea only have four centre-midfielders and all of them are more suited to a 4-3-3 than a 4-2-3-1. One solution could be to drop Oscar back into a slightly deeper role. He is quite effective at tracking players and putting tackles in despite his slight fame. He has marked Pirlo and Arteta quite effectively this season, and he also possesses the technique to drive out of midfield and link the play through precision passing. Oscar did this to a degree against City, where he completed four tackles, a high number for an attacking midfielder. If we observe his heat map below we can also see that he worked hard to defend, getting across the whole of Chelsea’s half:
As things stand Chelsea really risk being over-run in this area. In truth, they desperately need to sign a midfielder in January, which wil help them link the play and defend more effectively. They need a player who can link up the two distinct units. It also raises questions about the viability of the makeshift 4-2-3-1 that the club have been using. Arguably as a result of an imbalanced squad, long term we might see Rafa shift to a 4-3-3. Chelsea only have four centre-midfielders and with Mikel going to Afcon in January they are desperately short of cover in this area, meaning Abramovich would be well advised to look for a new midfielder.
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