The curtain raiser to the new season arrived and saw defending Premier League champions Chelsea pit their wits against FA Cup winners Arsenal only to lose 1-0 in the Community Shield at Wembley. This is first time Arsene Wenger has beaten his Portuguese counterpart – after 14 games.
In a game where Mourinho started his best available 11 without Diego Costa, Chelsea were trying to pick up from where they left off last season but there was something amiss in the lineup, especially in central midfield, something which has been lacking even throughout last season’s winning campaign and something that is an area where the Blues find themselves in quite a fix.
The missing piece. The last addition to a well oiled machine. A box-to-box goal scoring midfielder – another Frank Lampard.
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Now it really depends on your definition of a box to box midfielder, nevertheless Chelsea lack his presence in terms of goals, consistency, positioning and influence.
One major dilemma for Chelsea is in central midfield. This particular afternoon Mourinho opted to play Fabregas in the number ten role with Ramires sitting deep behind him alongside Nemanja Matic - a tactic used sparingly last season, but one that Mourinho chooses when he is wary of the opposition’s creativity in midfield.
It is a tactic which lessens Chelsea’s control over the game and herein lies the problem. Fabregas can play satisfactorily when pushed up to number ten but it’s not his strongest position, he is far more effective and dangerous when played in central midfield where he can influence the game to a greater extent.
However, he is suspect defensively and his lack of defensive nous is something that creates more pockets of space for the opposition and which leaves Nemanja Matic covering up more ground and having to work more strenuously in closing down his opponents. If you look at Fabregas playing at number ten he seems slightly uncomfortable.
He doesn't play with the same rhythm that he does when he plays in central midfield this is mainly down to the fact that – he doesn't get to dictate play, he doesn't see as much of the ball, he doesn't have the dribbling ability of a number ten and he’s not the quickest – he’s a square peg in a round hole at number ten.
The stats don't lie, when Fabregas was deployed as a number ten and false nine at Barcelona he produced 14 assists making 1.6 key passes per game and averaged 60.7 passes a game. Comparing that to his first season at Chelsea, the Spaniard produced 23 assists, made 2.8 key passes per game and averaged 80.6 passes a game.
There’s no doubt that number ten is not his best position and it is in fact in central midfield. Going back even further to his Arsenal days, Fabregas' best season was in 2009/10 (which also coincidentally was when Arsenal played a 4-3-3 formation) with Fabregas starting in central midfield as part of the midfield three with Denilson/Song sitting.
To no-one's surprise he finished the season with 19 goals and 15 assists making 3.5 key passes per game, far better than the next season when Arsenal played a 4-1-3-2 and Fabregas was made to play number ten, subsequently causing his numbers to drop to 6 goals and 13 assists and 2.9 key passes.
This is the conundrum - Fabregas and his preferred position. He must play as an out and out central midfielder to exert optimum influence on the game. He is the passer, he is the heartbeat and provides majority of the key passes that build attacks, not to mention his assists but he cannot defend.
According to WhoScored data, Fabregas attempted 196 tackles in the Premier league and Champions League combined having successfully made only 103 with a success rate of 52% while Oscar has a tackle success rate of 59% and Nemanja Matic averages 63%. This is the issue, Fabregas can’t tackle as well as his team mates.
What usually happens is this, in bigger games Mourinho anticipates the danger before the match and plays Ramires and Matic in the 2 slots of the 4-2-3-1 and shifts Fabregas to number 10. The game progresses and Chelsea are not able to dominate the ball. Half time arrives and Mourinho brings on Oscar for Ramires, Fabregas shifts to occupy the slot Ramires was in and Chelsea start to dominate the ball and create more chances but it usually is too late.
With the team attacking and Fabregas not being the best defensively it leaves the midfield more vulnerable to opposition attacks and Chelsea either concede or somehow get bailed by some heroic saves or defending. It’s a recurring theme and something that must be addressed.
For this we have to look at the Chelsea formation. 4-2-3-1. Breaking it down to only the midfield triangle. The text book formation employs two defensive midfielders and one creative midfielder or out and out number ten. Looking at Chelsea’s squad – only Nemanja Matic and Obi Mikel would classify as a defensive midfielders(DM). Ramires is a box-to-box midfielder (CM) but can’t attack significantly well enough to be a goal threat. While Oscar is a number ten and Fabregas is a central midfielder (CM) or a playmaker.
One midfield variant of the 4-2-3-1 which is Chelsea’s current best formation is where Oscar plays number ten and Matic sits as a holding midfielder while Fabregas is employed as a deep lying playmaker.
It works well against smaller and mid table league opposition and Chelsea usually dominate the ball and win comfortably. However, when Chelsea play the same system of a 4-2-3-1 against bigger opposition they find themselves wanting and cannot dominate the ball. They usually concede more possession and their attacks are less frequent.
Again for this one would have to delve into the details of the team’s strategy for that particular game but either way they still don't operate at maximum efficiency in the big games with this formation, irrespective of the strategy, although they have an excellent record against the top teams in the league.
When Chelsea are without the ball Oscar manages to work hard and close down high up the pitch and when Fabregas ventures forward sometimes drops back to cover but teams can target Fabregas’ side of the pitch and start to string passes around that area taking advantage of his lack of defensive acumen.
The Prime Example
Rewinding back to March, Chelsea were playing PSG in the Champions league round of 16 tie at Stamford Bridge and the Parisians started strongly with Marco Veratti pulling the strings, PSG were giving Chelsea a tough time and very little of the ball.
Mourinho's men had just 35 percent of possession in the opening 15 minutes and as the first half progressed PSG grew stronger, until Zlatan Ibrahimovic got sent off in the 31st minute for a lunge on Oscar while contesting a 50-50.
Now Chelsea were expected to take the game to their opponents and over-power a ten man PSG side, however as the game wore on the blues found it difficult to dominate possession and got overrun in midfield by the trio of Thiago Motta, Marco Verrati and Blaise Matuidi who bossed the game despite being a man down and sprayed passes around Fabregas for fun while the midfielder haplessly played catch up.
A stark reminder of how the midfield battle wasn’t much of a battle was Fabregas gasping for air while trying to chase down Verrati and Matuidi on the right flank after losing the ball. PSG went on the create more chances with Cavani hitting the post and despite going ahead twice the blues managed to lose the tie courtesy a David Luiz header from a corner.
Chelsea should have won that game especially given their numerical advantage and they should have had majority of possession yet they lost out in the center of the pitch with the final possession stats reading PSG 51% and Chelsea 49% once again highlighting the lack of another body to impose himself on the ball.
The solution is not a simple one yet theoretically it is.
Mind you this is a championship winning side and to suggest any alterations might seem preposterous, yet the only solution is that Chelsea will have to change their formation. Why would you change a Premier League winning side’s formation you ask?
Well, to operate more efficiently, maximizing the type of players Chelsea have and to of course adapt – to provide an alternative if you will. 4-2-3-1 isn’t the best system given the roster Chelsea possess. It may work against lower and mid table opposition but not against a crowded opposition midfield especially against the likes Arsenal.
The thing is after a season, teams learn, they realise weaknesses, they know what to target and how to play against you, this was apparent six months into last season as well when suddenly teams began to have more of the ball against Chelsea and targeted the area around Fabregas even though in some games Chelsea deliberately conceded more of the ball as a strategy.
The solution – inverting the pyramid into a flat out 4-3-3 with Matic holding and Fabregas and another central midfielder to partner him – a midfielder who can run box to box and probably chip in with goals.
4-3-3 is a system well known to Mourinho and Chelsea, it’s what won him back to back Premier League titles in 2004 and 2005.
It's the system that the Blues played the most over the last decade and it worked marvelously well. With a 4-3-3 a) Chelsea will be able to have more of the ball, retain more possession and operate with more fluidity b) Fabregas plays in his most suited position and can influence the game better c) Chelsea can afford the luxury of Fabregas’ inability to track back and win the ball by using another player to do that part for him d) The burden on Matic is reduced with another player helping out defensively and closing down the spaces and e) A narrower midfield can keep the ball better as there would be another body in the middle of the park to pass to with ease.
Failure to adapt was what cost Manchester City the title last season. Chelsea are in danger of losing the title because they might not adapt from last season. This way Chelsea can adapt and have a plan B - another play in the book for Mourinho. It’s something Mourinho could consider using to give the opposition something to think about rather than the expected 4-2-3-1 which teams expect him to field.
The Ideal Player
The answer is plain and simple. Chelsea haven’t replaced Frank Lampard. They brought in Fabregas, but after a season its quite apparent that the two are different players with different styles.
Frank Lampard gave you 20 goals a season.Fabregas gives you 20 assists a season. Different players. Different qualities.
Fabregas makes Chelsea tick but doesn’t score as many and needs support defensively. Frank Lampard is the ideal example of a goal scoring box-to-box midfielder, if there ever were a dictionary definition for the term you would have Lampard’s picture in it.
A hard worker, a consistent 7/10 performer, a player with intelligent movement and the ability to find the back of the net, a player who was the engine of the Chelsea team for more than a decade not to mention the club’s all time leading goal scorer. That’s what Chelsea lack – somebody with the work ethic, drive, intelligence and all round gameplay of Frank Lampard.
Chelsea lack goals from midfield in the way Frank Lampard so effortlessly scored for them. Oscar has performed decently enough but he is a number ten. Can he play in central midfield alongside Fabregas and Matic in a midfield three of a 4-3-3?
It remains to be seen. He did have a good season last year scoring seven and making nine assists and the Brazilian does have a 59% tackle success rate, so theoretically he can be moulded into a quality central midfielder but certainly he lacks the build. However, he has started in central midfield for the Brazilian national side.
Oscar will have to considerably improve his all round game and increase his tally of goals to double digits at least to fill the void left by Lampard. Also if Mourinho does decide to stick to the same squad and field a 4-3-3, Oscar must be able to make the transition from number ten and perform as an out and out central midfielder.
The other option would be to recruit a fresh player more adept at the role, but that’s the job of the scouting department at Stamford Bridge- Paul Pogba, Koke, Toni Kroos and Dani Parejo to name a few are players who would fit the system perfectly.
If the Blues can find the ideal candidate for the role it gives them the edge to adapt in big games in the league and the Champions league and will make the Chelsea machine operate at 100% efficiency instead of a mismatched 70% efficiency in terms of fluidity of player roles in the system.