AFTER making a thrilling start to the Premier League season, Chelsea’s capitulation at the hands of Atletico Madrid in the Uefa Super Cup final came as a shock to many. In reality, however, the warning signs were there before a rampant Falcao put the Blues defence to the sword in Monaco.
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The attacking firepower available to Roberto Di Matteo ensured Wigan, Reading and Newcastle were all seen off with a modicum of comfort, but throughout those victories it was clear that the extraordinary defensive discipline which made last season’s miraculous Champions League win possible is yet to be rediscovered.
The flanks appear to be an area of concern, and this is a logical result of the attacking 4-2-3-1 system the Italian has favoured so far. It is a strategy which has paid off spectacularly going forward, with Eden Hazard and Juan Mata combining brilliantly all over the final third and Fernando Torres finally beginning to show his class of old.
But with three attack-minded players providing the service to Torres, full-backs Ashley Cole and Branislav Ivanovic can often be left to defend on their own against multiple opponents — a situation which arose time and again against Wigan and Reading.
To help alleviate this problem, the midfielders deployed on the flanks must up their defensive work-rate and track back more often. For even if a winger is not a natural ball-winner, his mere presence at least forces the opposition to work harder to break through.
There are more serious issues, however, which are not quite so easily solved — one of which was hinted at in the Blues’ early Premier League encounters, but laid bare for all of Europe to see by a confident and well-drilled Atletico side: a complete lack of mobility in the midfield.
As a partnership, Frank Lampard and Jon Obi Mikel have many qualities, but pace is not among them. Once they took the lead, this was something Atletico exploited superbly, allowing the duo to push up towards their massed defensive ranks before retrieving possession and racing, with speed and numbers, past them to attack an exposed Chelsea backline.
This gave Falcao, one of the deadliest finishers on the planet, all the time and space he needed to complete a clinical first-half hat-trick. Indeed he could, and probably should, have scored even more.
Of course, Chelsea can play much better than they did in Monaco, but the central midfield problem will not go away — at least not while Lampard remains at the heart of things.
The 34-year-old has been a wonderful servant to the Blues, playing a key role in the most successful period in the club’s history, while establishing himself as the finest goalscoring midfielder of the modern era. But he is now an old man in a young team seeking a fresh identity, and it is growing ever harder to picture him maintaining his influence in the new order.
With Torres a confident figure and supported by a formidable array of young attacking talent, Chelsea would no longer be dependent on Lampard’s goals even if he remained capable of providing them. What is required instead is someone who can give the ball to the team’s main creative forces at the right time, before stepping back and allowing them to carry the fight.
Lampard possesses the technical quality to do this, but he lacks the pace and dynamism to run a midfield from a deep-lying position next to a destroyer such as Mikel. Atletico knew this and used it to their advantage. Better teams in bigger matches will surely do the same.
Luckily for Chelsea, however, they already have the perfect man for the job. With his underrated passing range, blistering pace and tireless running, Ramires is the ideal candidate.
His direct ball-carrying through the centre of the pitch would make the transition from defence to attack seamless, while his indefatigable work ethic would ensure Di Matteo’s men were harder to overrun.
Moving him back would also afford the Blues the chance to include another attacking threat behind Torres. Oscar is likely to be that man once he adapts to the Premier League, while fellow summer arrival Victor Moses could also be called upon if a more direct, muscular approach was required.
The other big issue lies in the heart of defence, where another key member of the old guard, John Terry, is showing his age. Years of putting his body on the line and playing through the pain barrier have taken their toll, turning a man who never counted athleticism among his best attributes into a veritable statue in the Blues backline.
The ‘backs-to-the-wall’ approach which characterised last season’s Champions League run suited Terry’s need to operate within his physical limits, but the team’s shift to a more expansive, attacking style renders him obsolete. Long-term, it is impossible to see a place for him in the new Chelsea.
He remains a superb leader, but picking Gary Cahill would give the Blues the option of pressing higher up the pitch and getting their formidable attack involved more easily, while also providing better cover for the moments when David Luiz elects to bring the ball out of defence.
Unlike Terry, Lampard would still have a role to play, much like the one Paul Scholes still does at Manchester United. His experience and winning mentality would prove a great influence on the younger players at Stamford Bridge, as well as being potentially decisive in high-pressure games.
But if the tactical evolution is to continue, the time has come for Chelsea to find new stalwarts. It may rankle with some, but a changing of the guard must happen at some point soon, and delaying will only prolong the pain.
Barclays Premiership fixtures
Saturday: Norwich v West Ham, 1:45pm, Arsenal Southampton, Aston Villa v Swansea, Fulham v West Brom, Man Utd v Wigan, Chelsea v QPR, Stoke City v Man City all at 4pm and Sunderland v Liverpool, 6:30pm
Sunday: Reading v Tottenham, 5pm
Monday: Everton v Newcastle, 9pm