Chelsea’s signings this season have echoed Roman Ambramovich’s desire to play attractive football. To quote Arrigo Sachi, “If you want to go down in history you don’t just need to win, you need to entertain.” One criticism happily thrown at Chelsea’s European triumph was the lack of creative, attacking football in the style implemented by Roberto Di Matteo in the latter stages of the tournament. Since then, Chelsea has bought attacking midfielders/wingers like Eden Hazard, Marko Marin, Victor Moses and Oscar to combat the stigma thrust upon the London club last season.
Chelsea’s purchases truly mark exciting times for the club, but have they been over enthusiastic in their transfer dealings? This season, Chelsea have been playing a 4-2-3-1 formation, with holding midfielders, an attacking three (including two wingers and a central attacking midfielder), and a lone striker. In this style, the attacking trio that sit behind the forward are the key to any attacking move presented. For example, of Chelsea’s league goals this season (11), Eden Hazard or Juan Mata have been credited with over half of the assists (6), with Ashley Cole the only other player to have been noted to assist a player. With Oscar playing up to what his transfer fee may allow fans to expect of him, and Moses getting on the scoresheet against Wolves in the Capital One Cup, the attacking part of Chelsea’s formation seems to have no problems with the transition to the new style of play.
However, the problem may lie with Chelsea’s other two midfielders, the holding midfielders that sit behind the creative players, and maintain a balance when it comes to attack and defence. Without a strong defensive midfield, the formation is susceptible to counter attacks, and will likely concede just as many as is scored. An example of this was in Chelsea’s 4-1 defeat to Athletico Madrid in August, Madrid were efficient and quick on the break, Chelsea were caught out of position, and as a result were convincingly defeated.
Apart from the high profile signings, Chelsea have also been active in selling and loaning players out; the most obvious example of this is Michael Essien, who has moved to Real Madrid for a season. Admittedly, Essien is far from the form he was in three seasons ago, but for players suited to a defensive midfield unit, there are few better. Another departure was that of Raul Meireles; a perplexing sale to many. The most likely explanation is that Chelsea cashed in on an aging player, but once again it takes one player out of a squad that could hold this role.
Chelsea’s main options now reside in John Obi Mikel, and Frank Lampard. Lampard showed his skill as a defensive midfielder last season, particularly against Barcelona, where he faced some of the best attacking threats in the world, and didn’t look out of place; a compliment to any player. But Lampard is now 34, and can he be expected to play every week? His partner in midfield, John Obi Mikel, is not the player Chelsea keep insisting he is. Mikel was formerly an attacking midfielder prior to his move to Chelsea, where he was forced under the wing of Michael Essien. Now, he is a competent holding ball player, but at heart will always be a converted number 10. So, Chelsea’s best holding players are both more suited to the creative trio than in front of the back four. Ramires falls into the same category, and Oriel Romeu is more suited to a centre back role, albeit capable of playing in midfield.
So far, Chelsea’s formation has held well. Only three goals conceded in the league, they sit top of the table. But the test is still to come in the Premier League, with Chelsea playing no world class attacking forces (with the exception of Arsenal), so when Chelsea face Manchester City, United or perhaps Tottenham under Andre Villas-Boas (whose wing play and high tempo football will be the perfect challenge), the limitations of the holding midfield may be apparent.
In conclusion, Di Matteo’s options in this part of the team are a lot thinner than he would like. An assumption can be made that he was told the type of players to sign, and did so accordingly, without awareness of the vulnerabilities this may cause his own team. If the team start to concede (or more importantly, lose games), then investment is always available in the January transfer window. Until then, fixtures against Spurs and United in October, and City and Liverpool in November will illustrate the capabilities of Chelsea’s new formation, or even, the role of players within the tactic. Success doesn’t come just by playing more attack minded players, a lesson that will be learnt sooner or later.