Chelsea midfield dilemma continues to hold Guus Hiddink's side back
After 2-2 and 3-3 draws in the space of four days, it seems as though the goal-scoring issues that have undermined Chelsea all season are finally being sorted out. The five goals netted against West Bromwich Albion and Everton made it 10 in four games, adding to the 3-0 win at Crystal Palace and the 2-0 FA Cup success against Scunthorpe United. They might not be blowing teams away, but at least they remember where the goal is.
Unfortunately, that is not the only issue that Guus Hiddink needs to remedy; the most worrying one has arguably plagued the club for a number of years: central midfield.
Since the departure of Michael Ballack in 2010 and the onset of Michael Essien's injury problems around the same time, Chelsea have struggled to find the right balance. Frank Lampard helped fill the void in his later years, though David Luiz's deployment there on occasion -- along with the appearance of fellow centre-back Kurt Zouma in the anchor role during last season's Capital One Cup final against Tottenham -- illustrates that a real solution has yet to be found. There was a brief ray of light in the first half of the 2014-15 campaign when Nemanja Matic and Cesc Fabregas dovetailed to stunning effect, but that bubble burst after the 5-3 humbling at Spurs on the first day of 2015. The position has been found wanting ever since.
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There was clear evidence in the last two matches that the midfield is harming the team's overall prospects. Admittedly it's not the only area of concern; the finger can also be pointed at the defence, especially when analysing the scandalous ball-watching as Everton's Ramiro Funes Mori scored what he thought was the winning goal on Saturday. However, it's often the dysfunctional unit ahead of them that isn't providing the bulwark necessary to prevent the opposition from getting into dangerous areas.
Take this example from the West Brom game. Chelsea were leading 1-0 and cruising when Pedro Rodriguez lost possession as he tried to cut infield in his own half. While some blame must be attributed to his basic mistake, he should have been able to count upon his teammates being in a sensible position to tidy up. Instead, the ball ran free into the space between Chelsea's centre-backs and the midfield pair of John Obi Mikel and Fabregas. Craig Gardner's ensuing finish was crisp and accurate, though he was afforded all the time in the world to size up the opportunity and take his shot.
The same problem was evident against Everton -- this time it was Matic alongside Mikel, with Hiddink understandably thinking that this combination would provide a more disciplined shield. Instead, the duo seemed unsure as to whether they should be pressing the ball or holding their position, which in turn allowed Everton to take advantage. Ross Barkley was the main beneficiary though Chelsea can be thankful that their tactical naivety was punished only once.
If they are going to continue to play this system the defence has to play a higher line, which clearly has implications for John Terry and his fabled lack of pace. Otherwise, at least one of the two holding players has to be much more rigid defensively and play a patrolling role rather than always trying to get on the ball. The ultimate quest, though, is to get the balance right; while a switch to a 4-3-3 could use a defensive anchor and enable Fabregas more freedom to prompt the play, it is highly unlikely that such a major tactical shift will take place halfway through the season. Instead, it is a case of using the right personnel.
On paper, the Mikel/Matic axis appears to be the best combination for games against progressive opponents. Although it worked against a workmanlike Man United side in last month's 0-0 draw at Old Trafford, it suffered against the movement from a pacey and attack-minded Everton side. Switching Fabregas to play alongside Mikel was the catalyst to Chelsea getting back into the game against Everton, yet that success comes with a word of caution. The two recent results made it clear that tackling is one of Fabregas' weaknesses; as a result, the duo hardly appear to be a long-term solution.
One player who does seem to give balance to the midfield when he plays is Ramires. The forgotten man at the start of the season, it was notable how much he improved the side once he was brought back in from the cold. The one issue with the Brazilian is a limited passing ability that sees him concede possession far too often. But on the flip side, he has the energy to perform the much needed box-to-box role while also chipping in with the odd goal, something that no other midfielder at the club has been doing this season.
Ramires' pace allows him to cover any space behind him and equally make a contribution on the counter. Hiddink doesn't appear to rate him just yet; having kept the Brazilian on the substitutes' bench for the whole of the West Brom game, he wasn't even included in the matchday squad to face Everton. With no reports of any injury, he might frozen out once again.
There is one other option at Hiddink's disposal: Ruben Loftus-Cheek. In limited appearances this season, the 19-year-old has been deployed largely as a playmaker behind the main striker, though he is capable of playing in the deeper role. He shone there for 77 minutes of September's 4-0 home win over Maccabi Tel Aviv despite being harshly booked in the very first minute, showing that he has the maturity and discipline to be a success.
Hiddink has sung the praises of some of his young charges this season but he has also counselled patience, which suggests Loftus-Cheek cannot expect too many starts between now and the end of the campaign. But given the parlous state of Chelsea's midfield, is there really that much risk in giving him an extended run of games?
With Matic's total loss of confidence, Fabregas's defensive myopia and the substandard distribution of both Mikel and Ramires, there seems to be no immediate solution to Chelsea's midfield conundrum. That said, Hiddink is an intelligent, experienced manager and Chelsea supporters will be praying that he can solve the riddle sooner rather than later. Or at least hope that he can paper over the cracks until his permanent replacement can hit the ground running in the summer transfer window.
Phil is one of ESPN's Chelsea bloggers. You can follow him on Twitter @PhilLythell.