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Aug 24, 2008

Chelsea's middle all of a muddle

Wigan 0-1 Chelsea

How, Arsene Wenger asked, will it work? He was not referring to his own midfield, though the same question could be posed there, but Luiz Felipe Scolari's. Arsenal have too few options in the centre of the pitch. Chelsea suffer from the opposite problem.

How do Deco, Frank Lampard, Michael Ballack, Michael Essien and Joe Cole co-exist in the same team? With difficulty, it would appear. Deco delivered a second special goal in as many games, a glorious free kick to defeat Wigan, but that should not camouflage a disjointed display.

Strangers to the touchline all, they sought comfort in company in the centre of the pitch as Fabio Capello, with a recent history of tactical confusion, watched on.

There are suggestions that a lack of width may hinder Liverpool's title challenge. It may also be a hindrance to Chelsea, capable of compressing play insufficiently creative. Too often they lacked the angle for a telling cross. Too often they found themselves outflanked by Wigan.

'You thought they were a four in midfield? I thought it was six,' said Steve Bruce, the Wigan manager. It was not just the opposition who were baffled, however. An interchangeable attacking unit can be devastating when the team is suitably fluent to render the opposition perplexed. Lacking cohesion, greater structure can be beneficial.

Without it, only Deco, the greatest source of invention, approached his best. Essien proved admirably disciplined but was stymied as an attacking force. For much of the match he resembled a third central defender, and indeed there were times when the Ghanaian was the last man.

Deco, too, was willing to drop deeper, drawn to the ball, while Lampard passed him in the opposite direction, headed for goal in trademark fashion. Ballack was seen too infrequently in the box while Joe Cole, at times, appeared to be deployed as a centre-forward. He and the German appeared particularly afflicted by the system.

It may be deemed, as Jose Mourinho's formation was, 4-3-3. It was more of a 4-1-3-2 though, when Wigan in possession, notable that Nicolas Anelka stayed alone in attack. To further complicate matters, there were occasions when the overlapping Ashley Cole and Jose Bosingwa threatened to turn it into 3-5-2.

Indeed, the two full-backs risk becoming the most overworked members of Scolari's side with sole defensive and attacking responsibilities for one wing apiece. 'Effectively they've got the focal point in Anelka and they do flood the midfield with people,' analysed Bruce. 'They do get their width from the full-backs.'

Wigan's width came from more players. Amr Zaki provided some and drew two fine saves from Petr Cech. A later stop from the replacement Olivier Kapo prompted Scolari to describe the Czech as one of the world's top three goalkeepers, along with Gianluigi Buffon 'and another'.

His fine form was necessary. 'In my opinion today, we've missed an outstanding chance to beat them,' added Bruce. 'They've had a bad day today, Chelsea, but they've had a piece of brilliance from the highest level. When you analyse it, our goalkeeper hasn't made a save.'

That goalkeeper was a late selection, even if an injury in the warm-up to Chris Kirkland is almost as surprising as a last-minute withdrawal by Louis Saha. Mike Pollitt's afternoon consisted of a hurried introduction, removing Deco's fourth-minute freekick from the net and then inactivity until Essien tested him half way through the second half.

Sadly for Pollitt, a money-spinning move to Chelsea looks unlikely, given Scolari's description of the goal. 'Deco is intelligent,' he said. 'When he sees the goalkeeper make a mistake of one metre, he changes and shoots in the other side. It is why he is one of the best in the world.'

He was also the messenger. Chelsea's flawed tactics appeared on their manager's mind whenever, as happened on several occasions, Deco was summoned by Scolari for a briefing during a break in play. Perhaps it was a sign of the Brazilian's distrust of his English, or in his captain and vice-captain. Either way, the new recruit was his manager's voice on the pitch.

His many marquee players may not like the team ethic their new manager is proposing. 'It is not important if Lampard scores goals or Deco scores goals if Chelsea score goals. That is the philosophy I want the players to understand,' Scolari explained.

On today's evidence, his many midfielders have much to understand if they are to flourish together.

MAN OF THE MATCH: Wilson Palacios
The Honduran Essien was outnumbered in the centre of the pitch by Chelsea's many midfielders, but compensated with his formidable energy and judicious use of the ball. One of the best buys of last season, he has started the current campaign in marauding mood.

WIGAN VERDICT: Two games, two defeats and two hard-luck stories. Wigan have conceded three goals in the opening 10 minutes of games already this season and have been playing catch-up thereafter.

Yet against both West Ham and Chelsea, their response has been emphatic. Besides the forceful Palacios, the skilful signing Zaki suggested Bruce retains his eye for a bargain. They are in the relegation zone, but shouldn't stay there for long.

CHELSEA VERDICT: Scolari's Portuguese charges, Deco and Ricardo Carvalho, were his most impressive performers. Bosingwa, the third member of the Euro 2008 quarter-finalists, and Cole provided plenty of energy on the flanks and, as they have done on numerous occasions over the past three years, they ground out a 1-0 win on their travels.

But in the long term, a greater understanding of their system and more fluency is required. Robinho's flair wouldn't go amiss, either.

WELCOME ROBINHO?: 'I don't know nothing,' said Scolari. 'I focus on Wigan.'

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