Some of Chelsea’s best midfield players: ‘Claude Makelele’, ‘Michael Essien’, ‘Nemanja Matic’, ‘Cesc Fabregas‘, ‘Michael Ballack’, ‘Deco’, ‘John Obi Mikel’, ‘Ramires’ and, ‘Frank Lampard’.
What do these former Blues players all have in common apart from them being a part of Chelsea title-winning teams?
They of course represent a snapshot of the pristine level of the Blues midfield men maestros since the turn of the millennium. In speaking with many Chelsea fans, as well as observing the insightful commentary on the wonderful world of footballing wisdom (Twitter), a common theme arises – the strength and quality of Chelsea’s midfield, in particular, their core. A concept that holds true not only of the present day squad (conveniently guided by arguably the greatest Blues midfielder in Super Frank), but a consistent theme throughout the past two decades.
Interestingly, such is the midfield quality at the Blues disposal, it inadvertently has created a conundrum for Frank as he continues to tweak his formations and personnel to perfect his vision. For the following season, one of the lesser-spoken challenges for Frank will be, how does he successfully pick the right middle men to work the engine room and ensure that the front and back are working cohesively. Such is the importance of the middle men, if the appropriate balance between forward-thinking and defensive discipline isn’t achieved, it will undermine any potential enhancements made to other areas of the team which are believed to require improvement (e.g. our LB, CB and ST options). While there has been strong speculation in recent weeks over the potential acquisition of Phillipe Coutinho, most Blues appeared to be satisfied with this provided it is done on a loan deal with an option (not obligation) to buy should he deliver – hence minimising our risk exposure while enabling us to be rewarded if he were to come good.
While it wouldn’t be fair to compare the current crop with our very top, it would be naïve to think that fans don’t do so nonetheless, either directly or indirectly.
How many times have we heard phrases along the lines of:
- ‘Yeah he’s got great vision and controls the play, but he can’t thread it like Cesc’.
- ‘This little Frenchman is everywhere! He’s a lot like our Makelele’.
- ‘The young Englishman regularly makes intelligent runs, scores goals and assists, reads the game well, he reminds me of a certain Blues legend’.
With this backdrop, whilst one appreciates and relies upon statistical analysis as part of his day-to-day work, and having seen some great pieces in recent times based on this analysis, the below represents some qualitative (eye test) views regarding the pros and cons of the present-day Blues middle men.
Specifically, the purpose of this is to determine who should start the season in the XI, who could contribute from the bench, and who should depart. Bearing in mind this assessment factors in how the player is perceived to fit in under Frank’s system, not just their ability and personality.
Further, this is obviously a point in time assessment as of now, and needless to say, but is dynamic based on how players respond throughout pre-season and during the actual season.
So let’s begin, in order of jersey number, the first midfield player to be under the microscope is:
|Quick Profile||A central midfielder who possesses a strong influence in building up the play from the back and directing those around him.|
|Pros||Intelligent, visionary, on-field leader. A player that can successfully connect the back and front and uses his intelligence and vision to move players into the right areas and at times appears to be a couple of passes ahead of the opposition. He has a good range of short passing as well as the ability to sometimes execute an amazing through ball. He also doesn’t shy away from his defensive duties, albeit is not the best at them (see below).|
|Cons||Not athletically gifted relative to his other teammates and opposition which at times exposes his team on the counter. Additionally, and which is partially influenced by the above, his ill-discipline compounds the pressure on his midfield and defensive colleagues. Since joining the Premier League, he has been booked an astonishing 18 times (1 and ¾ seasons)!|
|Overall Assessment||Starting from the bench – While clearly an amazing talent and brings a lot to the team based on his understanding of the game, his influence is dependent on how others around him can relate to him. Further, given his suboptimal athletic ability, and factoring the position he plays in a physically-demanding league, starting on a regular basis is seen to reduce his effectiveness. Therefore, starting from the bench he can be a real x-factor as he can come on and exploit a tiring opposition while also not being exposed for his physical limitations. In saying that, he wouldn’t look out of place starting on occasion and in fact, it very well might be the preferred option based on the opponent or when managing different competitions that are played in quick succession. Further, considering the meteoric rise of Kovacic (which we’ll get to later), I believe our team’s passing fluidity will still be adequately maintained.|
N’Golo Kante (no.7)
|Quick Profile||A strong defensive midfield player who possesses amazing stamina that can diligently cover box-to-box.|
|Pros||Blessed with strong athleticism and dynamism, including a great tackling ability and technical understanding of the game to disrupt opposition attacks through his smart positioning. Upon his arrival into the Premier League, he has been one of the League’s most consistently high-performing players. Since his controversial positional change under the Sarri possession-based system, he has been able to fine-tune his ball-playing and dribbling skills, as well as use his stamina to make lung-busting runs into opposition boxes which has seen him increase his direct goal involvements.|
|Cons||While he has applied himself diligently in transitioning from his preferred position of DM, many feel we are not seeing the best of the French champion as the position he is playing does not appear to extract his more natural qualities. Further, his indefatigable work ethic over the past 3 seasons appears to be taking its toll which has seen his injuries and absences increase, which in turn has dampened his confidence and effectiveness during this season and the back end of last season.|
|Overall Assessment||Starting XI – Provided he is able to successfully get back to full fitness, which the prolonged break is perhaps a blessing in disguise, I feel the expansive nature of Chelsea’s gameplay under Frank thrives with Kante in the XI for two reasons. Firstly, the engine of Kante to execute the high-tempo and pressing required from Lampard is second to none, even factoring in the wonderful work-rate of Mount (again, will be covered below). Secondly, the defensive awareness and protection he offers is invaluable, which is particularly necessary given the style of play we have adopted which creates counter-attacking exposures. The reality is, when fully fit, Kante’s stamina, awareness and versatility are too good not to be used as a starter. Furthermore, given his qualities are more of a defensive nature, relying on him to inject himself from the bench does not seem to be suitable solution, notwithstanding he has definitely improved his attacking output. Perhaps controversially, but if we don’t consider him to be a starter, I’d be supportive of cashing in on him while his market value is reasonably high (length of contract remaining + his strong reputation) and using those funds to acquire a high-profile player e.g. Sancho / Martinez.|
Ross Barkley (no.8)
|Quick Profile||An attacking-style midfield player who makes driving runs and has a strong striking ability.|
|Pros||Strong, physical, good pace and dribbling ability, along with a great striking ability. A versatile midfielder who is not afraid to get stuck into his defensive duties while possessing the ability to drive at the opposition and punish them with his dangerous shooting capability.|
|Cons||Consistently inconsistent. The boy from Everton caught the eyes of Premier League viewers at a young age, but since showing glimpses of what he’s capable of, he has yet to ‘take the bull by the horns’ and elevate his game to the next level. His frustrating topsy-turvy performances are thought to be attributed to both acclimatising to new environments at Chelsea (change of styles from Conte to Sarri), and himself not understanding the rhythm of games to know when to properly inject himself vs. when to ‘game manage’. The season under Sarri particularly seemed to negatively affect Barkley as he tried to play a more simple, safe passing style rather than his natural gameplay of using his dribbling ability to take on defenders with pace and have regular shots i.e. add value rather than trying to be another Jorginho.|
|Overall Assessment||Substitute / Sell – While Ross has talent, his inability to produce it regularly does not bode well for him in a team that is looking to reassert themselves as the League’s best. Having said that, should the Club be unable to land Coutinho (permanently or on loan), or have Loftus-Cheek fit and firing, then Frank may want to consider keeping him for rotation purposes. With the likes of Kovacic hitting peak, Kante being world class, Jorginho with his unique skillsets, Mount and Gilmour on the rise, it is difficult to see how Barkley will crack it in the XI and therefore may seek greener pastures while he comes into his prime years (which I daresay would not be met with stiff resistance).|
Ruben Loftus-Cheek (no.12)
|Quick Profile||An attacking midfield player that possesses both good physical strength, strong dribbling skills, and an eye for goal.|
|Pros||His key strengths include his close ball control and dribbling at pace against defenders, ability to link-up with other players and exchange short passes as part of an attacking-build up, using his physique and strength to hold off opposing players, and like Barkley, has a great striking ability.|
|Cons||For all of the talent, skill and potential, we are yet to see the best of Ruben Loftus-Cheek. In closely watching Ruben, it feels as though he is not giving his whole self to the cause, in other words, we don’t appear to see the same work rate as we do in some of our other players. Perhaps some will say that this is similar to Hazard and look what he produced, and which is fair enough, but in the position RLC plays he has a lot of his teammates depending on him to cover a lot of ground. Further, given his natural height and strength, it would be expected that Ruben be more of an attacking threat at set pieces to add that extra element to his game.|
|Overall Assessment||Starting from the bench – While he continues to recover physically, including match fitness and perhaps more importantly, match sharpness, it is sensible that RLC commence the season from the bench and impress Frank as a dynamic spark against fatiguing opponents, and forcing Frank into some hard decisions as he works his way back into the starting fold. I, along with many fans I have spoken with, believe that this is genuinely a make or break season for the Cheek, given if he doesn’t deliver, and considering the alternatives in his position, he might very well be on the outter which is a sad prospect to fathom.|
Mateo Kovacic (no.17)
|Quick Profile||A central midfield player best known for his silky dribbling ability, acceleration and intelligence.|
|Pros||Where to start. The Blues unofficial player of the season has taken his game to new heights in his second season as a Blue, and has become the 40m bargain. A player that possesses sharp acceleration and amazing dribbling ability to burn his opponents, he often is the starting piece in a sizzling Blues move given he creates the initial opening. His natural intelligence, defensive awareness and tackling ability, and growing understanding of the game (thanks in part to working with Einstein Jorginho) is helping Mateo fast become an elite midfielder.|
|Cons||While he has enjoyed his best season yet, there’s still some finishes to be applied (pun intended). For all of the creative and attacking strengths Mateo has, we are yet to see this converted into more goals and assists. We have seen some glimpses of his striking talents but unfortunately it is all too rare (like a dominant Ross Barkley performance – ouch!). Perhaps a minor point, but he was also responsible for a free-kick goal we conceded whereby he moved from the wall which created the opening, so he will need to ensure he remains focused on sticking tight in similar situations, as well as defending set pieces more broadly, going forward.|
|Overall Assessment||Starting XI – This season’s performances are too difficult to ignore. Further, there’s a belief he can go 1 – 2 levels higher as he plays more regularly and enhances his confidence, hopefully with a more settled team around him. Having said that, with the abundance of talent he is surrounded by, he will need to mindful of the old foe (complacency) as no one in the XI should take their place for granted – even those with the Croatian’s skills!|
Mason Mount (no. 19)
|Quick Profile||A dynamic, attacking midfield player with energy to burn, strong understanding of the game, and a great eye for goal.|
|Pros||Mason possesses both strong stamina and inherent enthusiasm which he uses intelligently. His work-rate, confidence in front of goal, and all-around positive energy are the key reasons why he has been picked regularly in Frank’s XI this season. Additionally, his desire to press from the front and track back with the same level of intensity throughout a match inspires others around him (one of those intangible qualities, similar to that of Kante). At 21, and under the continued tutelage of both Frank and his colleagues, the world at his feet – especially considering the comments from a certain Argentinian whiz (Lionel Messi? Or something like that :P).|
|Cons||Although a rising star, and perhaps this is down to his building experience, there are times when Mason looks either uncertain or unfortunately makes the wrong decision when placing himself in good attacking positions i.e. at times he will decide to take a shot from an unfavourable position when the better option would have been to find a team mate. However, should he continue to work on correcting these tactical mistakes when encountering similar scenarios, he will undoubtedly be an England (and hopefully a Blues) superstar for many years to come.|
|Overall Assessment||Starting from the Bench / Potential starter* – Perhaps this is controversial but if Coutinho were to join, I would have Mason starting from the bench as an impact sub (provided Coutinho had a full preseason and impressed in that time). However, depending on the opponent and the style of play for that occasion, there’s no reason why he can’t be trusted to rotate as a starter on some occasions, and with these opportunities, he might just convince us that he should get the nod over another starter. His importance to the team is not in question, it is just a matter of how we do we extract the most out of him while balancing the rest of the midfield. A strong factor is he is still maturing, and also the way he plays is fast-paced and relentless so we will have to carefully manage him physically and mentally so as to avoid a Kante-type injury path.|
Billy Gilmour (no. 47)
|Quick Profile||A central midfielder who has strong technical ability, composure and intelligence.|
|Pros||While diminutive in size, he’s gigantic in heart. After delivering back-to-back man-of-the-match performances against Everton and Liverpool, the footballing community got their first insight of Billy ‘the kid’ Gilmour, or as we’ll one day maybe be calling him, ‘Billy the G.O.A.T’! When someone of Roy Keane’s stature gives someone praise, it would be wise to listen and take note. At a tender 18 years of age, witnessing the sheer composure on the ball, as well as his tenacity in defence that he showed in the abovementioned games was nothing short of spectacular. His starting maturity point is perhaps his strongest attribute, although his underlying hunger and intelligence he has showed thus far are a close second.|
|Cons||While not in his direct control, his unimposing frame is something he will need to improve on if he intends to push himself into the elite category given the physical and athletic demands of the Premier League. In saying that, as he is young and his body is still growing, this is thought to be a temporary issue which he can reasonably manage while also focusing on his tactical footballing development.|
|Overall Assessment||Starting from the Bench – As good as he is, the reality is he should be looking to push himself to play more regularly from the subs bench in the League, and who knows, establish his case to be a starter in our domestic cup games (which if successful, also helps Frank manage his squad for the League and Champions League). There’s no doubt Billy will be a superstar, it’s just a matter of carefully managing this transition, both from a psychological and physical perspective. We don’t want to put unnecessary pressure on him given the critics will slaughter him if has a few average performances which can have detrimental effects on his confidence for the medium-long term.|
While the above list does not consider all of the Blues’ midfielders, it is ones view that this list makes up those that will genuinely be in the fight for a starting spot, or at least a regular substitute’s appearance. Other up and coming central midfilelders, such as Lewis Baker and Faustino Anjorin should continue their development on loan in the Championship or preferably at another Premier League Club (provided they are getting minutes!).
As for Danny Drinkwater, well, unless by some divine miracle he somehow trains the house down and impresses Frank and Jody during the off season, one wonders whether they will consider cutting their losses and trying to offload him for a fire sale price just to have him off the books.Additionally, while it is encouraging to see Marco Van Ginkel continue to work his way back from yet another injury, it is difficult to see how the former Dutch sensation and prodigy at the time will crack his way into this heavily-stacked Blues midfield. If he were to penetrate the seemingly impenetrable, it would be some story, of which would deserve a lot of coverage!
Chelsea have an amazing bundle of talent in its central midfield. With the prospect of adding Coutinho to this (either temporarily or permanently), the selection headaches for Frank will only become even more intense, albeit the kind of headaches he would definitely prefer!
The beautiful thing from a Blues’ fans perspective is that in an arguably the most influential and important area of the pitch, we have more options than a stock exchange.
By Ross-John (RJ) Bonaccorsi
Edited by Jai Mcintosh