Still searching for perfect midfield balance

Posted by Phil Lythell

The inconsistency surrounding Chelsea's performances has sparked a fierce debate as to what the next step should be for the team. The quandary faced by Jose Mourinho was openly revealed in his news conference after the midweek defeat to Sunderland in which he argued the respective pros and cons of an attacking approach versus a defensive one.

The manager's thoughts have been discussed and chewed over at length in blogs, forums and comments sections with a multitude of views being put forward. Most of the talk has been sensible and has centred on how the current squad can best be utilised to achieve the objectives for the season and what the club's policy should be in the forthcoming January transfer window. Needless to say, there have also been a few reactions of the knee-jerk variety.

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Regular readers of this blog will remember that recently it cited the lamentation from some that Rafael Benitez was no longer at the helm, though that has now been trumped by some advocating the return of Andre Villas-Boas to Stamford Bridge. Even forgetting the quite incredible inference that Mourinho should be sacked for being in the last 16 of the Champions League and two points off the Premier League summit just a few months into his tenure, it also seems to have been forgotten just quite how damaging Villas-Boas' spell as manager was to morale at the club with a blind eye also being turned to his recent travails at Tottenham.

Putting the identity of the manager to one side for the moment, the most prominent concern is the same one that was voiced by many at the start of the season, namely the imbalance in the squad especially when considering the strategy that is to be implemented.

With attack the name of the game, it is important to have that crucial though much-overlooked element of this philosophy in place: the presence of a midfield anchor. Every successful team that floods forward in great numbers has a man who stations himself as the fulcrum between the midfield and the back four and maintains his discipline to adhere to his prosaic task of breaking up the play before moving the ball on simply.

That does not mean that those players have to be lacking in technique; Barcelona's Sergio Busquets and Bayern's Philipp Lahm are hardly talentless cloggers, while Claude Makelele could certainly play, even if he rarely troubled the goalkeeper.

In John Obi Mikel, Chelsea retain the services of an individual capable of performing this role, yet he does not appear to be trusted to do so on a regular basis. The Nigerian does have a tendency to frustrate, and he is definitely more effective in a team set up in a defensive shape, though it is still a surprise to see him frequently start from the bench rather than on the field.

Given the success of the one time he played that exact position this season in a 4-3-3 formation against West Ham, it is odd that this tactic has not been replicated. It might be deployed at Arsenal on Monday night, though that would be with the intention of congesting the midfield and denying the Gunners any space to operate rather than as a platform to launch attacks as it was at Upton Park.

Marco van Ginkel was bought in the summer to bolster the midfield, though from his limited appearances he seems to be more of an energetic creative sort rather than a true holding player. His long-term injury means that it will probably be next season before his talents are truly exhibited.

In the meantime, the transfer gossip has suggested that Inter Milan's Fredy Guarin could be coming to West London, with his agent confirming that Chelsea had registered an interest in his client.

However, the Colombian is another who retains strength in versatility, as opposed to someone satisfied simply by providing a safety net for the more adventurous team-mates in front of him. In Ramires and Frank Lampard, the Blues already have players of his ilk. Although Guarin might prove to be a welcome addition in an area in which they are undermanned, it does seem that Guarin might not be exactly what the Londoners need at this precise moment.

An alternative option could be Barcelona's Javier Mascherano. The Argentine is a man who revels in doing the ugly stuff and has the added advantage of also being extremely good at it.

He has been shunted into the back line at Barcelona because of their desire to field ball-playing centre backs, though there is no question that he is more at home sitting just in front of the defence. Mascherano has found himself in and out of the team at the Camp Nou this season, so he might be tempted by regular football in England.

Of course, unlike Guarin he would be ineligible to play in Europe this season for Chelsea, though he would certainly fit the bill in the Premier League, in which he already has extensive experience with Liverpool and West Ham.

Whomever is brought in to address the issue, the changes that need to be made are not radical. A slight tweak to the balance in midfield could release the attacking players while also supplying added solidity in defence. As with anything in football, it is not a guaranteed success, though with this Premier League season wide open, even just a small change could work wonders.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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