Chelsea desperate for spine and leadership of yore

Posted by Phil Lythell

Spine. It's a word that has entered the football lexicon over the past 15 years and is a term that has become favoured by pundits throughout the land to either extol the virtues of a team on an upward surge or decry the deficiencies of a side in decline.

Spine. It is something that Chelsea are lacking desperately at the moment. The absence of which is leaving the team listless, without direction and – crucially – without identity. That might seem a harsh statement given the sudden downturn of fortune, but it is hardly a surprise when looking at the tools behind the almost constant positive trajectory of the club over the past decade.

The 0-0 draw at home against Fulham on Wednesday was disappointing not so much for the result but for the manner in which the game was played by the men in blue. With creative talents such as Eden Hazard and Oscar on the field, ball-winners like Oriol Romeu and Ramires hustling away, defensive totems in the shape of Branislav Ivanovic and David Luiz taking up their positions, the constituent parts of an effective progressive team were all present.

Yet there was something missing. Something that has defined Chelsea's success over the past decade. Continuity and leadership.

When discussing the future of the team over the past two seasons, the main focus has been about how can the club move on from the previous era with the added fixation of shipping out the 'old guard' and renewing the team with bright young players. The sentiment of that theory has always been correct but the ease and reality of its application has consistently been overlooked. We all know that Frank Lampard is 34 and in the twilight of his stellar career. We are aware that John Terry is 31 and is finally starting to succumb to the wear and tear that he has driven his ridiculously durable body through. We are also fully conscious that Didier Drogba is nothing but a beautiful memory.

But what is more depressing is that there do not appear to be any heirs to their collective throne.

Wednesday night at Stamford Bridge was the latest screamingly obvious example that without a cohesive link from defence to attack, a collection of individuals is nothing but a house of cards if there are no foundations to set it straight. There was energy but it was misdirected. There was skill from individuals but without any complimentary runs from their team mates.

Chelsea were crying out for someone to take charge rather than appear like a bunch of gifted children eager to make the effort but without knowing what the end product should look like. A fit Lampard, even in his dotage, would have made the world of difference. What he lacks in dynamism these days, he more than makes up for in on-pitch savvy and quick-smart creativity. Though he might be unable to replicate the lung-busting runs of his younger years, his ability to dictate the tempo and direction of the game remains -- a trait that is only garnered by years of experience at the very top of the game.

Whether under Roberto Di Matteo or Rafa Benitez, the team appear overly reliant on Oscar, Eden Hazard and Juan Mata – Mata strangely omitted for the fixture – to be their sole creators. But on Wednesday night, as much as Hazard attempted to drive the team forward there was little to accompany him, especially with Oscar having a rare off-day. There was no-one to provide a presence in a deeper-lying position, someone able to put their foot on the ball and marshal the troops to present a different angle of attack.

Likewise, a figurehead at the sharp end of the pitch can offer up hope but the travails of Fernando Torres have now drifted beyond parody and have become akin to a sitcom that has been commissioned for one season too many. Drogba was always going to be missed, but nobody predicted that one of the most resourceful clubs in the world would be left with just one bona fide centre forward that would become undroppable merely because there were no other options available. Romleu Lukaku, who sits ahead of Torres in the Premier League goalscoring chart, must be quietly sniggering to himself and the folly to let him leave for West Bromwich Albion on loan.

What must be made clear is that none of this is Benitez's fault. He is about as far from this author's first choice as Chelsea manager as it is possible, but he has inherited this mess from the faceless folk who determine the player transfers at Chelsea.

Will he be granted the power to purchase a striker and a central midfielder in January? Radamal Falcao and Marouane Fellaini are the obvious targets. Otherwise, there is every chance that Chelsea will finish outside the top four but this time without the considerable safety net of winning the Champions League.

Follow Phil Lythell on Twitter @PhilLythell

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