Many people point to a lack of creativity in midfield as the issue currently hampering Chelsea’s goal tally. A problem many fans wanted addressed in the summer and after a very public pursuit of Tottenham midfielder Luka Modric, Chelsea eventually brought in Spanish maverick Juan Mata. Mata’s impact at Chelsea was immediate, scoring in his first appearance in a blue shirt and linking play between the midfield and forward positions with aplomb. However due to manager Andre Villas-Boas’ penchant for the 4-3-3 formation, Mata was being deployed on the left hand side of the front 3, a position which he was not best suited to. Arguably many of the better passes and assists produced by the Spaniard this season have come from his better position in the hole behind the striker. This means Chelsea’s only threat from the left hand side is Ashley Cole.
Although Cole’s forrays forward in recent have years have been plenty, this season we are not seeing the same level of adventurousness from the defender. Is it the new philosophy brought in by AVB? Has his performance level dropped? Both are possible but I believe it is due to the lack of natural width on the left hand side for Chelsea. Cole used to operate in tandem with Florent Malouda on the left wing and the pair had built up a good rapport. Cole overlapped well with Malouda who would in turn retreat to fill in for Cole when Chelsea were on the attack. This season though Malouda’s squad status has been some what diminished and he’s struggled to find form in the limited amount of appearances he’s featured in. In fact it was Malouda who provided the infamous back pass that caused his captain John Terry to slip over for the fourth goal in an embarassing 5-3 defeat by Arsenal at Stamford Bridge!
Consistency has never quite been a part of the Frenchman’s game since his £13 million move from Lyon in 2007 and it’s no fluke that his best year for assists and goal scoring came in the 2009-10 season. The same year the Blues romped to an historic double under the management of Carlo Ancelotti. Originally Malouda was signed by José Mourinho as a replacement for Damien Duff, the classy Irish winger who won two titles with the Blues from in 2005 and 2006. He was going to be deployed in tandem with Arjen Robben, another Chelsea stalwart in their back to back title winning seasons. Mourinho, who was another advocate of the 4-3-3 system, saw the attacking threat provided by two natural wingers as essential to his team and to provide service to power house front-man Didier Drogba. However with one week remaining before the summer 2007 deadline Robben was sold, against Mourinho’s wishes to Real Madrid. A lot of pressure was then placed on the new boy Malouda and Shaun Wright-Phillips another big money signing who had been up to that point been a bit of a disappointment for the Blues. After a shaky start to the season Mourinho was sacked by mid-September and the stewardship of the club has been a revolving door ever since.
Until Ancelotti’s arrival in 2009 Chelsea continued to compete on all fronts and won the FA Cup in May of 2009 under temporary boss Guus Hiddink but never looked as much of an attacking threat as they did when they had Robben and Duff operating on the wings. Chelsea still had Joe Cole though who, like Mata, was often placed in position out on the wing despite his quality clearly being displayed to it’s maximum when he was in a central role. Cole’s trickery and consent to be picked out of position coupled with the midfield creativity of the likes of Ballack and Deco meant that Chelsea always had the option of a quality final ball through the middle even if the players in the wide positions weren’t living up to their full potential. In fact it’s quite possible that this problem would’ve been addressed earlier if it were not for the incredible goalscoring form of evergreen midfielder Frank Lampard.
Lampard’s knack for arriving in the box with perfect timing to finish off many of Chelsea’s sweeping breakaways and ability to feed off knock downs from Drogba meant that the central attacking midfield position was always occupied. Cole, Ballack and Deco were all prime candidates for this position and never really got the chance due to the form and the ever presence of Lampard. In fact when Lampard got injured late in the 2007-2008 season, Ballack stepped up and produced arguably his best form for Chelsea, most notably grabbing 2 goals in a 2-1 victory over Manchester United that kept Chelsea’s title hopes for that season alive. Ballack and Deco were both forced back into the box to box midfielder role and were relied on for the occassional goal or assist and to aid in Chelsea’s ball retention but Cole was repeatedly forced out wide. His presence there glossing over Chelsea’s desperate need for wingers.
Villas-Boas has been brave so far in his Chelsea tenure opting many times to leave Lampard on the bench which frees Juan Mata up to take the central role but this still creates two basic problems. AVB is forced to turn to Lampard repeatedly due to his goal-scoring record and Juan Mata is forced back onto the left wing therefore making Chelsea lop sided. The right wing for Chelsea however poses another problem entirely.
Daniel Sturridge, who’s goal scoring form on loan for Bolton in the second half of last season and performance levels in pre-season were far too classy to ignore. He has forced his way into the line-up on the right hand side of the Chelsea front 3. Sturridge, a natural striker, has always iterated his desire to play in the conventional “number 9″ role as striker but due to the complications caused by £50 million problem striker Fernando Torres and heavily influential dressing room man Didier Drogba this option is not available to him. Sturridge’s pace and skill has seen him be relatively successful in the position so far this season though and has arguably been Chelsea’s most dangerous proposition, tormenting full-backs and arriving at the back post in the box to fire his way to being Chelsea’s second highest scorer. In theory it would be some what of a solution to leave Sturridge in this position and convert him into a wide man similar to the way AVB deployed Hulk for Porto in their highly succesful 2010-11 season, but if Sturridge is genuinely unhappy playing this role how long will he want to do the job for? And the key question: Will it begin to affect his performance levels?
So both of Chelsea’s “wingers” not being natural wide men has surely got to be affecting the level of chances they create and the current low goal tally of Fernando Torres. Until they address this and find a natural balance to their team in which, all the players are comfortable in their positions and with their roles, they will struggle in the goals scored column and find it harder to win games with their defense already letting them down on many occasions this season. You don’t have to look far in their recent history as I’ve pointed out here to see the effect quality wide men had on their attacking play. Also as bitter a pill as it is to swallow for the West Londoners you only have to look ever so slightly north at Tottenham to see what having a balanced midfield and two quality wingers (Gareth Bale and Aaron Lennon) has done for them this season.
So after the arrival of Gary Cahill, AVB should be prioritising the acquisition of at least one winger to bolster Chelsea’s options on the flanks and to help unlock the potential of the struggling Torres up front.