This summer, a number of first team players have left Stamford Bridge, while two players have been signed to replace them. An exodus of such monumental proportions raised quite a few eyebrows; however, the one that mattered the most has looked oblivious to the pervasive murmurs. It can mean one out of two things – either Carlo Ancelotti has trust in his thin squad’s talent and endurance ability to do justice to not less than three competitions or the notorious Italian eyebrow is deceiving us.
Let’s look at the men at Carlito’s disposal, and evaluate exactly how thin this Chelsea squad is. Here, we assume the manager will deploy a 4-3-3 formation for the majority of games.
If not for Cech, there would be one less difference between a Gooner and a Blue – they would be equally anxious each time the ball comes even remotely close to the man standing between the posts. Although, the Czech international has not been the same keeper ever since he was ‘Hunt’ed, he’s still regarded as one of the best in business.
Petr Cech – still one of the best in the game..
The Hilario-Turnbull pair does not inspire a lot of confidence; they are not technically “bad” goalkeepers but are consistently inconsistent. An injury to Chelsea number one, during the pre-season, presented a glorious opportunity for the two men, but they failed to grab it.
Chelsea had bid for the Stoke City goalkeeper Begovic, however that option hasn’t materialized.
THT verdict: Chelsea appear weak in this department, as there’s a substantial difference in quality between Cech and his under-studies.
Branislav Ivanovic, whose preferred position on the pitch is center of defense, is one player who grabbed the chance presented to him by Jose Bosingwa’s injury and made the right-back position his own, last season. He’s Ancelotti’s preferred man, but things could get interesting once the Portuguese returns. Then, there’s even good old Ferreira to fill-in for them, whenever the need arises. That’s just the case presently, as Bosingwa is still at least a couple of weeks away from action and Ivanovic is suffering from a back injury.
THT verdict: The right-back position is well covered; the manager has two world-class options, in addition to a dedicated team-man, to choose from.
Despite having a tumultuous personal life, the bad boy of English football – Ashley Cole – can still walk into any top team in the world. With the distractions behind him, he will again be yearning to prove his worth to his detractors and fans alike. Even if Mourinho had succeeded in luring him to the Bernabeu, Chelsea still had an able option in Yuri Zhirkov to replace him. Yuri is loved by the fans; the love-affair had started during a game against Bolton last season. In that game, not even a bleeding head could deter the Russian from delivering a man-of-the-match performance, to power the Blues to victory.
In whatever limited opportunities that have come his way, Zhirkov has impressed. Then there’s Patrick Van Anholt – a Chelsea academy product – who made his debut last season, to provide a cover for the experienced stars.
THT verdict: No problem whatsoever, as Ancelotti has two quality players, whose skills make them a perfect blend of attack and defense.
After Carvalho left, Chelsea has rightly resisted the temptation of entering the market to buy his replacement. Alex, along with Ivanovic, has waited long enough to earn a right to partner John Terry in the center of defense. The Brazilian is 27 now, and is in the prime of his career – now is his time. He is a clean tackler, is good in the air and has a physique to handle the tough English game.
The Tank in action..
John Terry, with all the distractions behind him, is slowing regaining his form. Although, the first three games were against weaker opposition, still the commitment shown by him cannot be discounted.
Chelsea not signing a center-back also points towards the faith Ancelotti has in young Jeffrey Bruma, who at 18 is deemed good enough to be the fourth choice behind Terry, Alex and Ivanovic.
Ramires and Benayoun, Chelsea”s two major signings this summer, are both midfielders, albeit of different breeds.
Contrary to popular opinion, Ramires is not John Obi Mikel’s replacement as he’s more similar to Michael Essien. Surprised? Hold on to your judgment. The Brazilian’s preferred position on the pitch is right side of midfield and he’s a box-to-box midfielder with an incredible engine. Despite his diminutive frame, he’s a tough player and a good tackler.
Mikel, on the other hand, arrived as an attacking midfielder, having played in that role for Nigeria as well as his former club Lyn Oslo. Mourinho, however, decided to use his strong built in a defensive midfield role, thereby curbing all his natural instincts. Over the last four years, he taking a lot of flak from fans and pundits alike, as the inevitable comparisons with Makelele could not be avoided. The criticism that came his way was sometimes justifiable, as he made mistakes, was late on a few tackles and looked disillusioned on the pitch. Having said that, he still did an average job in the absence of Essien, in the last two seasons.
Once the Ancelotti era began, the manager saw Pirlo-esque potential in the Nigerian, who was technically good but was slow, and backed him to grow as an deep-lying playmaker. The Mikel of today knows his job, is calm and composed on the ball, can play short passes with almost lethal accuracy, and can pick out forwards with a 40-yard pass from the deep. In the match against Stoke City, he completed 103 passes out of the 106 that he had attempted.
But, he needs an Essien or a Ramires to share his defensive duties and cover for his lack of pace. So, we now have three players to occupy the two positions on the pitch, and they can be used inter-changeably.
The third position belongs to Frank Lampard. Although, Benayoun can step in for Frank, we are yet to find a long term replacement for the Chelsea vice-captain. Lampard, with his 20 goals from midfield, surging runs into the box and link-up play with the forwards, is presently indispensable.
THT verdict: Chelsea don’t have an attacking midfielder of Super Frank’s pedigree. The other two positions are well covered.
Left wing: The players’ player of the year, Florent Malouda, owns the left flank. He is arguably the most improved player in the Premier League and is enjoying the best phase in his career. His team-mates value him, the fans love him and the manager trusts him. One of the reasons why Zhirkov, who is equally capable of playing further up field on the left, has not managed to break into the first team is the form of the likable Frenchman. However, if the need arises, the Russian can be deployed instead of Malouda.
Right wing: We don’t have a natural right winger in first team per se, but Ancelotti uses Anelka and Sturridge in that role. Anelka’s role in this setup is crucial – he’s often a link between the midfield and attack. For someone who’s over 30, he still has some pace to burn; he holds the ball well enough and attracts defenders, freeing up space for the other attackers. Then there’s Salomon Kalou, who is versatile enough to play anywhere up front.
Centre-forward: There’s just one Didier Drogba. Chelsea would struggle to replace last season’s Golden Boot winner, if and when the need arises.
Didier Drogba – The indispensable monster!
Under the present system, the three men up-front keep interchanging positions – Drogba drifts outwards and the wingers try to cut in through the center. It’s the fluidity of this movement that causes the opponents’ downfall, on most occasions.
THT verdict: The performance of Sturridge, Borini and Kakuta, when called upon by Ancelotti, will decide to what extent Chelsea would suffer in the absence of its star forwards.
The three indispensable pillars remain Cech, Lampard and Drogba. Any short to long-term injury to them has the potential to derail the campaign. Other than that, the remaining eight positions on the field are well covered, with an equally good replacement waiting on the sidelines.
In a hypothetical scenario, if Didier is out injured and Anelka replaces him as a center-forward, it would be an ideal opportunity for someone like Gael Kakuta, who is talented enough to play on either wing and as a second striker, to play on the right wing.
In Bruma, Anholt, Borini and Kakuta, Chelsea has a fine set of youngsters graduating to the first team. If the best talent from the academy is not good enough to serve as a 4th choice center-back, a 3th choice left-back, or a 3rd choice winger, wouldn’t that be such a waste?
The English champions have a strong enough squad to cope with three parallel competitions – it’s a good blend of youth and experience. In an ideal world, Chelsea would have a more reliable second-choice goalkeeper, another dynamic attacking midfielder and a right winger, but we don’t live in an ideal world, do we? It is these uncertainties that add to the aura of the beautiful game.