Presently on a pre-season tour to Asia, the new manager has spoken on more than one occasion that radical changes aren’t required and that he is using this time to study his players, to identify the short-comings of the squad. Considering how meticulous he is known to be, it’s hardly a surprise that Villas-Boas is taking time with his decisions. The discerning young tactician is holding all his cards close to his chest, taking notes and drawing elaborate plans. Yes, this will give the new players less time to adjust with the surroundings but will also, more importantly, prevent any kind of mistakes, which have been committed in the past. Anyway, the wait is almost over.
Luka Modric or Javier Pastore?
With Chelsea looking to strengthen their midfield, Modric and Pastore have been extensively linked to the club.
Who would suit Chelsea better?
Before we delve into who would offer a better answer to the questions posed by a midfield crying out for creativity, let’s looks at a hypothetical scenario –
Chelsea line-up for a game in a 4-3-3 formation, with Mikel playing as a holding midfielder, in front of the back-four, Ramires playing in a box-to-box role ahead of him on the right, and Lampard deployed in his traditional role on the left of the midfield triangle. If Chelsea fail to make any impact in the game, with the forwards being denied any kind of service whatsoever from the narrow midfield triangle and with the full-backs pinned in their own half by the opposition’s wide-men, one would expect the manager to make a game-changing substitution, and quite rightly so. Is there a midfield change possible in this situation to turn the game on its head? Yes, there is.
Villas-Boas will bring on Pastore in place of Lampard, and invert the midfield triangle, keeping Mikel and Ramires as a double-pivot, while allowing Pastore to do what he does best – create, by playing in a free role behind the forwards. Chelsea have not had the luxury to use this option, quite frankly because of the absence of a player commonly known as a central attacking midfielder. Lampard, for all his qualities, cannot play to the best of his abilities in role futher upfield. He relishes a deeper position which allows him to make late runs into the box.
Pastore would provide Chelsea not only an option to change the direction of a game midway, while sticking to the trusted 4-3-3 formation, but will also, eventually, allow Lampard to pass on the baton, which he has so spectacularly carried through the most successful era in the club’s history.
Now, what will Modric bring to the table? The Croatian is one of the best, if not the best, passers in the Premiership. He is comfortable on the ball and is equally comfortable with short passes as he is with long. He is a player who can keep a midfield ticking, but more often than not requires a more attack-minded midfielder playing ahead of him. He cannot replace Frank Lampard’s goals, neither can he serve in a in a box-to-box role, the way Ramires can.
Furthermore, Joshua McEachran is ready, and the young Englishman’s skill-set is very similar to that of Modric. There’s an argument that McEachran is merely 18 years old, so by the time Modric is 30, the Chelsea academy graduate will be just 23 and will have enough time to fulfill his potential. One couldn’t be more wrong. Right from the very beginning, Joshua has developed well before his peers, having always played with players much senior to him. The next 2-3 years will most definitely be the defining years for him as a footballer. If he continues to get chances to perform at the highest level, he will surely go on to become a world-class player. However, the presence of someone who restricts his involvement with the first team can nip the dream in the bud.
THT Verdict: Javier Pastore
Have Chelsea found the right answer to the problem that was Essien’s injury?
The erstwhile engine of Chelsea, Michael Essien, used to be unbreakable till 2008. He was a relentless force that destroyed everything in its path. The first 6-month injury layoff couldn’t harm his game, as his return coincided with Chelsea’s strong finish under Guus Hiddink. The second 6-month layoff, however, reduced Michael to being a shadow of his former, imperial self. Now, the engine is broken again. By the time he returns, he will be a 29-year old inconsistent and injury-prone player, and Chelsea will surely look to sell him next season, after he’s had 3-4 months of game-time under his belt.
Ergo, his replacement had to be a long term one, rather than what the media was linking the club to. Instead of a loan deal for Parker or a move for 28-year old Roma midfielder Daniele De Rossi, Villas-Boas has zeroed in on Oriol Romeu – a 19-year old Spain U20 international and Barcelona B central midfielder, whom the manager had tried to sign for Porto as well last season. Romeu is a technically gifted, and physically strong midfielder who can either play in a defensive role or as a box-to-box midfielder. Last season Chelsea had the luxury of choosing two out of Essien, Mikel and Ramires, and the addition of Romeu will provide adequate cover behind Mikel and Ramires.
Romeu – big shoes to fill.
THT Verdict: Yes. Chelsea hadn’t planned on adding a defensive cover in the midfield this summer, however, an unfortunate injury forced their hand. And, the club has managed to solve the problem without disturbing their transfer budget too much, by signing a talented, young midfielder. It was time to look beyond Essien, and they did just that.
Would Romelu Lukaku be a good addition to the first team squad?
Romelu Lukaku, Anderlecht’s 18-year old imposing center-forward, is like a younger version of Didier Drogba, with the necessary skills to emulate his idol and without any kind of attitude problems whatsoever.
He is reasonably fast for his physique, unbelievably strong, can overpower defenders and can play with his back to the goal. And, most importantly, he is a focused, grounded and sincere kid, who is always willing to learn and improve.
Can he replicate his Anderlecht form in the Premiership?
Two of Chelsea’s forwards, Drogba and Anelka, are 33 and 32 years old respectively, and will eventually leave, if not this year then surely next. One year under Drogba’s tutelage will not just be a dream-come-true for Lukaku but will also make him ready to play in the Premiership, and Chelsea will have a versatile enough pool of strikers to chose from, an year down the line – Torres, Lukaku, Sturridge, and Kalou.
THT Verdict: Yes, he would be a good addition. Chelsea’s system has worked well with Drogba leading the line over the years, and Lukaku has the potential to offer the club similar service after Drogba hangs his boots.
Is the addition of a quality wide player a priority?
Chelsea’s main problem in the last few seasons, in addition to the absence of a creative force in the middle, has been the lack of width, especially on the right. Surprisingly, the club hasn’t been linked to any quality wide-players. Yes, there was an apparent interest in signing Sanchez, but other than that, nothing concrete has come up thus far. It can be due to two reasons – one, with the plethora of forwards at his disposal who have thus far shown a reluctance to move away from Stamford Bridge, Villas-Boas can’t help but play them or two, there are not enough quality players on the market.
Villas-Boas recently said that he preferred his full-backs to be balanced – if one bombs forwards at every available opportunity, the other should be more defensive-minded, else there will always be a threat of being exposed at the back. Cole and Ivanovic fit the bill perfectly, but for this to work and for the balance of the side to be right, a right winger, playing in front of Ivanovic, becomes a necessity.
Just as the addition of Pastore will provide a certain degree of tactical flexibility, signing a quality wide player will serve the club well. Chelsea need a player who is equally comfortable on either wing; rather than always cutting inside and crowding the box, the player should be competent enough to utilize the width on the pitch, stretch the full-backs and deliver quality crosses. Adam Johnson fits the bill perfectly. The 24-year old winger is home-grown, can play on both wings, and is just the kind of player the West London club should sign, or at least try to sign. He hasn’t been central to Mancini’s plans ever since making a £7m switch from Middlesbrough, but Manchester City will be very reluctant to sell him to title rivals Chelsea. In any case, Villas-Boas should at least test their resolve with a bid in the region of 15-20 million.
THT Verdict: Yes. Any side competing for top honors should have at least one quality wide player. This is not a luxury but a pre-requisite. Even if a few forwards are present who can play wide, an addition of someone who can provide genuine width will not hurt the team. The club should try to sign Johnson from City, as he is surplus to their requirements, renew their interest in De Bruyne, or explore the market for other options such as Eden Hazard.
Who should be sold in order to accommodate the new signings, as per the 25-man squad rule?
Presently, Chelsea have just 7 home-grown players, including Sturridge, Bertrand and Rajkovic, who are now over 21 and will count in 25-man squad. Last season also, the club wasn’t able to register 8 home-grown players and as a result, had to register less than 25 players. With Rajkovic’s work-permit still an issue, the situation is not showing any signs of improvement. Irrespective of this, Chelsea can only register 17 non home-grown players, and all those spots are full. With the club looking to bring in 2-3 players, they will have to offload some of the existing players.
Hilario has signed a one-year contract extension, and is expected to stay on for another season. Yuri Zhirkov, who hasn’t been able to establish himself in the first team, is an option. Zhirkov is highly sought after in Russia and will easily fetch the club £12-15m. Also, Chelsea can use either Bertrand or Aanholt as the second choice left-back. The management will also look at the wages that these players draw before deciding on their fate. With Sturridge back from his successful loan spell, Chelsea can afford to let Anelka go, as the Englishman can play on the right of the front-three and also centrally. Another option is not registering Essien till January, and then take a call depending on his recovery and on the performance of other players such as Malouda, Drogba and Benayoun.
THT Verdict: Zhirkov and Anelka should be sold, while Essien shouldn’t be registered for the first half of the season, thereby freeing up three spots on the first team squad.
The Chelsea roster has been beautifully analysed, as per the 25-man squad rule, here.
This summer, the club has shown an inclination towards signing very young but talented players thus far in the window, which is a good thing. However, before the end of the window, Chelsea should sign an attacking midfielder such as Pastore, a quality winger such as Johnson and Romelu Lukaku, taking their overall expenditure to £80m approx., including Courtois (£7m) and Romeu (£4m). If they play their cards well, the management can make as much as £30m by selling players who are surplus to requirements, reducing the net spend to £50m. After this, no further reinforcements would be required for the forseeable future and eventually, the club will be in a position to replace the famous old guard.
This window still has the potential to be remembered as the time Chelsea finally looked beyond the established order at The Bridge, with long-term replacements for Cech (Courtois), Essien (Romeu), Lampard (Pastore), Drogba (Lukaku), Anelka (Sturridge) being identified or brought in; an obvious void in the team being filled (right wing), and an opportunity being given to one of their own by not signing a certain player (Modric).
The time to act has surely arrived.