The problem with Chelsea’s central midfield was ascertained last summer by the team management, as depicted by the unsuccessful pursuit of Luka Modric. Tottenham rejected the last bid of £33m plus Alex and the problem remained for the whole of last season. The problem was in the transition from defence to attack, which was often slow and less purposeful. Furthermore, there were occasions such as the FA Cup final against Liverpool when the midfield failed to regain control and thwart the onslaught from the opposition in the second half. It’s a different matter that in the later stages of the competitions Chelsea won last season, the sheer determination of players saw through to the pinnacle of club football.
After some heavy spending in the recently concluded transfer window, many will feel that Chelsea have again failed to address this issue. Moreover, by loaning Michael Essien and selling Raul Meireles, they haven’t helped matters either. The Blues are left with Lampard, Mikel, Ramires, Romeu and Oscar to feature in the double pivot of the 4-2-3-1 formation or in the three-man midfield in case the 4-3-3 system makes a comeback. Ergo, a central midfield addition seems likely in the January transfer window; if not, then certainly next summer. However, the next purchase will depend on three players presently on Chelsea’s payroll – Oscar dos Santos, Oriol Romeu Vidal and Joshua McEachran.
How Oscar Adjusts
After signing from Internacional for over £20m, Oscar has featured for Chelsea as a substitute in most matches leading up to now. He has featured in the third band of attack, but when Roberto di Matteo found his team trailing against Reading, he moved the Brazilian to a deep midfield position in the double-pivot. Glimpses of his promise and vast potential have been witnessed when he has exchanged passes with Hazard and Mata in the final third or when he has dropped deeper to retrieve the ball. Yet, he has appeared nervous occasionally, often giving away the ball to opponents.
“Soon I will adapt, start playing well and I will conquer my space naturally. I’m sure of that. It was well at Inter and Chelsea will be too. It will not take much in a month will be adjusted and will play as a starter. I’m big on stage, I’m fine. You can see by training. Against Wigan – even entering the second half, playing 30 minutes, it was good. Of course it’s very strong competition, but I also show my football. It would be in the position of Lampard. Di Matteo spoke and said that one of my strengths will be playing there. But playing in the position of Mata also open game, he knows it. It’s a smart coach. Chelsea have not only I, but other versatile players“, said Oscar.
Oscar is a two-footed player whose strength primarily lies in his unbelievable passing range. He keeps his head up at all times, evaluates all possible options, before delivering a pass that is most likely to be completed or that will result in a better opportunity for a team-mate. His off the ball movement, a willingness to track back and win the ball back to build attacks from deeper positions and help the defence by closing down opponents add to the belief that he’s capable of controlling games from midfield.
The fact that Chelsea were willing to invest heavily in him today indicated that the club hierarchy considered him to be a younger and cheaper alternative to Luka Modic. It will be interesting to keep an eye on him from here on; how he plays, how well he adjusts to life in English football and where the manager plays him. Frankly speaking, di Matteo doesn’t really have too many options but to play Oscar whenever he decides to leave out Lampard from the starting line-up.
How Much Romeu Plays
Andre Villas-Boas isn’t remembered fondly for most of the things he did at Chelsea during his reign last season. However, one act of his certainly has the potential to become one of the best bits of business done by the club in the Roman Abramovich era. The Portuguese manager wanted to sign Oriol Romeu for Porto but couldn’t, so when the opportunity to bring the young Spaniard presented itself last summer, he wasted no time in bringing the defensive midfielder to Stamford Bridge from Barcelona for around £4m.
“Oriol is solidario. He never abandons his team-mates. He reaches every corner and covers every gap. He gives balance in the middle, allowing the rest to construct with freedom, and he goes into challenges strongly and decisively. He enjoys winning the ball back and pressuring the opposition. Sometimes, though, he is hasty in the transition of the ball“, said Martí Perarnau, a keen observer of La Masia and its graduates.
Oriol Romeu positional discipline and tactical awareness belies his tender years. He is fast, decisive and tackles cleanly. Romeu started quite often for Chelsea last season and was brilliant to say the least against Valencia and Manchester City. The 20-year old midfielder didn’t appear overwhelmed by the situation mostly; the only blemish on his brief Chelsea career was the game against Manchester United, wherein the club failed to protect a massive three-goal lead. Villas-Boas was soon fired by Chelsea and Romeu rarely started thereafter.
There are quite a few reasons why the former Barcelona midfielder saw so little game-time under di Matteo; the form shown by John Obi Mikel was perhaps the most crucial of them. He was injured on more than one occasion and his fitness was a concern. The game against United may have also led the manager to believe that he isn’t ready yet for bigger battles and under di Matteo, battles came thick and fast last season. There were whispers that because he was an ‘AVB signing‘, he was being ostracized by the new regime; a laughable reason if one merely considered how often Juan Mata played.
One reason, however, may be perhaps true. It is widely believed that Barcelona have a buy-back option on the midfielder for two seasons; the Catalans could have re-signed him for €10m this summer can can still sign him for €15m next year. With Mikel performing well, Chelsea may have preferred to keep Romeu under the radar, leading up to the transfer season. Barcelona did indeed sign a defensive midfielder – Alex Song from Arsenal. Hypothetical, but certainly not unbelievable.
The fact that both Meireles and Essien were allowed to leave does indicate that the management believes in Romeu. Chelsea can’t help but play him this season, albeit occasionally, as he is the only proper defensive midfielder within their ranks after Mikel and the club has to play in several competitions. It remains to be seen how often does he really feature in the blue of Chelsea.
How McEachran Develops
He was the darling of Stamford Bridge, with fans cheering on his every touch. Things looked perfect; fans hoped that after another season of playing from the bench, he’d become a starter for Chelsea. A new star has been born, they said. However, in life as in football, a downturn is just around the corner, when people least expect it.
Andre Villas-Boas replaced Carlo Ancelotti. Under him, Joshua started merely three Carling Cup matches and was substituted in each of them, in addition to two brief cameo appearances late on in the Premier League. By then, despite the less than adequate playing time, the weakness in McEachran’s game was clear. In addition to his frail built, he was poor defensively and his defensive positional sense wasn’t anything to write home about either. Just as comfortable he was in possession, equally lost he appeared to be when the opposition had the ball.
At a tender age of 18, a player is still developing howsoever highly rated he may be, so such flaws in Josh’s game were nothing to be too worried about. With the right guidance and decent playing time, they’d have been ironed out of his game. This is when Chelsea decided to ship him to Swansea for the second half of the season, to play under former academy coach Brendon Rodgers. However, the move turned out to be a disaster, as he couldn’t displace Britton, Allen and Sigurdsson from the first eleven.
After evaluating the pros and cons of another loan move, the Chelsea hierarchy decided to send him out on loan yet again – this time to Middlesbrough in the Championship, with guaranteed playing time being the definite priority. And, he has begun well. Josh has established himself as a first-choice starter for Tony Mowbray’s team, on the back of some fine performances in his first three games in the Championship. His passing has been marvellous, but that’s what we’ve come to expect from McEachran. The coaching staff at Chelsea would, however, be more interested in finding out how he does does defensively. In two of three games, he was quite disciplined and showed some good positional sense, but against Crystal Palace, he conceded a penalty and was quite average without the ball.
If Romeu doesn’t feature enough or if he doesn’t play particularly well, signing a defensive midfielder will become the priority. If Oscar takes time to settle into a deeper role or if he’s played further ahead on the pitch rather than primarily as a substitute to Lampard, the club will sign a passing central midfielder, with the ability to control the tempo of the game. However, if both the players in question, and also McEachran, do well, the club may still sign a central midfielder, but he’d be of a different breed. Maybe someone who loves playing against Manchester United and has hair to rival that of David Luiz.