Raul Meireles’ tenure at Chelsea from the day he was signed to the day he bid goodbye to the club remains a mystery. Both, his entry into and exit from Chelsea colors came when they were least expected. TheHardTackle’s guest author Girish Baliga tries to make sense of Meireles’ stint at the Bridge.
Raul Meireles was signed by Chelsea under unusual circumstances on the last day of the summer transfer window after Villas Boas and Roman Abramovich failed in their extended pursuit to land Luka Modric from North London. His signing, asked more questions than giving solutions to the existing midfield problems for the club. Having signed Mata, a creative playmaker , a player who Chelsea always desired to have in their ranks, the urge to sign a world class player in Modric created a sense of excitement among the Chelsea fans who were ready to brace a new set of players which would change the way their team played for a while.
Under AVB, Chelsea were expected to move on from their muscular/physical style of play to a fast-paced, ball moving, attacking method. With a player like Modric in your armor, it can only be a treat to the eyes. However, things did not work as planned and Chelsea were left in the dark over the Modric move before finally pulling out of it. Call it desperation or panic or anything else, Chelsea then went into the market looking for a central midfielder. With Lampard, Mikel, Ramires and an injured Essien already present in the existing roster, the need was to sign a player who could split defenses with his vision and pace. But as an anti-climax Chelsea ended up buying Raul Meireles, whose playing style looked very similar to the existing set of midfielders in Chelsea. A few Chelsea fans were still in bewilderment, asking themselves what was the thought process before buying this midfielder from a rival club in England for a sum of £12 million? Some of them consoled themselves by attributing this move to AVB’s knowledge of having seen Raul play in the Portuguese league. However it still left quite a few questions unanswered.
Meireles was employed in the similar role as Lampard to start with. Co-incidentally, the first few games of AVB in charge also saw Lampard being benched for his poor form. There were clear signs that the old guard would need to be content with limited playing time on the pitch. The manager appeared very vocal in professing his philosophy and what he called the ‘project’; a project of transition from a style of play which has been very successful for the club in the last 7-8 years to a fast paced free moving style. This wasn’t perceived happily from all possible corners as some people thought of it as very abrupt and uncharacteristic for a club like Chelsea.
Meireles was asked to play in a variety of roles. At times, he was employed as the guard for defense keeping Mikel on bench. Then he was pushed little further up to find passes to the forwards. Though he covered lot of ground on the pitch, his passing looked very inaccurate. Whenever he made those runs into the box, the end product would be the ball deposited in the 15th row behind the goal. He was not totally convincing. However, the manager’s backing meant he kept finding a place in the starting XI consistently.
Chelsea then entered a forgettable phase with just two victories in nine League games. The manager, as expected, was in trouble. The League title was already given up and even a Champions League berth looked distant. The project was going down and naturally there was angst among the Chelsea loyals. Villas Boas had taken the Old Guard head-on. Yet he was backed (at least in the media) by the Chelsea top brass and some of the players like Luiz, Meireles and Sturridge also came into his defense. Despite being subjected to this intense pressure, AVB had dared to bench the old guard, as they would find out in the away game against Napoli in Europe. Ultimately the project failed to really take off and AVB had his fate sealed. This left the club with an interim manager in Di Matteo, a club hero from the previous decade.
Ironically, it was after di Matteo’s appointment that Meireles went on to flourish as a utility player till the end of the season. In rescuing a season that was going downhill for Chelsea, Di Matteo had very little option but to revert back to the club’s strength – the muscular football where players enjoyed being off the ball. Meireles thrived on the responsibility given to him. Along with Mikel, he was prepared to sit back, occasionally throw himself onto the ball, do the dirty work in the middle of the pitch with an odd tackle on the opponent and he was immensely successful in this.
Di Matteo extracted maximum performance from both Mikel and Meireles which underscored the excellent defensive show that the Blues put up towards the end of the season. The merits and de-merits of this style of play have been debated about a million times on various forums and the debates will continue forever. But nobody can underplay the level of disciplined performance that Chelsea’s defensive guard came up with of which Meireles was a key component.
Now we are into a new season with the Blues having made some interesting purchases in the market. Letting Essien on loan to Madrid for some first team action on the last day of window left Chelsea with just Mikel, Lampard , Romeu (who is relatively inexperienced) and Meireles in the defensive roles with a very long season ahead. One would have expected Chelsea to keep all these players at the clubs as there were no genuine attempts made to sign a defensive central midfielder during the transfer window.
This decision to sell Meireles to the Turkish club Fenerbache three days after the closure of the transfer window has again left lot of questions unanswered. Perhaps, more than those which were asked when he was signed. Even more, considering an underperforming Malouda, who was certain to leave, is still at the club. Any possible clouds over the relationship with the manager have not surfaced yet in the media. It appears though, that Meireles did demand more first team action which di Matteo was not able to promise and hence this move to the Turkish side who have agreed a sum of £8 million with the West London Club.
In Chelsea’s defense, Raul Meireles scored only 6 goals during his time at the Bridge. But this does not really reveal the level of performance and work rate that Meireles offered towards the end of the season. The Portuguese has earned a place in Chelsea’s history despite being with the Blues for only about 12 months. A significant piece of the success the club achieved in the FA cup and Champions League last season will be attributed to the disciplined performance he displayed along with Mikel in guarding our back-four. Chelsea fans owe him a salute and a warm welcome every time he visits the club.
Written by Guest Author Girish Baliga