TheHardTackle analyses the central midfield problem that Jose Mourinho has on his hands at Chelsea and evaluates whether De Rossi is the right man to fill the void.
“If I had an hour to solve a problem and my life depended on the solution, I would spend the first 55 minutes determining the proper question to ask, for once I know the proper question, I could solve the problem in less than five minutes” – Albert Einstein
Before we start analyzing the problem, it’s better to understand if Chelsea indeed have a problem at hand, as far as central midfield is concerned, and if they do, what is it?
Over the past few seasons, Chelsea have moved from playing in a 4-3-3 formation with a solitary holding midfielder to a 4-2-3-1 system, whose focal point is a double pivot. The main difference between the two formations lie in the shape of the midfield triangle – in the former, the defensive responsibility lies with central defensive midfielder, while in the latter, it’s shared between two central midfielders. Call it the absence of a player capable of shielding the defense on his own or inclination of managers, who followed since Jose Mourinho first departed to deploy 4-2-3-1, but Chelsea did indeed drift away from their blueprint of old in the last few years.
The fact is, ever since Claude Makelele left Stamford Bridge and Michael Essien suffered the first of many knee injuries, the best Chelsea has come whenever John Obi Mikel has played at the crest of his abilities. Therein lies the problem, as the Nigerian hasn’t truly matured into a world-class defensive midfielder that he was expected to be – as he remains inconsistent and prone to the occasional catastrophe. Truth be told, Mikel has been an above average footballer for the club; he has never complained and has gone about doing the job that the manager has expected him to do, and his presence has lend a certain amount of calmness and stability to the Chelsea midfield by virtue of his ball control, passing (primarily short range), and positional sense, but he hasn’t been as consistent as a club of the stature of Chelsea requires from a player in his position, over an entire season. The problem is, even if he had been, the club would still have been short of cover in the position.
Presently, Chelsea have John Obi Mikel, Oriol Romeu, Michael Essien, Ramires, Frank Lampard and new signing Marko van Ginkel to call upon, as far as central midfield is concerned. Apart from Mikel, the only other proper defensive midfielder on the Chelsea roster is Oriol Romeu. The young Spaniard, who was signed a couple of seasons back from Barcelona, started his Chelsea career on a strong note and his technical ability certainly held promise but the inexperience was clearly there, as is expected from a young 19-20 year old footballer. He failed to cement a place in the side after Villas-Boas was asked to leave and even last season, he suffered a serious knee injury from which, he has just recovered. He is expected to be sent on a season-long loan to Valencia to gain some valuable playing time and slowly recover from the injury.
Michael Essien is, however, back and even though he enjoyed a decent season in Madrid, his better performances came while playing out of position at fullback. Anyway, going by his injury track record, Chelsea just cannot afford to bet on his knees and he’s isn’t the dominating force in world football that he once was. Ramires, on the other hand, is a unique player. He isn’t a good passer, neither does he possess a vision to find his teammates with regularity. He doesn’t even command a physical presence to dominate games from midfield. Yet he remains a match-winner. His forte is his engine; he can perhaps play for 270 minutes without slowing down, possesses deadly speed which helps Chelsea’s counter-attack at break-neck pace and is versatile enough to slot in a number of roles including that of a defensive winger to contain an attacking fullback. He is an extremely useful player to have on the books and can be used to devastating effect in certain games, at certain times, yet he isn’t a day in, day out starter in a defensive midfield role.
Frank Lampard is anything but a defensive midfielder. The best he can be is part of a pivot, where he uses his intelligence to remain at the right position, pick out attackers from the deep and make his runs, but for all that to happen, he needs a solid, no-nonsense defensive midfielder alongside. While the last on the list, Marko van Ginkel, is a 20-year old top midfield prospect signed from Vitesse. Now Marko is supremely talented and will play a role next season; then again, he is closer to a Ballack than to a Makelele. He has a range of skills Chelsea were also short of in central midfield. He is technically complete, is comfortable on the ball, has good passing range and is not shy of covering ground. Furthermore, he occasionally likes to join in the attacks, making runs from the deep and chipping in with goals. At 6’1”, he is tall enough to be a threat in the air and once he adds up a few extra pounds, his physical presence will also become reasonably effective. He can play in the pivot, alongside a defensive midfielder (4-2-3-1), or ahead of him as one of the two advanced central midfielders (4-3-3), but he will be slowly inculcated into the squad rather than being an immediately starter.
Ergo, from the entire analysis, one thing is absolutely clear – that a problem exists and a solution is definitely required. Chelsea need an experienced, world-class central defensive midfielder, who can immediately improve the first team, complement players with different skill-sets already on the team (read Ramires, Lampard, van Ginkel) and push the similar ones (read Mikel, Essien, Romeu) to perform better. Chelsea need Daniele De Rossi.
It is almost ironic to think that the man, who was always known as the Capitan Futuro, may actually never get to wear the armband at AS Roma. But that is mostly due to the fact that the Italian club has someone like Francesco Totti in their ranks; above the armband, De Rossi symbolises Roma. The 29-year-old has been at the club since joining their youth ranks in 2000 and is one of the few remaining one-club men in football. Other than his footballing abilities, what has always stood out during the 12 years of his professional career has been his love and loyalty for Giallorossi. Numerous clubs have tried to lure him away from Rome, but to no success. At this day and age, where players change clubs citing reasons like higher pay-package, ambition to win titles and newer challenge, De Rossi perhaps represents everything that is still good about this game – romanticism.
But this summer, more than any, it seems like his stint at Roma is drawing to an end. Reports suggest that the board is willing to sell the Italian international and is waiting for the appropriate offer, which is likely to arrive from Chelsea. Roma fans wouldn’t hold any grudge against De Rossi exploring other opportunities at this point of his career after giving his all for the club, but they must be disappointed with the club administrators at showing such desperation in selling someone, who would surely go down as a club legend.
De Rossi has been the engine room of the Roma midfield. In an era, where very few midfielders have the capability of contributing with similar effectiveness, both in attack and defence, De Rossi has been an outlier. He can play as a box-to-box midfielder or as a proper defensive midfielder; for his national team, he even played as a sweeper at times. Be it tackling, or man-marking (like he did to Iniesta in Italy’s opening match against Spain at the European championship), be it pinging cross field balls to the wingers or picking out a forward with a through ball – he can do it all. Perhaps interestingly, most of De Rossi’s memorable performances have always come for the national team. It is perhaps more to do with the difference in system at both level.
The tenacious midfielder seems to be at his best, when he his playing alongside a deep-lying playmaker such as Pirlo. While the Juventus man is not the best defensively, he controls the game so well from the back, that it allows De Rossi to play more aggressively, which means that he can also move forward, while in attack and dominate the midfield. He has a tremendous engine and can cover enormous distance during a match. The 29-year-old also has brilliant passing range and a wicked shot to go with it. Moreover, there are very few midfielders in the world presently, who can tackle like De Rossi can and his stats speak for themselves. He averaged 52.8 passes per match, with an amazing 84% success-rate last season. Defensively, he averaged 1.6 tackles per game and made a total of 54 interceptions in 21 starts (in the league). He blocked 10 shots and made 52 clearance, which shows that he is comfortable being both the first line and last line of defence.
De Rossi’s tactical awareness is second to none, having played and adapted to various formations under different managers, both at club and international level. But what has always stood out for him, even on a bad day is that he has always been a leader on the pitch. He has this uncanny ability to rally his team mates around him and push them to give it their all – even without the armband – and this is something that cannot be trained in a footballer. So if Chelsea do manage to sign Daniele De Rossi, they will not only be getting a fantastic footballer, they will be signing a born leader.
Times have changed. Jose Mourinho, who in his first spell had a core group of Terry, Lampard, Cech, Drogba and Ballack amongst others to call upon in times of crisis, is today short of leaders on the pitch. Ballack and Drogba have left, while out of the remaining three only Cech can be expected to start every game for Chelsea this season. He needs a player of the ilk of De Rossi to guide the supremely talented yet alarmingly young team on the field.
– With valuble inputs from Amlan Majumdar. Follow him @Amlan_Majumdar