Sunday, 21 August 2011

Without a creative midfielder, Chelsea will win nothing

Chelsea's 2-1 victory over West Brom on Saturday illustrated a number of things. Firstly, Shane Long showed that he is capable of making the step up from the Championship to the Premier League. Two goals in as many games against the league's top two teams indicate a very promising future for Long as the Baggies' (and, perhaps, the Republic of Ireland's) main striker. His alertness to Alex's mistake and the calm finish that followed set an example that Fernando Torres, frustrated once again in Chelsea colours, would be advised to take notice of.

The most salient lesson gleaned from Saturday's encounter, however, was that Chelsea desperately need a creative midfielder. Their victory disguised a wholly unconvincing performance that would have produced nothing against stronger opposition. Once Long had given West Brom the lead, Chelsea struggled to break down Hodgson's two banks of well-drilled midfielders and defenders. There was virtually no understanding between Chelsea's midfield of Lampard, Mikel and Ramires and their front three. Numerous attacking forays broke down as a result of this lack of chemistry, and Salomon Kalou was replaced by Florent Malouda before half-time to try to resolve the problem.

Though Chelsea's two second-half goals and subsequent victory vindicated André Villas-Boas' team selection and substitutions somewhat, the distinct lack of cohesiveness was clear for all to see. It's difficult to escape the feeling that Chelsea simply got lucky. As solid as West Brom's defence were, Chelsea would not have scored against superior opponents. Anelka's goal was, of course, the turning point, at a time when Chelsea did not seem particularly threatening. They grew in confidence after that equaliser, and Bosingwa's superb cross for Malouda eventually gave them a scarcely-deserved lead. For the second consecutive week, West Brom finished with no points when their performance merited at least one.

When I tipped Chelsea for the title at the beginning of the season, I did so on the basis that a playmaker would be signed. As it stands, Yossi Benayoun is the only midfielder of any real ingenuity at the club; Lampard's peak is at least two seasons behind him, Ramires' dynamism does not translate to creativity and Essien is far too injury-prone to be relied upon. Talented player though he is, Benayoun is not consistent or effective enough against the stronger teams to be trusted with creative duties for a side aiming to win the title. The solution to the problem, therefore, must come from outside the club; if Abramovich is serious about restoring Chelsea to the dominant status they enjoyed during the Mourinho years, he must be willing to spend money on a playmaker of genuine class.

Luka Modrić has been consistently linked with a move to the club since the beginning of the transfer window and it's blatantly apparent that the player wants to join. The Abramovich of old would not have been deterred by Tottenham chairman Daniel Levy's insistance that Modrić is not for sale at any price; he would simply have presented Levy with the requisite amount of cash for buying a player "not for sale at any price" and Modrić would be wearing Chelsea's jersey already. Instead, Chelsea have delayed making a firm approach and Villas-Boas has been denied a player who could play a hugely crucial role in his team. With September 1 still ten days away, Chelsea have time to rectify their ponderous transfer dealings by offering Tottenham the cash needed to secure Modrić's signature.

Once that signing is completed, Chelsea will suddenly look like a much more formidable side. With someone to deliver a good supply of passes, Fernando Torres' potential may finally be realised. If his form since his arrival at Stamford Bridge is worthy of scurtiny, his undeniable wealth of talent is not. Romelu Lukaku, though a very different player, is a viable alternative to Torres who could offer Chelsea something a little more direct. Villas-Boas' decision to keep Didier Drogba at the club has been rather surprising - a move to Marseille and a fresh start for the new manager appeared to beckon - but Villas-Boas has obviously been impressed by Drogba's past exploits, even if his performance levels have waned recently. All of this is not to mention the impending signing of Juan Mata from Valencia, a player who oozes class and will offer Chelsea an attacking impetus they lacked at times last season.

This summer has already seen Santi Cazorla move to Malaga and PSG buy Javier Pastore, two players who could have eased Chelsea's creative difficulties instantly. Chelsea must ensure that they do not squander the opportunity to sign Modrić and Mata. If they do miss out, struggling to break down defences will become an uncomfortably familiar problem.

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