The long view: Chelsea's 'Problem Positions'

Chelsea have had issues at several positions this season. But are they problems that could derail the season, or is it just a matter of patience?

Ever since Jose Mourinho returned to Chelsea, there have been two main questions that, for some, still haven’t been answered: why is Juan Mata not in the team, and why haven’t Chelsea bought a striker? 

As to the first, it is a much simpler answer than most would have you believe. Mata during the first two seasons at Chelsea was not required to contribute much defensively, and could roam where he liked when in possession. This suited his game perfectly, and his performances reflected it. 

This season, however, the number 10 position has required a more rounded player, capable of getting involved in defence - both positionally and by tackling - and with more movement on the ball in attack, rather than the pass and move of the last two years. 

At the start of the season the player most suited to this role was Oscar, and he excelled. Mata, when healthy, was relegated to the bench, and had to learn how to play the way the manager wants the position played. He is also learning how to be effective coming infield from right wing. 

He is getting the hang of it, as you would expect from a top quality player, and an excellent professional. He filled in the roles required of him perfectly in the second half against Spurs, and, combined with Ramires moving into the centre of midfield, was instrumental in a much improved performance.

Once the international break is concluded, look for this level of impact to continue - especially since it now means that Oscar can be rested without lowering the quality at the position. 

The second question is tougher. the Rooney transfer saga dragged on to nowhere, Romelu Lukaku went out on loan and Samuel Eto’o arrived on a free from the Anzhi firesale. The strike-force of Fernando Torres, Demba Ba and Eto’o was identified as the problem, and between them have scored precisely 0 Premier League goals. 

But forward play is about more than goals, especially in the system Chelsea are playing. Pulling defenders out of position, moving the centre-backs out of line and creating space for the attacking midfielders have been key to Chelsea’s attacking play.

Torres has, at times, performed incredibly well without scoring, but is assumed to underperformed because someone else scored the goal. In the aforementioned Spurs game, he was Chelsea’s best player before getting sent off. Didn’t score, but he didn’t have to (plus, as Rafa Benitez said last season, he does defend the front post incredibly well). 

Similarly Eto’o and Ba have had their moments, being involved in attacks that lead to goals, without being the ones to register the strike. Much of the poor finishing in front of goal has belonged to others in the team, rather than the strikers. If Chelsea can keep getting goals from midfield, then there is no problem with the strikers contributions. That being said, if they start to limit the attacking impact of other players, that is when they need to be removed from the team. 

As for Lukaku, he needs to be playing regularly. While some (including myself) feel he should be playing regularly at Chelsea, it is better for the club, in the long term, to have him playing week in, week out for Everton - especially since they play in a manner that requires the striker to contribute a lot in build up. Sound familiar? 

Lukaku ought to be ready next season. Then he will be in a position to return to the club as a complete player, rather than as the gigantic but unrefined diamond he was when he first signed. This will benefit the team in the long run, which is the motivation behind the current transfer strategy to sign young talent in their teens or early twenties who can be developed into Chelsea players.

Until then though, the options of Torres, Ba and Eto’o are good enough to get things done, for now.

After all, it is the likes of Hazard, Mata, Oscar and Schurrle who hold the key to success this season. If they fail to perform, that will be the real problem.

image: © Free-ers

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