It is probably safe to say that if Chelsea fans were asked which area of the pitch needed the most immediate addressing in order to spur the Blues back towards the top of the Premier League, the midfield would likely come in somewhere around…dead last. With questions emerging over Kepa’s ability to be Chelsea’s long-term #1 in net, a glaring weakness at left back, the lack of quality depth behind Tammy Abraham, the impending departures of Pedro and Willian from the wings this summer, and the inability of any of Chelsea’s current center backs to establish themselves as part of Frank Lampard’s first choice pairing, there are certainly reasons why potential midfield issues would be overlooked.
Similar to the issues he is facing at center back, Lampard is yet to settle on his preferred midfield setup this season. Now, this is partly due to the injury issues that have plagued N’Golo Kante for much of the first half of the season, as well as the long term injury that has prevented Lampard from unleashing Ruben Loftus-Cheek onto the World again. Mix in Lampard’s propensity to change formations between the 4-2-3-1, 4-3-3, and the occasional 3-4-3, and you can start to understand why there has been no “clear and established” first-choice setup in the midfield area.
But even with Ruben Loftus-Cheek on the comeback trail, Lampard’s selection headaches in the midfield may not be disappearing any time soon.
Why? Well, simple math for one. Each match Lampard will be forced to choose two or three starters (depending on how he chooses to set up) out of the group of 6 to start, plus one or two others on the bench. Either way you slice those numbers, you will still have at least one, sometimes two, midfielders left out of the team completely in each match we play. But simple math aside, Lampard may also be tasked with remedying an underlying issue with this midfield group that has reared its unwanted head a few too many times this season already.
As a whole, Chelsea’s midfield group is just simply unbalanced. There are too many square pegs that Lampard is trying to fit into round holes.
How? Well let’s take a look at the players currently at Lampard’s disposal:
Chelsea’s vice-captain appeared a new man to many at the start of the season. While he is still the same player he was last year, Lampard’s more progressive ideas of football certainly allowed the Italian more freedom to express himself.
However, it is still unquestionable that Jorginho performs best (and most comfortable) as a “regista.” An Italian term, the regista is a deep-lying playmaker, and Jorginho played it in the 4-3-3 formation under Sarri, both at Napoli and last year at Chelsea. Although he has certainly shown the ability to play with a partner in a double pivot, Jorginho is at his best when he is given the freedom to collect the ball off of the defenders and spray passes forward. Unfortunately, this is something that can be restricted in a 4-2-3-1.
Jorginho has also struggled at times with the defensive responsibilities of being the deepest-lying midfielder on the pitch. Certainly not a complete liability defensively (as some try to make him out to be), but he does mostly rely upon being able to read the game and put himself in the best position to intercept the ball, rather than utilizing pace or physicality boasted by others in the position. This has, occasionally, led to him being caught out by quick transitions, or baited into giving away fouls and taking yellow cards when he gets beat.
You would be hard pressed to find any Chelsea fan who does not love N’Golo Kante. The Frenchman has been an instant fan-favorite since his arrival from Leicester City. Often touted as the best defensive midfielder in world football, Kante has put in numerous standout, often match-winning, performances for Chelsea.
Positionally, Kante’s best seasons have come in a midfield pair, alongside Danny Drinkwater in Leicester’s Championship winning 4-4-2, and alongside Nemanja Matic in Chelsea’s title winning 3-4-3 under Antonio Conte. Add in a World Cup win with France where he spent most of the tournament partnered with Paul Pogba in a 4-2-3-1, and you start to see a pattern. In a midfield pair, Kante is given freedom to work sideline to sideline pressing and recovering possession, often in front of a more disciplined shielding midfielder (see Drinkwater/Matic).
Last season under Sarri’s rigid 4-3-3, Kante was tasked with a new challenge of playing higher up the field, pressing on the front foot, and contributing more to the attack (often on the right side opposite Ross Barkley or Mateo Kovacic on the left, and in front of Jorginho). Although he did adapt to the role and had a good season under Sarri, many questioned just how well he fit in a 4-3-3, and whether or not he had the link-up play and ability in the final third needed for that role.
Another factor to consider regarding his role in the team, is that Kante has somewhat been a victim of his own ability. He has been an automatic selection for Didier Deschamps and the French National team, as well as Claudio Ranieri, Antonio Conte and Maurizio Sarri in the Premier League. And the reality is that since his arrival in England, Kante has played A LOT of football. It isn’t merely the sheer number of games Kante plays, but more pointedly it’s the effort he puts into each match. The amount of running that Kante does over a single game would likely compare to 1.5 games for most other players. At 28 years old, some fans are beginning to ask the tough question of whether or not Chelsea should consider cashing in on Kante this summer; his value could potentially drop due to his age and/or increasing injury record.
Mateo Kovacic was certainly a hot topic among Chelsea fans this summer. Still on loan from Real Madrid and an up-and-down last season, led many fans to be divided on whether Chelsea should make the move permanent. They eventually did, and this season most fans could not be happier about it.
Perhaps aided by the increased freedom he has been allotted under Lampard, or perhaps boosted by having his future settled in West London, Kovacic has been one of Chelsea’s standouts so far this season. He has featured in every variation of Lampard’s midfield, and has put in some truly impressive performances. His ability to cut in and out of the opponents press (thanks to his superb dribbling ability) has been evident on multiple occasions. He even managed to break his scoring drought in Chelsea’s Champions League game at the Mestalla, and followed it up with the Blue’s lone goal at Goodison Park 10 days later.
While his form has been impressive this season, one of the biggest questions that’s lingered over his head for years now still remains: What is his best position? From everything he has shown this season (especially contrasted against last year), it is pretty clear that Kovacic prefers playing deeper in midfield, whether in a double pivot or three-man, where he receives the ball off of the defense and slices it forward, either with his amazing dribbling runs, quick combination-passing, or that one killer pass he has in his locker.
Kovacic’s defensive ability also suits the idea of playing him deeper, as he has shown an aptitude for making important tackles and recoveries, quite often without fouling though the foul seems inevitable.
Unquestionably THE most talked about, debated, hated midfielder of the group, Mount returned to Chelsea after spending the previous two seasons on loan (the latter with Frank Lampard at Derby County last season). But he immediately showed he could offer something different to the group. Most conventionally thought of as an attacking midfielder or ‘number 10’, Mount has not only been deployed in the 10 role, but as an ‘eight’ in a 4-3-3, and even wide where he is primarily on the left but occasionally on the right as well. His versatility is certainly a huge asset to Lampard.
With five goals and five assists to his name already (and still only 21 years old), he is proving to be more than just a versatile midfield option. While there are some concerns about his recent form and potential overuse (he has played in all but one game, as well as playing with England over the International breaks), he has certainly shown enough quality to imply there could be a burgeoning star emerging in the very near future.
Another midfielder who at one time was supposed to be that burgeoning star, is Ross Barkley. However, since his arrival from Everton he has not quite been able to reach the heights many thought he was once destined for. Though considered by most a number 10, Barkley has been diversely deployed across the midfield and wide areas. His physicality and ability to run with the ball can plague opponents, and he has shown an ability to pick out a good finish. But major bouts of inconsistency and a reoccurring inability to read and process the game quickly enough, have hampered his development. At 26 now, the fear is that he may have peaked; but more troubling is the realization that ‘peak Ross Barkley’ may not be good enough to be an impact-player for Chelsea.
The Scottish ‘baby-faced-assassin’ Gilmour has broken into the first-team consideration this season under Lampard. A brief cameo in the home-draw with Sheffield United was followed up by a masterclass during his full debut in the Carabao Cup game against Grimsby Town. Gilmour ran every aspect of the midfield from the first whistle, granted it was against much weaker opposition.
His selective appearances this season have given fans a glimpse into what is coming down the road. His game is somewhere between Jorginho and a Kovacic, always showing for the ball and looking to dictate the play, and with an ability to see things before they happen he can put the ball where it needs to be.
Still young and slight of frame, Gilmour is certainly one for the future, and would probably benefit greatly from a Championship or Premier League loan next season. Being a regular participant at the highest level would give him much-needed game time and experience.
The midfield’s missing-man this season is Ruben Loftus-Cheek. After bursting into Sarri’s XI toward the latter part of the season, Ruben seemed destined for stardom. Unfortunately, one May evening in New England Ruben went down, and didn’t get back up. Diagnosed with a ruptured Achilles, Loftus-Cheek has only recently gotten back into training.
In his appearances last season, Loftus-Cheek showed just what an asset he could be for Chelsea for years to come. Tall, strong, excellent with the ball at his feet, and an eye for goal and passing, Loftus-Cheek seemingly has it all. While many Chelsea fans anticipate Ruben returns (and watching him score goals for fun), we will have to remember patience for the remainder of this season, as he works toward 100%.
Many fans debate exactly what type of midfielder Ruben is. A ‘ten’, ‘eight’ or something in between? This is something both Lampard and Ruben have discussed previously, and both seem to be pretty much aligned that Ruben’s game is best suited to the ‘eight’ role. This position, as he showed last season, allows him to excel at everything he does best, while giving him the freedom to come deep and receive the ball, dribble through the opposition, play dangerous passes in behind, or get forward in and around the box to create goal-scoring chances.
While it may not be until next season that Ruben is able to fully return to his best, when he does, he will certainly be a weapon that Frank Lampard will be able to utilize in a variety of ways.
One other player who deserves mention is Tino Anjorin. The academy star has drawn some comparisons to a young Loftus-Cheek for his athletic 6’1” frame and above-average dribbling and goal-scoring ability. While he is likely at least 1-2 years away from consistent first-team consideration, he is definitely one to keep an eye on.
So when you review the current group of midfielders, a slightly concerning issue pops out. There is a slight imbalance in the preferred position and playstyle that each member brings to the group.
When you break it down, you have:
- Jorginho: Best as a regista in a 4-3-3, but limited defensively
- Kovacic – Best as a deep-lying playmaker and dribbler, formation versatile, somewhat less effective in the final 3rd
- Kante – Best as a roving interceptor and disrupter in a double-pivot midfield, somewhat limited offensively.
- Mount – Versatile #8/#10 but still developing his full prowess in the final 3rd.
- Barkley – Versatile #8/#10 but questionable football IQ and final ball
- Gilmour – Deep-lying playmaker in either a 2 or 3 man midfield. Probably a year or so away from full consideration
- Loftus-Cheek – Best suited as a #8 who should certainly be formation-versatile once fully recovered
Looking at it from a purely positional angle:
Regista – (1) Jorginho (ok maybe 1.5 with Gilmour, or 1.75 with Kovacic)
6 – “CDM” – (1) Kante (kind of…)
8 –“Box to Box”- (4) Kovacic, Loftus-Cheek, Barkley, Mount (Kante…sort of)
10 –“CAM”- (2) Mount, Barkley (Ruben…maybe)
That is a lot of parentheses, a lot of “well, he could”, and “kind of’s” when looking at the traditional midfield positional roles. So the question then is, what is your first choice midfield set-up and personnel? Most would say some version of Kante-Jorginho-Ruben 4-3-3 when healthy, or Kovacic-Kante pivot with Ruben in front, or the classic Kante-Jorginho-Kovacic. However, whichever formation and grouping you choose, there are underlying issues.
Take for example the Kante-Jorginho-Kovacic 4-3-3 that seems to be the fan favorite. Jorginho’s deployment as the Regista means that Kante and Kovacic play further forward. Kovacic’s natural desire to drop deeper to receive the ball leaves an attacking void on the left side of the trio and a significant positional gap that can isolate the left winger. Kante’s role on the right limits his greatest asset, his ability to roam where needed to recover the ball. Also, with Jorginho sitting deep and Kovacic naturally wanting to drop deeper, Kante can be thrust into being the most attacking midfielder of the group, which is not only not his specialty, but it further detracts from what he is so great at.
Now change it up and add a healthy Ruben. Who comes out? Do you sacrifice Kovacic’s press breaking dribbling ability, Kante’s world class ball recovery, or Jorginho’s ability to dictate tempo and open up a defense with one killer pass?
Say you went with Lampard’s seemingly preferred 4-2-3-1. Who is in the double pivot? Who is at the #10? Who do you sacrifice?
As you can see, there are questions to be asked with seemingly every possible permutation. Why? Well simply, because no midfielder in the group is truly a complete midfielder, and while each certainly has a list of things they do well, the things they do well individually, do not necessarily fit perfectly together.
Solutions for Frank…?
One of the simplest things that separates Frank Lampard from his predecessor is his willingness to adapt and adjust team formation as needed based on what he sees in training and what the opponent has on offer. This does somewhat make the often asked question of “What is Chelsea’s Best Midfield When Everyone Is Fit”, a bit irrelevant, as Lampard can (and will) mix and match the team from the options he has. However, most would agree that having a cohesive unit, whose skills compliment and play off of each other’s, can only make things better.
So what are Lampard’s options?
Barring any injury issues, Lampard could continue on picking and rotating the midfielders each match, switching between formations and partnerships, and trying to get it right every week. While that is the only option on offer to him for the remainder of this season, he may be inclined to look at some alternative options in the summer transfer market to help relieve some of the reliance on the likes of Mason Mount, Jorginho, and N’Golo Kante.
A sore subject for a lot of Chelsea fans at the moment, especially coming off a January that saw much discussed Bruno Guimares get a move to Lyon, and rumored target Sander Berge move to PL rivals Sheffield United, there are still plenty of viable options that will be available in the summer. With questions being asked about Ross Barkley’s ability to play at this level, Jorginho’s potential to be lured back to Italy, and Chelsea’s possible willingness to sell N’Golo Kante while his resale value is still high (something that has been discussed ad nauseam within the fan base), there may be a need to bring in a midfielder or two in the summer to reinforce and rebalance the group.
One thing that this season has showed is that the more versatile a player is, the more valuable they are to Frank. This means that potential transfer targets will not only need to possess the quality to play at heights of the Premier League, but also have the versatility to be effective in multiple systems.
One name long rumored to be a target of Chelsea and other PL teams, is Lille’s Boubakary Soumaré. The 6’2” 20 yr. old Frenchman featured in both of Lille’s Champions League games against the Blues this year and has caught the eye of many across Europe with impressive performances. Soumaré has the ability to play as a #6 or a #8 in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 with a decent passing range and willingness to put in a tackle. While he is still developing his game, his versatility and potential should keep him on Lampard’s radar for the rest of the season.
A personal favorite and hopeful target is Borussia Monchengladbach’s 6’3” Swiss midfielder, Denis Zakaria. The 23 yr. old has been a key figure in M’Gladbach’s season that sees them competing at the top end of the Bundesliga table. Zakaria is equally adept as both a #6 and #8 in midfield, and has even been used as a center back in the past. His size, physicality, and passing ability make him an ideal signing for any team looking for steel and creativity in midfield. In fact, on a recent episode of the Tifo Football podcast discussing the situation at Manchester United, Football writer Seb Stafford-Bloor compared Zakaria’s passing ability to that of one Toni Kroos, and even went as far to say that if he were allowed to give United only one player to solve their current issues, it would be Zakaria. If he is good enough to potentially fix all of Manchester United’s issues, imagine what he could do in Blue.
Other options will certainly be discussed, with names like Isco, Kai Havertz, and Houssem Aouar are likely not going away anytime soon.
In Case of Emergency
Lampard does have one or two options he can hold in reserve if injuries strike or the transfer market does not quite play out as he would like. While promising academy product Clinton Mola elected to leave Chelsea over the January transfer window, Lampard does have reigning Academy Player of the Year Conor Gallagher out on loan at Swansea City after tearing up the Championship at Charlton Athletic in the first half of the season.
There is also the possibility of rejuvenating the sensation that was last season’s Reece James after he earned Wigan Player of the Year and a place in the Championship TOTS for his performances in midfield. However, his potential world class ability at right back, and Lampard’s repeated praise of his attacking ability there, may just have him locked in the starting XI right there.
At the end of the day, whatever happens with the rest of this season, and whatever happens over the summer transfer market, the continued adaptation and evolution of Chelsea’s midfield at the hands of the clubs greatest ever midfielder, will certainly be something to watch.