A few months ago I wrote my first article for AllThingsChelsea, attempting to explain the underlying imbalance that exists in Chelsea’s current midfield group. The main theme of the story being that, despite the talent level in Chelsea’s midfield, clashing skills and tactical preferences have prevented Frank Lampard from being able to select a trio or partnership that puts everyone in their preferred role. If you haven’t had the chance to get caught up on that, you can do it here.
Towards the end of that piece, I briefly touched on some options that Chelsea and Frank Lampard have going forward. Today however, with the Jorginho/Kante debate still ongoing, the recent performances of Billy Gilmour still somewhat fresh in the memory, and (somewhat more importantly) the Sky Sports Declan Rice rumor that emerged a few days ago, I figured I would take the chance to dive further into how I believe Chelsea can look to solve the issue of the imbalanced midfield.
It would be unfair to start and ignore the fact that Frank may not have to do anything. Chelsea do have options in midfield, having managed to get through 29 matches this season in fourth place, and into the Champions League knockout stages with the current squad (not even mentioning the missing man in Ruben Loftus-Cheek, and the constant injury battles of N’Golo Kante). Chelsea are “OK” in midfield, certainly much better off than many would say in other areas of the field (i.e. Left Back). In fact, there have been a few reports that a midfielder is really not on the list for the summer, and Chelsea will only buy if one leaves. However, there are still the Sergej Milinković-Savić, Boubakary Soumaré and now Declan Rice rumors, which suggest that a midfield purchase in the summer may not be completely out of the mind of the Chelsea hierarchy.
Where the Problem Lies
The first thing you have to do is identify the biggest issue or weakness in the midfield imbalance, and for me that is the #6, or the defensive midfielder. Chelsea have plenty of options in the #10 and #8 roles within the current group, but the #6 is the weak point. While N’Golo Kante may be the best ball winner in world football, he is not the “prototypical” #6 (Casemiro, Busquets, Fabinho type) that most people think of. Jorginho is a regista, not a #6, which is an important distinction to make, as his lack of pace and reliance on positioning over pure defensive ability to recover possession clearly draw that line. In fact, I would argue that the closest thing Chelsea have to the modern day #6, is Mateo Kovacic, who’s ball recovery and possession play have been outstanding this season – averaging 1.7 tackles per 90 minutes, while having a pass completion percentage of 89.9%. But, I also believe that even Mateo would likely categorize himself as a #8 over a #6.
So what should Chelsea do? There have certainly been many sides taken in this debate with some advocating staying the course with the current group and strengthening other areas, some in favour of selling Kante or Jorginho and looking outside for a replacement, others for promoting Ampadu/Gallagher/or Gilmour, and the rest either undecided or unbothered. I can say with relative certainty that I know which side I am on, but it would be unfair not to explore all of the options at hand.
I essentially covered the “stay the course” option a few paragraphs ago, and as I mentioned, it is not hard to find reports that this is the current plan heading into the summer. After all, on their day N’Golo Kante and Jorginho are among the best, if not the best in the world at what they do. Mateo Kovacic has shown massive improvement this season. Mason Mount’s versatility has been a lifesaver on multiple occasions, and he will continue to grow with experience, and Ruben Loftus-Cheek has yet to play a competitive game under Frank Lampard. That is a quality group of five to start with, not even counting Ross Barkley and the emerging sensation of Billy Gilmour. Add in Tino Anjorin, who made his first-team and PL debuts this season, and (at least on paper), the midfield group at Chelsea looks solid and deep. Understandably, this does make the “stay the course” option seem like a good choice.
But I circle back to the underlying imbalance discussed in my first piece: if you “stay the course” you have another season of juggling at least one square peg into a round hole every match, and I do not believe that is something Frank Lampard will want to do for another season. If we stay with that assumption, then what are Frank’s options?
Versatility = Value
I think it has been clear this season that versatility is key to playing in this Chelsea side. Lampard’s fluctuation between the 4-3-3, 4-2-3-1, and 3-4-3 (combined with the ongoing injury crisis) has seen players like Mason Mount and Ross Barkley deployed in three or four different positions over the course of the season. Essentially, the more versatile you are, the more valuable you are. This would then be true of the current group and any new additions, including the already signed-and-sealed Hakim Ziyech, who can play on either wings of the pitch and centrally.
Without rehashing too much of my initial piece, versatility is an area that a few members of Chelsea’s current midfield group fall a bit short in, namely Jorginho and N’Golo Kante. Now, this takes nothing away from either player; like I said earlier, on their day both can be the best in the world at what they do. The issue is, what they do is somewhat specialised.
Jorginho’s preferred “Regista” or “Deep-Lying Playmaker” role dictates a three-man midfield 4-3-3 and exposes his defensive liabilities. N’Golo Kante’s “roving destroyer” role is best executed in a two-man 4-4-2, 4-2-3-1, or 3-4-3 to a lesser extent, midfield, with a stable partner holding the middle for Kante to play off of. This is in no way saying they CAN’T play in the same XI together, but putting Kante in Jorginho’s preferred three-man midfield pushes him further forward than he would like, and adds attacking responsibilities that can detract from his ball recovery. Furthermore, playing Jorginho in Kante’s preferred two-man midfield limits Jorginho’s freedom to roam and collect the ball from deep, and takes away one of his quick-pass midfield options. So until the Premier League allows teams to pull on-the-fly Offense/Defense substitutions similar to what many NBA coaches do late in games, (for example, playing Jorginho when on-the-ball and subbing Kante on for him as soon as possession is lost to win it back, before sending Jorginho back on) playing Kante and Jorginho together will mean at least one of them will be sacrificing part of what they do so well.
When you add the tactical conundrum to the advancing age of both players, and injury bug that has seemingly attacked N’Golo Kante ever since Baku, even in spite of Kante’s immensely lovable smile and Jorginho’s passion and fire, you can see why there are those who are open to moving one or both of them on. But that debate is not for this piece. This piece is about options first and foremost. I will try to tie in the current squad where possible, but you may have to play things out in a world with N’Golo Kante and Jorginho at Chelsea next year and make up your mind from there.
Use What You Have
“Use what you have” is a strategy that has worked relatively well already this season for Chelsea, even if it was more of a forced decision. Tammy Abraham, Mason Mount and Reece James have all become regular starters when healthy, with Fikayo Tomori and Kurt Zouma also having many of their own shining moments at center back. Throw in Callum’s brief appearances after recovering from his Achilles injury, Billy Gilmour’s world-beating performances against Grimsby, Liverpool, and Everton, and debuts for Ian Maatsen, Tino Anjorin, the now-departed Tariq Lamptey, and Armando Broja this season, and what Chelsea have player-wise has made a significant impact this season. Even better is that there are more coming. Namely, for the purposes of this discussion, Conor Gallagher and Ethan Ampadu.
Gallagher has been tearing up the Championship with Charlton and Swansea City this season, with 6 goals and 7 assists in 36 Championship games already. The recently turned 20-year-old was last year’s Academy Player of the Season at Chelsea, and has certainly kept that momentum going during his first year out on loan. While more of a box-to-box #8 than anything else, Gallagher will likely come into next year’s pre-season looking to make his way into Lampard’s midfield mix.
While his loan this season at RB Leipzig in Germany has certainly not been as successful, Ethan Ampadu remains one for Chelsea’s future. This was never more evidenced this season than by his display in Leipzig’s 1-0 Champions League victory over Tottenham in London. The Welshman sat in the middle of Leipzig’s back three and controlled the backline like a seasoned veteran. Ampadu is comfortable as either a center back or midfielder, where he is most often deployed for the Welsh national team. Ampadu is smooth on the ball, a very adept passer, and has the defensive instincts to play both roles well. Whether he comes back to Chelsea in Lampard’s plans, or is sent for a more successful loan next season is to be determined, but there are certainly a fair number hoping that he does return and claim his spot in contention for the #6 role.
Both Gallagher and Ampadu could add something to the mix next year, regardless of any departures or other arrivals, and we know that if Lampard and co deem they are ready, they will be given their chances.
Something New, Something Different
Perhaps it is the overwhelming boredom that many are struggling with at present, or maybe it is just the incessant rumor mill surrounding football transfers, but rumors and names of Chelsea’s summer targets have been plastered all over news outlets and social media for months. Soumaré is probably one of the longest running this season, but Milinković-Savić, Aouar, Coutinho, and now Rice have all emerged (or re-emerged in some cases) and will surely be hanging around until the summer transfer window opens. When you also consider the fan favorite/fan-generated, rumor/fantasy signings like Thomas Partey and Wilfred Ndidi, the list of summer midfield targets is nearly as long as rumored targets in every other position combined.
So I wanted to take a look at just a few of the rumored midfield targets, and see if I could “Solve the 6.”
Boubakary Soumaré’s name has been floating around the Premier League rumor mill essentially ever since Kaveh Solhekol of SkySports opened his mouth and falsely claimed that he was bound for Manchester United or Chelsea in the January Transfer Window. What we do know are two things: Frank Lampard gave a somewhat interesting response when asked about Soumaré in a January press conference, and Soumaré rejected a move to Newcastle at the end of the transfer window (as his aspirations are higher than Newcastle), despite Lille accepting the bid.
It does seem like Soumaré is a player that Chelsea are watching, and not just because they came up against his Lille side twice in the Champions League group stage. It makes sense to a degree, as the 21-yr-old, 6’2” French midfielder is considered one of the better midfield prospects around at the moment. However, from what I have seen, he is more of a #8 then a #6, which would mean he would be coming in competing with Kovacic and RLC at the very least, instead of solving the problem Chelsea have at the 6. Now, there is the possibility that as he continues to grow, get stronger, and play more, he may shift into more of the #6 Chelsea need, but if that is the case, and you are buying him with future development in mind, is it really worth it? In other words, is that potential future development – and what you think he will become – £35-40 million (that he would cost) more valuable than what an Ethan Ampadu could become in the same position?
A name that has reemerged in the transfer rumor mill is that of Lazio’s Sergej Milinković-Savić. The 6’3” Serb has been a key part of Lazio’s tremendous Serie A campaign, with 4 goals and 4 assists for the second placed side. Milinković-Savić, now 25, is a surprisingly silky, skillful player for someone his size, and while there are some who will have seen more of him in Serie A then I have, what I have seen reminds me of a combination of Kovacic’s skill and RLC’s physicality. Now combined into one, that would seemingly make one heck of a player. But when you already have a Kovacic, and will soon have a healthy RLC, and have your biggest weakness at the 6 and not the 8, it could be questioned where Milinković-Savić would fit into the equation if he were to arrive in the summer. It would seem that a Milinković-Savić signing would be more of a luxury signing for Chelsea then filling a need.
Houssem Aouar was another fan favorite, until a story came out in early February claiming that Chelsea were “seriously interested” in the French midfielder from Lyon. Of course, since then Aouar has also been linked with PSG, Liverpool, Manchester City, and a good majority of the rest of the European heavy-hitters. All of this is for good reason however, as Aouar has become one of the best young midfielders in world football while playing in the middle of a very good Lyon side. At 5’9”, the 21-yr-old is more of an attack-minded #8 who can also deputize as a #10 (think of a Kovacic type with a better end product, but less defensive nous). Again, a very talented player that would likely be more of a luxury signing than a necessity.
One of the newer names in the rumor mill, the ex-Liverpool playmaker has had a hard time since leaving for Barcelona. Of course, I would be doing a disservice if I did not point you in the direction of an All Things Chelsea piece that came out just a few days ago about Coutinho’s potential transfer to Chelsea. For me, Coutinho is a question I am very unlikely to have to answer, but I am currently leaning in the “no” category, simply for the fact that with Mount, Barkley, and Ziyech all capable of playing Coutinho’s preferred positions, he is not a player we need nor should spend money on, either transfer fee or wages. Should this gather more legs, it will be something I would have to consider further.
One player we have been consistently linked with, but is not talked about much within the fan base, is Birmingham City, teenage-sensation Jude Bellingham. Widely known to be leaving Birmingham this summer, the 16-yr-old is reportedly set to choose between Manchester United, Borussia Dortmund, and Chelsea as his next destination. Most of the hype around the Bellingham transfer seems to be between United and Dortmund, but the continued links to Chelsea and absolute radio silence from the club certainly gives me pause.
Now, I will not profess to be any sort of expert on Championship football, but for Bellingham to be a regular starter in the Championship at 16 does say something. The little I have seen of Bellingham is impressive, and I think he would be a good, although potentially expensive, investment for Chelsea. More research is obviously required here, but at first glance, it is certainly not a move I would be opposed to.
I am having a difficult time remembering a rumored signing, not an actual signing, that received more immediate backlash than Declan Rice when SkySports claimed Chelsea were interested just a few days ago. Rice, the former Chelsea Academy player now at West Ham, has been rumored to be moving to a number of PL clubs this summer, with the Blues just being the latest. Perhaps it is the struggle that West Ham have found themselves in this season, or the false thinking that Lampard only wants English players, but the anti-Rice crowd was out in force.
Is Declan Rice a bad player? No. Is Declan Rice a Chelsea starter? No. The reality is the 21-yr-old is still developing, but he has already broken into the West Ham and England XI. I do believe there is a player in there, but would that player be my choice to fill Chelsea’s need for a true #6? At the moment, no. With that said, would I hate it if he were signed to provide depth/compete for that role, given his relationship with Mason Mount and some of the other young Chelsea players? Probably not.
One thing that we have seen from the majority of rumored Chelsea midfield targets is size and physicality. That moves us nicely into a fan favorite, Wilfred Ndidi of Leicester City. The 23-yr-old Nigerian came to Leicester City from Belgian club Genk as a replacement for N’Golo Kante in December 2016. Since then, Ndidi has made himself into one of the better defensive shields in world football. A fantastic player, Ndidi has been the catalyst to Leicester’s current third-place position in the Premier League table this season, a fact that was evidenced even more by Leicester’s drop in form during the course of Ndidi’s recent injury.
Although it is, to this point, only a fan dream-signing, he would certainly be a very good acquisition for Chelsea. I do have slight – very slight – reservations about his ability to play in both the 4-3-3 (4-1-4-1) that Leicester have played this season, and the 4-2-3-1/ 3-4-3 that he could also be used in at Chelsea, but am inclined to believe that he could certainly make the necessary adjustments needed. All of that may prove completely irrelevant, however, as Leicester City look to be pricing their prized-assets out of moves to Premier League rivals this summer by demanding exorbitant transfer fees (like they have done for Manchester United target James Maddison and confirmed Chelsea target Ben Chilwell). With Chelsea unwilling to meet a fee likely north of £70 million, it appears Ndidi to Chelsea will remain a fan dream.
Probably a more reasonable fan dream-signing is Thomas Partey of Atlético Madrid. The 26-yr-old, 6-foot Ghanaian has a reported release clause in his contract, rumored to be £42 million, which Atleti are desperately attempting to get renewed and raised to a figure upwards of £90 million. Should Partey refuse or delay the renewal, he will have no shortage of suitors in the summer.
As a player, Partey is essentially a human wrecking-ball, who also has the ability to pick out a nice forward pass. Some could argue his defensive ability is helped by Diego Simeone’s rigid and defensive 4-4-2 set-up, and there is probably some truth in that, but the skill level is still very good. Now whether or not he is able to maintain the same level as the shielding 6 in a 4-3-3 for example, is unknown since he is often used in a two-man with club and country. However, it is a relatively safe bet he would be able to handle it.
With Arsenal and United chasing his signature, and Atlético chasing the renewal, a potential transfer (likely the only option without a renewal in Madrid) could get complicated.
If It Were Up To Me…
Remember at the beginning when I said I was pretty sure I had made my decision? Like most of those who are pleading for Thomas Partey, or willing to sell their soul for Wilfred Ndidi, I have found myself firmly in the camp of one player that I would like to see in Chelsea-blue next season. I didn’t get here via the “Sell Jorginho/ Sell Kante” route; in fact, my thoughts on that specific topic will remain a mystery for now. But I arrived here by playing more of the “if-it-were-up-to-me” game that fans so often love to play. Now if you read my first piece on the midfield you should know where I am going – but if not, this may not be a name you are overly familiar with (hopefully that changes).
My choice, my summer midfield-signing, my #6, my midfield anchor, is Denis Zakaria of Borussia Mönchengladbach. The six-foot-three, 23-yr-old Swiss international has been a crucial piece to Mönchengladbach’s breakout success this season, currently placing them fourth in the Bundesliga after topping the table for much of the early part of the season.
Zakaria is a player who joined Mönchengladbach from Young Boys out of Switzerland in 2017. Like Soumaré is now, Zakaria was a young, athletic, and physical midfielder, but Zakaria developed and refined his game at Mönchengladbach, becoming one of the best #6’s in the Bundesliga. While he is still athletic and physical, he has now added superb ball recovery, and exceptional passing abilities to his repertoire.
Zakaria is also very versatile, playing as a lone #6 in a three-man midfield, with a partner (most often Christoph Kramer) in a two-man midfield, and as a Center Back in the middle of a back three. His adaptability to three different positions, and efficiency with each of them, means that he would, without a doubt, be an asset in Frank Lampard’s squad.
Ok no, you don’t actually have to make a decision now just because I have, or because most of Chelsea Twitter has. It can seem like everyone has a horse in this race for one reason or another – mine is Zakaria, yours may be Ndidi or Partey, or you may be part of the “Jorginho hive”. And, there is really nothing wrong with any of them at the moment. My gut tells me that when Frank Lampard’s Chelsea are fully constructed, we will primarily see a midfield-three with RLC and Mason Mount flanking a single #6. Now whether I am right or wrong – primarily thanks to injuries – is still to be determined. What I know, is the more I see Zakaria, the more I like Zakaria. What we know is there are options, which is a good thing, for Frank and for Chelsea. Remember, I did not even go into Billy Gilmour who will be a prominent member of the Chelsea midfield for many years.
At the end of the day, the imbalance in midfield is not a mortal wound in this current Chelsea side. Could it be better? Or will it need to be better for Chelsea to compete at the top of the PL? I would argue, yes. There are plenty of options for how it gets better, including the ones I have laid out, and many more I haven’t. I certainly hope this has, at the very least, started you thinking on your midfield solutions. After all, playing mental-football manager is never really a bad thing is it?
No matter what, I am resting comfortably on the fact that the future of Chelsea’s midfield, whatever it looks like, is currently resting in the hands of Chelsea’s greatest ever midfielder, and I get to go along for the ride.
Edited by: Martell Dublin