Andre Villas-Boas’ project may have been cut short prematurely, but the spirit of the Portuguese’s plans has remained. The summer transfer window has seen the departure of three veterans and the injection of young, talented midfielders.
Just a year ago, Chelsea were seen as an aging club severely lacking in creativity in the center of the pitch. With the additions of Juan Mata, Eden Hazard, Marko Marin, Kevin De Brunye (who has now been loaned to Werder Bremen) and Oscar in the last 12 months, the Blues have done a complete 360 in that regard.
In addition to the players mentioned above, Chelsea have Frank Lampard, Michael Essien, John Obi Mikel, Ramires, Oriol Romeu, Josh McEachran and Raul Meireles on their books, making for a crowded midfield. So how will manager Roberto Di Matteo keep everyone in the dressing room happy?
Luckily for Di Matteo, both Mata and Hazard, arguably the squad’s two most talented players, can play anywhere across the band of three attacking midfielders in the Italian’s preferred 4-2-3-1 formation. But those two playmakers offer very little defensively, with each averaging just .7 tackles per game, according to WhoScored.com. To make up for that lack of defensive help, Di Matteo will likely field Ramires, and his 2.8 tackles per game, in the right midfield position, a role he thrived in last season.
Marin offers a more direct approach than both Mata and Hazard — averaging just 12.2 passes per take-on compared to 48.5 and 22.6 for Mata and Hazard, respectively — and may be better served as a super sub when the squad needs an injection of pace and directness.
That leaves Oscar as the odd man out, but with Chelsea playing for a whopping seven trophies in the upcoming season, the young Brazilian playmaker will have plenty of opportunities to play, whether it’s in the middle of the attacking midfield trio or in a holding role alongside a more defensive player. Oscar has been compared to Luka Modric, and may bring on a natural change of shape, depending on where he is deployed. If fielded in the number 10 position behind the striker, Oscar’s tendency to drop deep will change Chelsea’s shape to something not unlike the Spanish national team’s, with the Brazilian playing in Xavi’s role. If he is deployed in a holding role, Chelsea may look more like a 4-1-4-1 when in possession. Either way, he will offer Di Matteo a plan B, if needed.
In the two holding roles, Di Matteo will like likely stick with the duo that combined so brilliantly down the stretch of Chelsea’s Champions League run: Lampard and Mikel, with Miereles and Essien spelling those two when needed. That leaves Romeu, who performed admirably under AVB but was largely left out of the side under Di Matteo. The young Spaniard’s appearance may be reduced to domestic cup ties. It may behoove Chelsea to loan out McEachran once again, after the teenager struggled to get playing time on loan to Swansea last season and did not the breakout Daniel Sturridge enjoyed with Bolton the season before.
If Chelsea are done adding players to their squad, they will be equipped for the long season that lies ahead, especially in the center of the park. The depth of the squad should help the team avoid fatigue later in a season in which they will compete in five competitions in addition to the Community Shield against Manchester City and the UEFA Super Cup against Atletico Madrid — not to mention the African Cup of Nations will see the team lose both Mikel and Essien for up to a month. While a gift, the depth can prove to be a curse; with so many quality players, Di Matteo will have a hard time pleasing them all.