There’s no getting around Chelsea’s slow start the season, both in the Premier League and the Champions League. Mourinho has experimented with different lineups and, as we saw Wednesday versus Basel, formations. Mind you, the squad isn’t unfamiliar with this kind of rotation. Benitez had Chelsea in a constant state of fluctuation last year that allowed them deep cup runs and an eventual Europa League title. But in light of all this rotation and experimentation, the question begs: what is the best possible starting eleven for Chelsea?
Let’s start with formation. Over the past couple of years Chelsea have done well with a 4-2-3-1. They’ve switched up a few times, and some of their players would arguably perform better with a different shape, but this formation has given them the ability to move forward quickly. Counter attacks and dribbles straight into the box have been the name of the game, and this formation allows everyone, even the outside backs, to get in on the action. For the sake of simplicity, and logic, the best eleven will be outlined in this formation.
Čech is the obvious choice in goal. He’s been the uncontested king for some time now and that doesn’t look to change anytime soon. Even with the talent of on-loan Thibaut Courtois waiting in the wings (and doing quite well at Atlético), Čech remains the first choice for the foreseeable future.
For defense, let’s start out on the right. Branislav Ivanović has been Mourinho’s top choice at right back, giving him the opportunity to make runs forward and use his size in set pieces. But César Azpilicueta proved himself as one of Chelsea’s best signings last year in the same position, even though he’s had virtually no playing time under José. Last campaign he moved forward well and provided decent crosses into the box. Putting Azpilicueta here allows Ivanović to move to center back, a position he holds down well. The Serbian may not be able to move forward as easily from the middle, but it makes him a major boon in one of Chelsea’s weakest positions on the field.
Next to Ivanović in the center goes John Terry. At times the Chelsea skipper has been unreliable and a bit injury prone, but at full fitness he’s the top choice here. Terry’s leadership is best demonstrated in the way he organizes his defenders. The overall shape of the defense improves dramatically when the captain is on the pitch shouting orders. Gary Cahill has shown some promise, but he’s not convincing in a squad that’s trying to take on top clubs. Terry’s experience and leadership win out at the end of the day.
Ashley Cole is perhaps one of the biggest staples of the London club. No other left back comes close to his defensive prowess. Certainly not Ryan Bertrand. Cole has the benefit of several years’ experience without suffering much loss of pace and can still keep up with the fastest wingers. This one is a no brainer.
Next up are the two defensive midfield positions. This is probably the most difficult section of the lineup to narrow down. Chelsea have a plethora of players that can occupy these two spots and each of them bring something different to the squad. These two positions can really be augmented in a variety of ways depending on what the manager wants to accomplish against a given opponent. That being said, the best combination (and this is open to much debate) is Frank Lampard and David Luiz.
Luiz came to the club as a center back, but played as a defensive midfielder a few times last year to great success. The Brazilian likes to move forward and can cannon shots into the net from 30 yards out. He strikes a nice balance between defense and offense, giving him flexibility in this position. His physical style of play is also less of a risk in the middle of the pitch than it is in the center of defense. Lampard is the next choice because, well, he scores…a lot. Super Frank’s one-year contract extension means he won’t be at the club for much longer, but his scoring record has easily earned him a place in the first team. Lampard’s sweet spot is around the 25 to 18 yard line, which forces defenders to come out and mark him. He’s scored enough from that range to warrant closing down quickly, which leaves lanes open for more forward players.
The difficulty in choosing these two positions stems mainly from leaving out a player like Ramires, who never seems to run out of steam. His pace and fitness means he’s typically in the thick of the action and while his long-range efforts tend to find themselves in the upper stands, he’s got a wicked affinity for chipping keepers. Ramires, and Mikel for that matter, could easily be switched out for Lampard and Luiz, depending on how much Chelsea want to control the center of the pitch.
There’s also contention for the three attacking midfield roles, though not as much as in the defensive midfield. We’ll start out on the right again, with Oscar. The young Brazilian has been Chelsea’s best player this season and needs to be on the field as much as he can. He frequently plays out right but ultimately likes to drift, often to the center. When Oscar plays out wide he also tracks back, something he’s a bit underappreciated for. His slight frame makes him an unlikely candidate in defense, but he’s proven on numerous occasions that he can get back and pressure players off the ball. Obviously this isn’t his main role, but he can handle himself in a pinch.
In the center is Juan Mata. Here is another player that José hasn’t given as much time to as many fans would like, but the two-time Chelsea Player of the Year can’t be overlooked. His creativity and fluidity unlock the potential of the attacking midfielders around him. His goal and assist tally for the club is nothing short of impressive, but it’s the overall impact he has on matches that makes him a solid choice. He doesn’t quite fit in Mourinho’s quick, counter attacking, style of play, but if he’s utilized as a playmaker he does well controlling the tempo of the game.
The final choice in the attacking three is as obvious as Ashley Cole at left back. Eden Hazard has been a staple of the Three Amigos since arriving last year. The Belgian has been one of the brightest stars for Chelsea and really encompasses the counter attacking style that Mourinho wants to play. It’s hard to think of a player in the Premier League that can turn on a ball and get down the field faster than Hazard. He was also fouled over 70 times last season, fifth in the Premier League for fouls against. His ability to dribble in congested areas makes him dangerous to defend if he’s allowed in the box.
And finally, striker. While Chelsea’s midfielders score more than their fair share of goals, their forwards carry a bit of a stigma for infrequent chances. Torres, Ba, and Eto’o are all capable on paper, but haven’t always put forth the numbers expected of them. Of course this is completely unfair of Eto’o who just joined the club; but in the case of Torres, more negativity is being projected on him than he really deserves. He was Chelsea’s leading scorer last season when they saw their highest number of goals scored in a single campaign.
While Eto’o has been prolific in his career, the number one spot has to go to Torres. He may have garnered a reputation of misfiring, but his numbers have been improving since he joined Chelsea. Really though, it’s not even his goal scoring that makes him first choice, which may seem a bit counterintuitive to say of a striker. But Torres brings something to the table that the other two contending for the position don’t. His work rate and movement off the ball are both fantastic. Torres has mastered the ability to move against the run of play, opening up crucial lanes for the midfielders behind him. There’s a reason Chelsea’s attacking mids score so many goals, and part of that is Torres breaking apart the opposing backs and moving them out of position. While his final touch and dribbling can be scrutinized, his work rate cannot. His refusal to stay still, even away from the ball, keeps defenders preoccupied. Chelsea’s midfield get a lot more looks when Torres is up front.
Ultimately, with the amount of talent in in the Blues midfield it’s difficult to choose a single, strongest starting eleven. Chelsea’s squad is malleable and a different set of starters would change the way the team can play before it decreased the overall talent on the field. With the amount of cup runs this club makes, it’s doubtful that there will ever be a consistent starting eleven. That being said, in a must-win match this eleven could stand up to some of the biggest clubs in the world.
Midfield: Hazard, Mata, Oscar
David Luiz, Lampard
Defense: Cole, Terry, Ivanović, Azpilicueta
What’s your recommended starting XI for Chelsea? Post it in the comments section below.