Next season, things will be different at Chelsea. Another new (possibly a returning one) manager, and more change, including to the midfield unit, which has seen too many names play next to John Obi Mikel, who has been the defensive rock in the middle of the pitch, forced to make up for the weaknesses and holes both Ramires and Frank Lampard manage to create time after time.
If Mikel would have been with Chelsea for the entire season – both the Africa Cup of Nations (winning the title with Nigeria) and injuries got in the way, maybe they wouldn’t be still fearing for their spot in the Champions League next season. The Nigerian anchorman seems to have gotten over his on-pitch positioning and discipline issues, meaning he’s more likely to plug and fill the space created by his more attacking partner than doing the same mistake himself.
But it’s clear that with the trio of Oscar, Mata and Hazard playing behind the strikers, the need for Chelsea to have someone like Frank Lampard in their midfield disappears with time. There’s enough creativity and passing ability already, and another player who’s thinking about attack first, often neglecting the two-man midfield duties which have a lot to do with dirty work and defense, has become a constant source for vulnerability and mistakes.
Ramires might be better than Lampard when it comes to defending, but he’s also known to go on wild ventures forward, often forgetting his positioning and more useful place. While Mikel is an excellent tackled and defensive midfielder, he’s not Claude Makelele or Michael Essien. At 26, despite the wonderkid labels adjoined with his name during his teenage years, he’ll probably never be as good as they are.
But it doesn’t take a ‘best midfielder in Europe’ to have a solid unit in the middle of the pitch. It doesn’t even take all the talent in the world. It just takes picking the right player to be next to Mikel. Someone who knows his place, and won’t leave the team vulnerable again and again. Mikel is a good enough distributor to not need someone to play the link up man to vigorously venturing too forward again and again.
Deep-lying playmakers you can trust are hard to find, but Chelsea have the funds and the scouting system to do a good enough job, and find players who fit the system better than what they’ve had these last couple of seasons, ruining the chance for Mikel to simply concentrate on what he does best, and get the kind of recognition he deserves.