Since its inception, Premier League success has been built on a foundation of dominant, energetic, box-to-box midfielders, starting and finishing attacking moves, setting a match’s tempo and controlling games. Though this type of player may be synonymous with the Premiership, it is a tradition that stretches back to the very beginnings of English football. Back to the playing fields of Eton and the like, where boys turned into men and sport was a test of an Englishman’s character. Scottish men and ‘foreign types’ passed the ball. A true Englishman would tackle hard and dribble the ball at pace to display his superior athletic ability. Anything less, well that just wouldn’t be cricket.
It was this attitude that came to characterise the English midfielder until the present day, but a sea change appears to be on the way. Where exactly did the midfielder go?
Throughout his reign as Chelsea’s owner, Roman Abramovic has proved a hard man to please; Mourinho brought him Premier League titles and numerous cup victories, but was unable to provide what the oligarch craved most – Champions League success and more specifically success in Europe while playing entertaining and expansive football. It could be argued that the second part of this is where, in Abramovic’s eyes at least, is where Mourinho fell down at Chelsea. He had after all, already secured a Champions League title without the oil magnate’s money while at Porto and would go on to do so again at an un-fancied Internazionale side. If Mourinho had received more time at Stamford Bridge it seems a fair assumption that he would have been as likely as any manager to lead Chelsea to their first Champions League title. The problem lies in the teams that Mourinho builds, defensively solid, tactically astute, powerful, counter-attacking sides which is diametrically opposed to what Abramovic hankers after – which essentially equates to Barcelona.
Since Mourinho’s departure a conveyer belt of managers have been and gone, all with the remit of making Chelsea more expansive. With the arguable exceptions of Luis Felipe Scolari and Andre Villas-Boas, Chelsea have seen success under each new manager brave enough to step into the Abramovic firing-line since Mourinho. All have tasted success, but all have been moved on as Abramovic seeks his idea of perfection. Even Roberto Di Matteo, who finally delivered the Champions League trophy Abramovic so desired is now gone.
Champions League success for Chelsea last season was built on solidity. Placing a defensive wall in front of Barcelona in the semi-final and then repeating the feat against a vastly superior Bayern Munich side in the final. The victory of course will have pleased Abramovic, the manner in which it was attained less so. I referred earlier to Scolari and Villas-Boas’ failure during their tenures at Chelsea as being arguable. Arguable as both men set Chelsea on a journey towards the entertaining, expansive style of play that Abramovic had requested, but neither man received the time, or more importantly, the backing of the players to implement their ideas fully and were sacked only a few months into their stay after a few questionable results and with Champions League qualification nervously in the balance. Di Matteo has fallen foul to the same issue. Having won the Champions League through solidity, this season he set about the task of entertaining his boss.
This season’s new-look Chelsea, with its talented attacking trident of Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar, thrilled the Stamford Bridge faithful and eager onlookers at the beginning of this season, scoring goals for fun and making even Fernando Torres look like a player again. In recent weeks though Chelsea’s attacking philosophy has led to defensive fragility, exacerbated by the absence of John Terry and after losing 3-0 to Juventus, Chelsea’s European challenge is looking likely to end at the group stages, and this brings us back to midfielders.
What Chelsea has demonstrated this season is, for all their attacking verve, they haven’t had a base from which to defend. Ignoring the lack of assuredness and discipline their back four has offered without Terry, Chelsea’s problems this season have stemmed from a lack of a genuine midfielder. Ramirez and John Obi Mikel are both players of more attacking instincts. Ramirez is a player full of running and the effort he has shown every match is exemplary, but what is missing right now is someone to dominate midfield, someone whose first instinct is not always to get forward and support an already heavyweight attack. In recent times Chelsea have had players such as Claude Makalele and Michael Essien at their disposal, who were able to break up play with strength and determination or in Makalele’s case, with an ability to read a game, protecting the back four as well as providing a starting point for attacks.
Chelsea are not alone however. Manchester United and Arsenal face the same problem and have done so since the respective departures of Roy Keane and Patrick Viera nearly a decade ago. Michael Carrick has many qualities, but he lacks the energy, determination and general hustle and bustle of Keane, not to mention the leadership the former United captain offered. Arsenal looked closer to finding a balance in midfield at the start of the season, but were robbed of Abou Diaby’s services through injury, lost his energy in midfield and have struggled defensively since. Mikel Arteta is a fine player and has adapted well to the deeper role he has been asked to fulfil this season, but in a similar way to Mikel at Chelsea, lacks the athleticism to dominate the midfield area for his side.
A lack of a genuine recognisable midfield for Man United and Chelsea has, at least in part been responsible for an uncharacteristic defensive frailty this season, with United having been behind in thirteen matches this season. Chelsea’s lack of a midfield was ruthlessly demonstrated in Turin when they faced Juventus, a side built around a strong midfield unit, in the Champions League. The Italian side’s midfield trio of Claudio Marchisio, Andrea Pirlo and Arturo Vidal, backed up at times by Kwado Asamoah, overran the Chelsea pair and the three nil victory was nothing less than deserved.
Unlike the rest of the top four, Manchester City are built around an extremely dominant and athletic midfield with Yaya Toure in particular at the heart of everything positive City do, both offensively as well as without the ball. Toure is backed up by a combination of Gareth Barry, James Milner, Jack Rodwell and Javi Garcia, none of whom lack defensive discipline and it was using this formation City became the current Premier League champions. City’s lack of progress in Europe this season has been due to muddled tactics and naivety, not to mention a group containing Real Madrid, Ajax and the excellent Borussia Dortmund, rather than the players at Mancini’s disposal or a lack of energy or ability in midfield.
The current drive to add extra creativity to the top sides in the Premiership is of course welcome, no-one begrudges the idea of watching a team made up of the likes of David Silva, Oscar or Shinji Kagawa, and despite the growing trend of top sides discarding those classic English-style, all-action midfielders for something more Barcelona-esque, they will no doubt make up the top four come the end of the Premiership season. What managers of those sides, looking for success against the best sides in Europe need to remember though is, even Barcelona at their most effective under Pep Guardiola played Yaya Toure and Seydou Keita in a role aimed at breaking up play to enhance their tactic of pressing opposition high up the pitch, something Barcelona have actually missed in recent times.
The game has changed dramatically since those early days when football was exclusively confined to the fields of England’s finest schools, but there will always be a place for that athletic, dominant player running the show from midfield. Its time may come, but there’s still life in the midfielder yet.
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