Jose Mourinho may have proclaimed during a recent press conference on Chelsea’s pre-season tour of Asia that its ‘Rooney or bust’ for the Blues’ transfer policy this summer, but I myself remain unconvinced.
There is more necessity to the potential deal than the Portuguese would have you believe, and failing to sign Rooney will not end Chelsea’s summer transactions. Mourinho sees a new front man as vital to the West Londoners’ incoming campaign, where the target will be to reassert themselves as Premier League title contenders, and should the move for the England international not pan out as planned, the Chelsea boss will almost certainly do his best to find a viable alternative, a stop-gap solution at cheap cost, before the summer transfer window is called to a close at midnight on the 2nd of September.
The purchase of Rooney, or else a hypothetical cheaper counterpart, will bring Chelsea’s tally of natural strikers up to four, alongside Demba Ba, Romelu Lukaku and Fernando Torres. But is there enough room for such a broad selection of forwards at Stamford Bridge, or should Mourinho trim and streamline his strike force, with an emphasis on quality over quantity?
A lack of firepower was undoubtedly the biggest hindrance to Chelsea’s previous campaign, with the constant media circus surrounding the club coming a close second. But even if the West London outfit spent the year in cosmically balanced, harmonious and peaceful conditions, their strikeforce’s inability to find the net on a consistent basis nullified any long-term threat they had in the Premier League title race. Fernando Torres and Demba Ba notched up just ten domestic goals between them last year, and Jose Mourinho will be desperate not to make the same errors amid his returning campaign to England.
Similarly, a number of top clubs have learned their lesson from last term regarding a lack of flexibility and depth in all departments. Chelsea weren’t the only major team to fall victim to the ‘two-strikers bug’, with Tottenham also falling short of their closest divisional rivals due to taking short-cuts in key positions. Just as the Blues relied upon Fernando Torres and Demba Ba with little success – rather bizarrely selling Daniel Sturridge to Liverpool last January in the process – the Lilywhites’ hopes in the final third, excluding Gareth Bale, were centred around their only two senior strikers in Jermain Defoe and Emmanuel Adebayor.
It’s become a trend which I personally can see little benefit from. Even amid the current fashion of utilising formations that only have room for a single natural forward, there are undoubtedly times in the season where a manager will require two, three or even four goal-scorers on the pitch, such as chasing down a single-goal lead with ten minutes to go, and not having a full range of strikers at their disposal only disallows gaffers from taking such an all-or-nothing approach, that could turn a loss into a draw, or a draw into a victory.
Just look at Manchester United and Manchester City last term, who both started the year with four front men, all coming with their own individual variations and all at different stages of their careers. It allowed them to remain competitive in attack for all 38 Premier League fixtures, whilst Tottenham were forced to field Clint Dempsey up front against Newcastle following Emmanuel Adebayor’s delayed return from the African Cup of Nations, and Chelsea became dependant on their midfield and defence for goals.
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But should the Blues acquire Wayne Rooney, they’ll now have three strikers all in their peak years and impatient for regular action, in addition to 20 year old Romelu Lukaku, who himself is eager to impress after a successful campaign on loan to West Brom. If game-time were shared evenly, that’s nine starts each domestically, whilst even including auxiliary competitions, which saw the average Blues player involved in around 50 fixtures each last season, it will be difficult for any Chelsea forward to make more than 30 appearances, and subsequently reach the 20 goal mark.
Jose Mourinho has already outlined the importance of any striker to be a first-choice for the club ahead of the 2014 World Cup, and with Torres, Ba and Lukaku all fighting for places in their national set-ups, whilst Wayne Rooney is keen to sharpen up ahead of the international tournament in Brazil, the Portuguese may be forced to sell on one of his front-men for the benefit of their careers.
But who’s in line for the scrap heap this summer, and who is guaranteed to be in the Chelsea gaffer’s plans? Well, considering the Blues have already turned down multiple offers to farm out Romelu Lukaku for another year, it’s safe to say the Belgian will be a big part of the Chelsea first team next season.
Mourinho is intent on giving the West London club’s young cast a long-overdue shot at senior action at Stamford Bridge, but Lukaku possesses a distinct advantage over his loanee compatriots simply due to his proven capability within the Premier League, recording 17 goals on loan at the Hawthorns last season.
The 6 foot 3 striker is the only forward on the Chelsea roster that wouldn’t have looked out of place during Mourinho’s former reign as Blues boss, and in his raw strength, pace and power, provides a distinct alternative in style to Ba, Rooney and Torres. The 50 year old head coach has discussed on Chelsea’s pre-season tour that his tactics next season will be centred around the Blues’ current 4-2-3-1 and his more traditional 4-3-3 system, and Lukaku by far represents the best option for the latter formation, capable of holding up the ball or making opportunities to score on his own, with obvious comparisons to Didier Drogba, the master of the lone, goal-scoring target man. Lukaku’s direct style and connection to Mourinho’s traditional Chelsea model make him the Portuguese’s ‘Plan B’ for next term, whilst the scope of his potential could see him become first-choice by the end of the season.
For Fernando Torres however, the future is not so certain. Jose Mourinho has described his contribution at Stamford Bridge thus far as ‘so-so’, not necessarily implying he will be flogged to the highest bidder in the summer, but suggesting the club’s patience with the Spaniard is wearing thin. The £50million flop recorded twenty goals last season for all competitions, but with just eight coming in the Premier League, Mourinho will be expecting a drastic improvement as he makes the domestic title his first priority, following two years of continental success from the Blues.
At the age of 29, with just 34 goals since January 2011 and three years still left to wind down on his current contract, from a business point of view, it makes sense to put Torres out to pasture this summer and recuperate as much of Roman Abramovich’s failed £50million investment as possible. But Mourinho adores a challenge, especially those of a psychological nature, and will relish the opportunity solve the Torres conundrum, providing better performances and healthy goal tally in the process, whilst his predecessors have continually failed to do so. Never the less, the incoming campaign will undoubtedly be Torres’ last chance in West London to prove himself.
By default, that appears to leave Demba Ba. The Senegal international has struggled to impact since jumping ship from Newcastle last January, with just two Premier League goals for the Blues so far in his Chelsea career. Similarly, unlike Fernando Torres, Wayne Rooney and Romelu Lukaku, who have shown versatility to their game by playing on the wing when required to do so, Ba’s worst form throughout his three years in England undoubtedly came when Alan Pardew pushed him out wide to make room for Papiss Cisse at Newcastle.
Ba’s biggest weakness, which goes some way to explaining why he’s limited to playing as a striker, is his overall lack of guile on the ball. Lukaku represents a powerful frame for the likes of Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar to play off of, Fernando Torres and Wayne Rooney often come deep to get involved in build-up play, but Ba, despite measuring in at 6 foot 2 and possessing relative pace, is very much a goal-scorer and little else.
That being said, the instinct of a natural poacher is a rare quality that is often unteachable; it’s an intrinsic skill, a manner of reading the game that is difficult to improve upon or train for, and can bring huge rewards. Furthermore, Ba’s total of 42 goals in 93 appearances in England exceeds the strike-rates and goal-to-game ratios of Fernando Torres and Romelu Lukaku over the last three years, suggesting he is overall the most in-form and consistent of the trio, at least in recent campaigns. Mourinho would be foolish to throw away such a proven Premier League striker just for the sake of it, and would surely rather have the 28 year old remain in the Chelsea camp than align with a divisional rival.
By my estimates, despite regular rumours suggesting Demba Ba and Fernando Torres will be leaving the Blues this summer, Mourinho will opt to hold on to all four of his natural strikers. As previously stated, it’s a blueprint which the two Manchester clubs have adopted over the past few years, and it has so far done neither side wrong, whilst the only way to effectively compete with such either team’s well-invested strike force is to match or better it, in terms of quality and numbers as well as depth. Lukaku, Torres, Ba and Lukaku all represent different styles of play and strengths and weaknesses, but their collective versatility should be of great use to the Portuguese, provided he selects the right man for the right task, depending on the opponent.
By Christmas however, I believe at least one will have to be tossed to the wayside, or make a formal transfer request, simply due to the fact that all four cannot receive a satisfactory amount of game time, considering their ages – Torres 29, Ba, 28, Rooney, 27 and Lukaku, 20. At that point however, the Mourinho philosophy in terms of tactics, formation and approach, for the coming season will in full effect at Stamford Bridge, giving the Portuguese a clearer picture of who fits the squad and who is surplus to requirements in West London.
Should Chelsea keep all four of their strikers next season?
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