With just over a week to go until the first ball is kicked of the 2013/2014 Premier League campaign, Jose Mourinho has a few selection headaches at Chelsea. The Portuguese possesses a highly flexible, well rounded squad that has variation in style, experience, age and ability in all departments, but the pre-season schedule, involving tours of Asia and the United States, hasn’t allowed enough opportunity to separate the wheat from the chaff, or decide on a consistent game plan.
With that in mind, we take a look at the Chelsea roster, as well as Mourinho’s traditional philosophies, to determine what will be the blueprint at Stamford Bridge next season.
For the vast majority of Chelsea’s pre-season action, Mourinho has lined up his starting XIs in either last term’s 4-2-3-1 formation, centred around a trio of attacking midfielders, or his more traditional Blues model of 4-3-3, with a holding midfielder and the two wide men acting as winger-forwards. So far, the Portuguese remains undecided, and it appears that the two methodologies of play will be Chelsea’s ‘Plan A’ and ‘Plan B’ next season.
Which style gets priority could depend heavily on the Wayne Rooney transfer saga. The Blues recently had a £30million bid rejected for the England international, but still have plenty of room left in their summer budget before they have to conclude that Manchester United’s valuation is too unrealistic. Should the striker turn up at Stamford Bridge this summer, it will most likely force Mourinho’s hand to play a 4-2-3-1 formation.
Rooney is powerful and robust enough to play as a lone striker in an offensive three, but the notion of out-and-out widemen never went down well at Old Trafford under Sir Alex Ferguson, with the Scot much preferring a flat midfield four. Swapping to 4-3-3 could be too much of a change for the 27 year old, and similarly, his playmaking qualities and ability on the ball would suggest that it makes sense to get as many of Chelsea’s attacking players, the likes of Eden Hazard, Juan Mata and Oscar, as close to Rooney as possible to build intricate link-up play, rather than opting for a more sparse and direct style.
Similarly, it seems to be the formation that will get the best out of Chelsea’s wide selection of attacking midfielders, with Mourinho free to choose from Hazard, Mata, Oscar, Frank Lampard and Kevin De Bruyne as well as Rooney, who can be deployed deeper and wider than his preferred striking role when required.
That being said, if the Rooney deals fall through, Mourinho might feel more inclined to play 4-3-3 in order to get the best out of his remaining front men, Fernando Torres, Romelu Lukaku and Demba Ba. The Spaniard, like Rooney, would much prefer having three playmakers in direct support, but Lukaku and Ba on the other hand are two very physical strikers that could benefit from a more lonesome role and an accompanying direct style of play.
The 19 year old Lukaku has been raring to go since the end of last term, where he netted 17 times on loan to West Brom, whilst Ba has been a regular fixture in Mourinho’s starting line-ups during pre-season, despite regular murmurings that he could surplus to requirements next year.
The Blues acquired Andre Schurrle this summer for £18million before Mourinho’s arrival, who should provide some diversity and natural width on the left flank when deputising for Eden Hazard, and the Portuguese has also discussed changing Juan Mata’s role slightly next season, presumably moving him from central attacking midfield to the right wing, where he can cut inside to bring in added goals.
The only thing we can take for granted about Chelsea’s formation next season is that Mourinho will field a flat back four. Cesar Azpilicueta will most likely retain his right-back slot after a thoroughly impressive and progressive inaugural campaign in England, and Ashley Cole will certainly be one of the first names on the team sheet due to his abundance of experience, but could undertake a slightly more adventurous role after rarely venturing past the half way line last term. How often he joins the attack however will depend on whether the Chelsea gaffer can bring out a greater defensive discipline in Eden Hazard or if he decides to deploy three central midfielders to provide added cover.
Centre-back on the other hand is more of a perplexing issue. Branislav Ivanovic and Gary Cahill generated a strong understanding at the end of last term whilst David Luiz flirted with the idea of becoming a central midfielder, but next season the Brazilian will most likely be moved back into the heart defence at the expense of one of the two. Despite rumours of a move to Barcelona or Bayern Munich, I foresee Luiz taking up a key role next season, and will be allowed to venture from the back in a similar style we saw from Sergio Ramos during Mourinho’s tenure at Real Madrid.
John Terry’s persistent knee problems means he can only be used sparingly, despite Mourinho’s adoration of the 32 year old, but he could still be utilised for key fixtures. That being said, a partnership with Luiz remains unlikely due to the pair contrasting heavily in terms of pace, and a defensive duo of Terry and Cahill on the big occasions seems more likely.
The Old Guard and the Young Bucks
Since the Special One’s departure in 2007, the Blues have continually attempted to modernise and adapt from Mourinho’s original mechanical style, but a strong contingent still remain at Stamford Bridge from the Portuguese’s first tenure who could be rewarded with more prominent roles next term.
John Terry’s immobility will limit his game-time as previously mentioned, but he will be trusted more to slot in at the back than he was under Rafa Benitez, and John Obi Mikel, who fell out of the limelight last season as David Luiz took up his midfield role, could feature heavily next term, especially during the big occasions, as he did during the Chelsea gaffer’s first spell in West London.
Michael Essien too, returning from a season-long loan at Real Madrid, is clearly in Mourinho’s favour after making 34 appearances in all competitions for Los Blancos last season, and will most likely find himself filling in across the defence and midfield whenever the situation requires or the Portuguese feels he needs a more physical element.
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But along with reinstating some of the old guard, Mourinho will have to make room for Chelsea’s young bucks; one of the major criticisms of the Abramovich era has been the club’s inability to successfully foster young talent through to the first team. New signing Marco Van Ginkel is itching to impress and has played regularly in pre-season in a deep midfield role, suggesting he’s in the Blues gaffer’s plans for next term, and Kevin De Bruyne too, will be expecting a fair share of action after Chelsea turned down the opportunity to send him out on loan for another year following his strong campaign with Bayer Leverkusen last season. The Belgian international is regarded as a potential heir to Frank Lampard at the tip of midfield, and could feature heavily if Mourinho opts for a 4-3-3 system.
Romelu Lukaku too, will want to make his mark this season following last year’s 17 goal haul at West Brom. The 19 year old showed enormous potential whilst at the Hawthorns, and Mourinho will be intent on making sure he receives enough time on the pitch as possible, despite strong competition for places from Demba Ba and Fernando Torres, as well as potentially Wayne Rooney. If Lukaku isn’t given a starting role, he’ll almost certainly be second in the pecking order, as his height, power, pace and aggression provides the Blues with great diversity in terms of how they can play.
The Blues have great scope for regular rotation in their roster, most likely motivated by last season’s hectic schedule that saw the average squad member play in excess of 50 games. Mourinho will seek to exploit Chelsea’s versatility and depth rather than shy away from it, but a few central figures will remain constant throughout the season.
Juan Mata and Eden Hazard remain Chelsea’s focal points in attack, but both could take up different roles next term. Mata is expected to be utilised out wide, whilst Hazard could take over the Spaniard’s role at the tip of midfield after Mourinho stated earlier this summer the Belgian needs to have a greater impact next season, especially in terms of end product.
David Luiz will also be a central figure of the first team, allowed to join the attack relatively freely with the Chelsea defense and holding midfielders ready to accommodate for the gaps the Brazilian is set to leave behind. Petr Cech remains the first choice between the sticks, but at the other end of the pitch, it appears the single striker slot is up for grabs to whoever can claim it as their own, although Rooney’s expected arrival will most see him prioritised over Torres, Ba and Lukaku.
Frank Lampard on the other hand, despite leading the club’s scoring charts next term, will most likely not be depended upon as a regular starter. The 35 year old has to be weaned out of the first team sooner or later, and has so far made just one appearance in pre-season due to a heel injury. The England international’s experience, leadership skills and goal contribution will remain useful tools at Stamford Bridge, but he could find himself regularly sacrificed to allow Marco Van Ginkel and Kevin De Bruyne more game time.
So what does it all mean?
A lot of information, but what does it all mean? We’ll firstly, and most importantly, whether Chelsea play a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3 next term will largely depend on Rooney’s acquisition, but either way, the Blues will operate much wider in comparison to last season, with scope for Hazard and Mata to both drift in from the flanks as a regular source of goals, and Victor Moses and Andre Schurrle providing natural width whenever deputising.
At the back, Mourinho will most likely play Cahill and Luiz together as his most naturally speedy defenders, with the Brazilian given licence to move forward on the ball. Ashley Cole and Cesar Azpilicueta will remain in the full-back slots, and Thibaut Courtois’ loan extension leaves Petr Cech as the undisputed first choice in goal.
In midfield, Mourinho will rotate due to his wide collection of central midfielders, but judging on pre-season alone he appears to favour Van Ginkel, whilst Mikel remains Chelsea’s most natural holding midfielder. Ramires’s fate could depend on formations, with him on the right side of a 4-3-3 being surely his best-fitting role. That aside, the remaining slots will be rotated through Lampard, Oscar, De Bruyne and Essien, depending on whether or not the Blues boss opts for a central attacking midfielder.
In attack, everything is still up for grabs, and it depends on what striker finds themselves best suiting to Chelsea’s style. With added width next term, the nod could go to Lukaku to take up first team duties if Rooney doesn’t arrive this summer, especially if Mourinho adopts a more direct approach. But whoever scores most regularly will surely dominate the lone striker slot, which in turn could affect the way Chelsea play, or at least alter the roles of Mata and Hazard in midfield.
Overall, it’s a merger of Mourinho’s traditional 4-3-3 philosophy and the more creative 4-2-3-1 ethos that developed at Stamford Bridge last season, that will try and firstly address Chelsea’s limited width, and secondly their lack of shape off the ball. The central figures in the first team remain Mata, Hazard, Luiz, Oscar, Cole and Cech, but the other slots will on the most part be open to rotation. Up front, Mourinho will remain undecided until he knows whether or not he’ll be able to sign Wayne Rooney, but if the deal falls through, Lukaku will be granted a starting place over his team mates if he can return the Chelsea’ gaffer’s faith in goals, suggesting a more direct style to accommodate the Belgian.