The future looks bright for Chelsea’s midfield

For the first half of this season, things didn’t appear too promising at Chelsea. Despite his insistence to the contrary, the Chelsea manager did not look happy about his return and the team weren’t playing particularly well. Mourinho continued to insist that reason that they were playing such bad football was because they were trying to play more attractive football. However, the impression was that he didn’t quite believe in this new style.

Defeat to Sunderland in December proved to be his Rubicon. Mourinho shifted the emphasis back on defence and the team now looked to do damage on the counter. The fit has appeared to be a comfortable one and Chelsea no longer look like a team trying to be something they’re not. However, in finding this solution Chelsea have made an uncomfortable discovery: you can’t counter-attack teams that don’t attack you. This problem was apparent again against Tottenham at the weekend, a game in which the scoreline flattered the Premier League leaders who barely created anything for almost an hour. The good news for Chelsea is that the solution may already be in their midst.

In a week in which Samuel Eto’o’s age made the headlines, Marco van Ginkel’s return from injury slipped largely under the radar. The Dutchman had been ruled-out since September when he damaged ligaments in his knee playing in the League Cup. The incident felt like a cruel blow for the young midfielder who only agreed to join Chelsea in the summer after being assured of game time from Mourinho. And given the high importance of the remaining fixtures, it’s unlikely he’ll get much more time on the pitch before the season ends. However, the future looks bright for van Ginkel, who may yet prove to be the perfect partner for the newly arrived Nemanja Matic.

£22million aside, Matic’s performances since rejoining Chelsea would almost certainly guarantee him a place in Chelsea’s first-choice midfield. However, Mourinho’s recent rotation would suggest that the role of his partner is still open for auditions. Frank Lampard’s declining mobility means his effectiveness his continuously diminishing and John Obi Mikel’s flirtations with Galatasaray in the summer may mean the Nigerian is close to an exit from Stamford Bridge. Ramires would undoubtedly be a part of any best 11 at this moment, but for all the Brazilian’s industry, he remains one rung below top quality. Unless Chelsea pursue another central midfielder this summer – something which would seem unlikely given the outlay on Matic and need for a centre forward – there would appear to be an opportunity for van Ginkel to stake his claim for a starting role.

One of the strongest arguments in favour of van Ginkel comes from the greater demands that the ‘4-2-3-1’ system puts on the central ‘two’. Unlike in a ‘4-4-2’ in which the central midfielders tended to operate a ‘one sits, one goes’ policy, or the ‘4-3-3’ in which the two CMs have the benefit of a defensive midfielder behind them, the ‘4-2-3-1’ tends require its central midfielders to be more all-rounders.

Primarily, their first objective is to protect the back four, with the onus of creativity more heavily weighted on the front four. However, if these two central players are unable to be proactive going forward, then the team can become quite predictable and easily shut-out by the opposition. This is the problem that Chelsea have regularly encountered this season. The passing has often been too slow and lateral when the opposition have been allowed to get themselves set up defensively. Van Ginkel’s range of distribution is arguably the best at the club – with the potential exceptions of Luiz and Lampard – and could go a long way to alleviating this problem.

Where the Dutchman  has the upper hand, over Lampard at least, is his athleticism. And it seems that the importance of physicality in football is again on the increase. Almost as if a response to tiki-taka, the style now in vogue is one that marries ability on the ball with physical prowess. While many saw Barcelona in their pomp  as being unplayable, in theory at least, this combination of strength and skill is always going to be superior. At over 6ft tall, strong in the air and with good speed across the ground, it would appear that van Ginkel has the attributes necessary to be this modern midfielder.

The benefits of alloying comfort on the ball with the physicality to hold players off it are far-reaching. The combination of these two skills gives the players in front of the midfield the confidence to run beyond the ball as they know it’s unlikely to be lost. This is one area in which van Ginkel certainly has the edge over David Luiz, whose casual style makes him prone to giving away the ball cheaply. The importance of the rest of the team having confidence in their central midfielders’ ball-retention must be even greater in a team that likes to play on the counter as much as Chelsea do.

So it would appear that van Ginkel has the requisite skill-set to make a serious claim to be Nemanja Matic’s midfield partner. In a season that continues to look brighter for Chelsea as the games roll-on, the Dutchman’s return from injury represents one bright spark that is yet to be realised.