Chelsea Must Solve Midfield Puzzle Quickly

New-look Blues lack organisation and purpose
10:55, 20 Aug 2019

At Old Trafford on the opening weekend, Chelsea began brightly but were picked apart on the counter-attack by Manchester United on the second half. It was a similar story seven days later at Stamford Bridge, as the Blues took the lead against Leicester City but were left hanging on in the closing stages.

In the end Brendan Rodgers’ side were unable to find a winning goal, and Frank Lampard collected his first point as a Premier League manager. But there is plenty for the former Derby County boss to work on if Chelsea are to finish in the top four this term.

In both of their top-flight matches so far in 2019/20, Chelsea have been extremely vulnerable to opposition transitions. Leicester created several chances in the second half on Sunday, and they could have fashioned even more scoring opportunities had they been a little more accurate with their final pass. James Maddison continually found space between the lines, with Jamie Vardy’s speed pushing the home team’s defence deeper and Chelsea’s full-backs often caught high up the pitch at the same time. 

As Jamie Carragher illustrated on Monday Night Football, part of the problem is the Blues’ lack of organisation in possession. Whereas sides like Manchester City are very structured when they have the ball in order to guard against quick turnovers, Chelsea have hitherto been guilty of leaving large swathes of space in front of their back four. N’Golo Kante is the Premier League’s most energetic player and its foremost ball-winner, but even he has struggled to close the vast gaps quickly enough.

Interestingly, Kante has continued to be deployed as one of the two outside shuttling midfielders in Lampard’s 4-3-3 formation. When the former England international took the job, it was widely expected that he would restore Kante to his so-called favoured position in front of the back four, the role previously taken by Jorginho under Maurizio Sarri.

This, however, was always a misreading of Kante’s role: under both Claudio Ranieri at Leicester and Antonio Conte at Chelsea, the Frenchman was used as part of a midfield two, with his respective partner (Danny Drinkwater followed by Nemanja Matic) more of a sitting player. 

Either way, Lampard will know that Chelsea need to tighten up in the weeks ahead. The most noticeable stylistic change so far concerns the team’s increased willingness to press high up the pitch, a policy which brought a tangible reward at the weekend when Mason Mount pinched possession from Wilfred Ndidi and opened the scoring. 

Yet Chelsea’s success in this regard has tended to decline as their games have worn on. In the two first halves they have played so far, the Blues have made 28 tackles; after the break against United and Leicester, they have made only 18. There are other factors at play, of course, and it is not uncommon for teams’ intensity to drop off as players begin to tire, but the evidence up to now suggests that Chelsea must do better at guarding against opposition counter-attacks.