Sebastian Huyke discusses Chelsea’s potential midfield options.
Chelsea are on the verge of missing out on the Champions League for the second time in the last three years. Who would have thought that the side who smashed the Premier League win record on their way to securing the title just last year would find themselves five points off the top four with eight games to go? It is no secret that the Blues have been a mere shadow of their 2016-2017 selves, and although far from the sole reason, it must be said that the considerable decline in central midfield quality has played a crucial role in their downfall.
Last year, Chelsea undoubtedly had the best midfield in the league. The explosive and supremely efficient PFA Player of the Year N’Golo Kanté was beautifully complemented by the dominant yet calming presence of Nemanja Matić. Such a physically imposing duo played to the strengths of chief creative genius Cesc Fàbregas, allowing for frequent rotation and even a chance (although admittedly not significant) for Nathaniel Chalobah to showcase his talent. The Blues had struck the perfect balance, and Antonio Conte was in dreamland until the Chelsea board gave him a rude awakening.
The sale of Nemanja Matić destroyed Conte’s midfield dynamic, and Chelsea have suffered this year for it. Just think back to the game away at City, when in the absence of N’Golo Kanté it was only men against boys. Despite bringing in Tiemoué Bakayoko and Danny Drinkwater, there is a softness at the centre of the park that is historically uncharacteristic of this club. Finding a replacement for Matić must be a top priority during the summer. So, who is the best man for the job? In this article, I explore what I believe to be the best viable options to fill the Matić-sized hole in our squad.
If Chelsea are serious about joining the Manchester clubs at the elite level of British transfers, Saúl Ñíguez would be a huge step forward. A consistent starter at the base of midfield for Spanish giants Atlético Madrid and having played in a Champions League final, Saúl has the kind of experience most footballers can only dream of at just 23 years of age. Energetic, dynamic, intelligent, and technically excellent, he is equally adept in attack and defence. His presence would certainly augment the Blues’ midfield options. His exploits at club level, as well as with the Spain U-21 national team, have rightfully earned him myriad admirers, but Atleti have been savvy and tied him down to a huge 9-year contract in July 2017. It may cost Roman an absolute truckload of cash, but if anything, less than £100m could tempt Los Colchoneros, it may well be worth it in order to see him light up the Bridge alongside N’Golo.
Lazio’s strong bid for a Champions League spot in Serie A has come as a surprise to many. But with a midfield dynamo of the ilk of Sergej Milinković-Savić, anything is possible. The Serbian has taken the world by storm since arriving from Genk and is currently in the midst of his best-ever season, hitting nine goals and three assists in 26 appearances in the league. Powerful, energetic, and full of flair, Milinković-Savić carries an impressive attacking threat that has been absent at the Bridge since the days of Frank Lampard. Additionally, he would take some of the creative weight off the shoulders of Eden Hazard and Cesc Fàbregas and would contribute to Chelsea’s speed of transition between defence and attack. Manchester United and Real Madrid have reportedly been monitoring the player, and he would come with a hefty price tag. But in a time when Chelsea desperately need quality over quantity, Sergej Milinković-Savić would be more than worth the investment.
To my surprise, when Zenit St. Petersburg announced the signing of Leandro Paredes last summer, barely anybody blinked an eye. A player who is massively naturally gifted, anyone who watched Roma often in 2016-17 shares the opinion of Roberto Mancini and myself, and had it not been for Roma’s financial struggles, I am confident that he would still be playing a crucial part at the Stadio Olimpico today. With a dribbling ability similar to that of Moussa Dembélé and an underrated eye for a pass, Paredes is incredibly talented and a genuine joy to watch. He has successfully transferred his excellent form to Russia and looks certain to be picked up by a bigger club sooner rather than later. Why not Chelsea, then? Paredes would undoubtedly be available at a price Chelsea can handle, so there should be nothing getting in the way of an approach by the board. Make it happen, Roman Abramovich.
What if the solution to our midfield crisis was already within our books? The signing of Tiemoué Bakayoko was met with mixed reviews from the Chelsea faithful. Some were upset that Nathaniel Chalobah was not given a more prominent role and never really rated Bakayoko, while others were confident that the Blues had unearthed another gem from the French league. He began performing well and, after the first couple of months, fans were singing his name and praising the board for replacing Matić with a younger player at a profit. Almost a year on, however, Bakayoko has struggled to prove his supporters right. He has too often been a liability for Chelsea at the centre of the park, consistently losing the ball in dangerous positions and occasionally switching off in defence. But it is important to remember that this is only his first season in England, that he has flashed excellent potential and that, at 23 years old, he has time on his side. With more experience and solid man-management, I hold that Bakayoko will come good. After all, he has the stamp of approval of none other than Claude Makelélé. Who are we to doubt the greatest defensive midfielder to grace the Prem?
A bit of a wildcard shout, nonetheless, a deserved one. It is apparent to everyone but the Chelsea hierarchy that the club’s academy produces some of the best young talents in world football. In my opinion, none currently at the club are as ready to play a role in the side as Ruben Loftus-Cheek. We have seen glimpses of him in a Chelsea shirt, but never has he been given a sustained opportunity to perform. Add to that the fact that Jose Mourinho and Antonio Conte have played him continuously out of position AND his unfortunate injury record, and you cannot help but feel sorry for the guy. When deployed as a central midfielder, the Englishman brings comfort on the ball, exquisite playmaking skills and a strong, physical presence. Moreover, he is one of the top dribblers in the league this year and is perfectly capable of contributing in attack while not ignoring his defensive duties. It may be against Chelsea’s nature, but giving Ruben Loftus-Cheek a chance could prove to be a wise decision for the Blues and would that would free up millions of pounds to invest elsewhere.
What are your thoughts? Let us know!
Written by Sebastian Huyke