Continuing to look at the Chelsea squad this season, a look at the midfield area is next on the list. The midfield of the Blues is quite a puzzle to solve because it’s not quite clear yet how Antonio Conte is going to deploy his midfield even though preseason has concluded.
Prior to the last two friendlies, Conte has often used a two-man midfield in a shape resembling a 4-2-4, but since the second half of the friendly against AC Milan, he’s reverted to more of a three-man midfield in a 4-3-3 shape, playing that exclusively in the final friendly against Werder Bremen.
With a week to go, it’s safe to assume that 4-3-3 is probably how the Blues will set up, and it probably offers the greatest number of options in lieu of signing another striker.
The addition of N’Golo Kante has given Chelsea a midfielder with a ton of versatility that the Blues haven’t really had since the injuries/departure of Michael Essien. As much as Kante says he doesn’t want to be compared to Claude Makelele, that comparison is the most valid. The Frenchman is quite adept at reading the space and the play around him, breaking up moves when necessary, but he’s also shown a wonderful ability to switch the play from deep when needed.
His energy and ability to carry the ball forward in a similar fashion to Essien also means that a two-man midfield is possible, although it’s becoming more clear that his midfield teammates may not quite be suited to that system.
As seen in preseason, Conte does seem very fond of Nemanja Matic and restored the Serbian’s confidence, but what’s also been seen is that he’s not very quick around the pitch when asked to cover the ground in a two-man midfield, and when he sits deeper, he’s also not very effective in dictating play. Quite similarly, Cesc Fabregas is very good at dictating play, but like Matic, isn’t really suited to covering ground for 90 minutes.
To get the best out of both of those players, the switch to 4-3-3 seems to have been effective because it allows Kante to sit and hold, while allowing Fabregas the ability to play more as a number 8 than a number 10, and the third midfielder being more of a box-to-box player who sits a bit deeper.
In that system, Matic’s place could come under threat by the improvement shown by Nat Chalobah. Matic has had his struggles as a box-to-box player in preseason, and Chalobah has shown that he might be ready for a chance in the first team after various loan spells over the past few years.
Also, the demise of Oscar may have been a bit premature, and it’s looking likely that he’ll stay, unless a massive offer comes in. Oscar didn’t have the best season last year and hasn’t quite adapted to a deeper role, but he’s the only midfielder other than Fabregas that offers any sort of creativity from midfield, which is sorely needed, especially after seeing last season’s performances from the tandem of Matic and John Obi Mikel.
Where the midfield/attack area does get a bit easier to predict, yet also provides a few questions, is the wide players. The use of 4-3-3 means that the two first choice players will likely be Eden Hazard on the left and Willian on the right. The players that will be chosen as squad players behind them gets a bit murky, though.
At the moment, Pedro, Victor Moses, and Juan Cuadrado were all part of the squad that travelled to Germany on Sunday. The question is whether Conte will keep all three of them in the squad, or if he’ll elect to loan/sell one of them before August.
Out of the three, Victor Moses has been the most impressive this preseason, showing a directness and willingness to take on defenders and put crosses into the box that hasn’t always been seen from Chelsea’s wide players. Since his move from Wigan, he’s gone on multiple loans, but it may be time to recall him to the squad. Also, Juan Cuadrado is a player that Conte likes, but he’s been attracting interest from Italy once again and could be sold for the right price.
But it’s entirely plausible that all three will be here after the 31 August deadline. If Conte doesn’t add another fullback, which looks to be the case at this moment, there is room in the squad for an extra wide player, particularly because Cuadrado is capable of playing wing back if needed. But is there enough playing time to keep them all satisfied? That is something that remains to be seen.