It was gutting to lose Michael Essien to a serious knee injury in close season. On his day there are few better midfield enforcers in the world, his power, drive and ability to grab hold of a game will be sorely missed from our midfield during the next six months. As ever with knee injuries it can be an unknown quantity as to whether the player will return back to their full fitness and pre-injury form. If anyone can make that recovery again it is Essien, he’s a tough customer, and we wish him the speediest of returns to full fitness. However unfortunate Essien’s injury is it might just be a small blessing in disguise to rethink how our midfield will work for the season ahead.
Last season we had the power of Essien and Ramires, a superb engine room, but there was a lack of creativity in the centre at times. Of course Mikel is more than capable of stepping into the midfield anchor position without missing a beat but the loss of Essien gives us an opportunity to put a more creative force into the centre. Villas-Boas has been very astute to size up the options in the current squad before splashing out in the market for any new additions. We might already have the perfect replacement in our ranks. Firstly Yossi Benayoun has recovered sufficiently from his injury-plagued first season to be a real contender as a forward thinking midfielder, aka the Luka Modric role. Just like the Croatian playmaker he has tight control, technical skills, the drop of a shoulder to glide pass players and also the eye for a threaded pass. For quite a few games towards the back end of the 2009-20010 season Ancellotti played Malouda in a deeper position at the left, or the point, of a midfield three. I always liked him in this position as Flo’s first thought is often to turn and run at the opposition. As Giggs demonstrated so well last season (no, not that) dribbling from a central position can cause problems. It was a shame that Malouda was not played there more often as ball carrying could be an effective way to change the pace of the game, drag defenders out of position and create space.
The final option open to Villas-Boas is to utilise the promising talent of McEachran further up the pitch. Ancellotti saw the youngster as a Pirlo in waiting, a deep-lying playmaker who could take the ball from the back, spray the ball about and dictate the game. I think this is a role that McEachran may well develop into in time but at this early stage of his career he might be better getting on the ball higher up the pitch. Firstly the midfield anchor role is often targeted and pressurised by the opposition to break up play at an early phase of play. With other midfielders committed further forward there is a lot of pressure not to lose the ball in these areas as well as pivotal defensive responsibilities. A player with more experience, Mikel, Ramires or perhaps even Luiz, would be a safer pair of hands. As an attacking midfielder Josh would be encouraged to use the ball much more creatively and, with less defensive burdens, some minutes in this position would surely boost his development as a playmaker.
Interviews have suggested that Villas-Boas is seriously considering these options and looking at how we can tweak the dynamics of our midfield to open up more creativity. A player such as Luka Modric would of course fit perfectly into the preferred 4-3-3 system but we do already have the cover and talent in our ranks to cope with the loss of Essien. It looks as though transfer dealings, other than the addition of promising young keeper Thibaut Courtois, might just go down to the wire again. In the meantime let’s see what Benayoun, Malouda, Obi Mikel and McEachran can make of that available midfield position.