Last weekend, Bayern Munich stretched their lead at the top of the Bundesliga after recording a convincing 3-0 result over nearest challengers Borussia Dortmund on their own patch. After the full-time whistle, coach Pep Guardiola paid tribute to one particular component of his exceptional team – the midfield.
A simplified version of events, of course, but one that his old nemesis Jose Mourinho would have had no objections to; the Portuguese’s teams in the past have been built on structured, hard-working midfields getting the basics right. And yet, Mourinho’s second coming at Chelsea has not replicated this template.
The Blues continued their shaky run of form with their second defeat to Basel in as many months, as Mohamed Salah’s late strike earned the Swiss side a priceless Champions League victory. The late autumn and early winter wobble is becoming something of a tradition in west London.
When onlookers take a step back, though, Chelsea don’t appear to be in a precarious position at all. On the contrary, the Blues are third in the Premier League – just four points behind leaders Arsenal – and have qualified for the knockout stages of the Champions League, despite the loss in Switzerland.
But worrying cracks have appeared and expanded – particularly in the all-important midfield area. Against Basel, Mourinho opted for a trio of what can be considered holding midfielders, with Frank Lampard, Ramires and John Obi Mikel – who was excellent against West Ham United last weekend – all picked to start. The idea was to win the midfield battle against Basel’s own three-pronged core.
But it backfired. Ramires, usually so energetic and eager, had a poor game by his standards while Frank Lampard, perhaps tired after his excursions at Upton Park, looked every one of his 35 years. As a result, Basel annihilated the Blues in the centre of park, with Mikel unable to cover for his under-par teammates.
Mourinho has been on the end of criticism for failing to rotate his squad, and to some extent that is warranted. Indeed, he made just one change from the starting line-up that beat West Ham for the Basel match. But as the Chelsea manager clearly felt he had to go with three men in midfield, his options are starkly limited – especially with Michael Essien having been overlooked for the Blues’ European squad.
All in all, Chelsea are looking extremely vulnerable in the middle of the park as they prepare to enter a stage of the campaign which even Mourinho says ‘only the brave can survive’. With everything decided in midfield, he’ll need to demonstrate every ounce of that bravery whilst rotating in December.
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