By Kevin Koczwara
Frank Lampard has been out injured since Aug. 28 with a hernia problem. His absence was suppose to be two weeks, it has now been 12 weeks since Chelsea’s captain has been sidelined. During that time he has recovered from his hernia problem, but has been struggling with a groin strain and will be out another three weeks.
Lampard’s injury troubles could spell trouble for Chelsea in the coming weeks as the team looks for pivotal, timely goals that the England international scores on a regular basis. Lampard finished last season with 22 goals, fifth best in the Premier League, and 17 assists, most int he EPL. Those are some gaudy numbers for a midfielder, and Chelsea hasn’t found a way to replace them while he’s been out this season.
Michael Essien did a stellar job filling in for Lampard, but his two-footed challenge into Clint Dempsey in the dying moments of Chelsea’s 2-1 loss to Fulham, got him sent off and suspended, rightfully so. Without Essien or Lampard bombing into the box or fighting for goals in the closing moments of the game, Chelsea has become a one-dimensional team.
Chelsea has been able to adapt to its opponents since Abramovich invested so much money in the world’s top talent. The Blues had players who could fit into any puzzle its managers wanted to create or solve. There had been a wealth of depth in the midfield and a few key attacking players who can break down defenses with lighting pace, skill and power. Now, the team has a short bench and with the injuries to Lampard and Yossi Benayoun – acquired from Liverpool in the summer – the rampaging Blues are looking toward a young crop of players to fill in for the veteran Premier League players, while trying to find a new formula for consistent success.
One thing Chelsea has done so well over the last few years has been the interchange play between the striking core and midfield. Florent Malouda and Nicolas Anelka are wide attacking players who like to drop deep and receive passes while opening up space for other players to run into. Lampard excels at filling the space and running onto the ball into the box. Benayoun as well, but no Chelsea players would know because the medical staff misdiagnosed an injury and now he is out for an extended period of time. Departed players Joe Cole, Michael Ballack and Deco – all let go for free on Bosmans – were skilled midfielders who could drift into the space vacated by Anelka and Malouda and give great service to Didier Drogba in the box.
Abramovich hoped the highly scouted and talented youngsters he has snatched from around the globe would pan out this season and give Ancellotti a younger, more vibrant bench. He also thought pushing the youngsters at the Italian’s disposal into the first team would prepare them for the upcoming seasons. Too bad the likes of Daniel Sturridge, Gaël Kakuta, Fabio Borini and Joshua McEachran haven’t been able to fill the void left by the the likes of Ballack, Cole and Deco, because on paper it looked like a great idea. What team doesn’t want to get younger players onto the field who can outrun their opponents and bring new life into a side, besides maybe AC Milan. But the process is harder than it seems, and Abramovich is finding out the hard way.
Ramires was Abramovich’s big summer signing from Benfica. The Russian wanted a deal for Fernando Torres of Liverpool or Edin Dzeko of Wolfsburg, but both players decided to stay with their clubs. So, Roman settled for the next best player on the market, Ramires, and the whole thing hasn’t worked out, yet.
Chelsea needs players who fit into this system of quick passing, high-pressure and constant movement soccer. Ramires is a passer who lies deep in the midfield, not a player who makes runs into the box or gets out wide to cross the ball. He can deliver a killer ball from his own half, but he isn’t a Lampard type player, and that’s what Ancellotti has been trying to make him – kind of like Roy Hodgson is trying to make Raul Meireless a winger at Liverpool. When Lampard returns from injury or when Michael Essien comes back from suspension, whatever happens first, Ramires should settle into the Chelsea midfield next to John Obi Mikel.
The problems with Chelsea right now don’t all hinge on Lampard’s injury, though. The team is in first place, but its lead continues to shrink, and the recent injuries to Alex and John Terry in the center of the defense is a concern for Blues fans.
Sunderland ran at Paulo Ferreira and Branislav Ivanovi?, both full backs forced to play in the center of the defense with the lack of depth at the center back position for Chelsea. Ferreira and Ivanovi? were unable to contain Danny Welbeck and Asamoha Gyan. With the sale of Ricardo Carvalho, the Blues lack the necessary depth to sustain a long run of injuries for its top two defenders. If Ancellotti and company can’t clean up the back line and defend against Birmingham next week and Newcastle in two weeks – with a Champions League match with MSK Zilina in between – then things could really start to get ugly around Stamford Bridge.
Kevin Koczwara can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.