By Tom Gott | Oct 29, 2020, 10:45 AM GMTMateo Kovacic is the answer to Chelsea’s problems | Quality Sport Images/Getty Images
That word has plagued Chelsea this season. When they’re good going forward, they’re bad at the back. When they’re good at the back, they’re underwhelming in attack.
Consecutive 0-0 draws with both Sevilla and Manchester United were the start of this narrative, and even Wednesday’s 4-0 win over Krasnodar showed signs of it.
Chelsea lacked energy in Russia | MB Media/Getty Images
During the first 45 minutes, Chelsea were sloppy in possession. Passing was largely uninspiring and there was a real lack of movement, with the Blues’ goal only coming thanks to some dire goalkeeping from Matvey Safonov.
The only positive for Chelsea in that opening half was the performance of Mateo Kovačić, who was a one-man wrecking crew trying to move the ball forward.
Kovačić has been out in the cold a little this season as Frank Lampard has searched for some defensive stability in midfield. It’s Jorginho and N’Golo Kanté who have taken all the minutes at the base of a 4-2-3-1, and that’s understandable as they are the Blues’ two best defensive midfielders.
Kanté is one of the best in the world when it comes to recovering possession, but he’s vulnerable when tasked with staying in one position and anchoring a midfield. It’s why Jorginho has had to play alongside him – to give Kanté a little more freedom and avoid exploiting his weaknesses.
Kante’s weaknesses make it impossible to play Kovacic | Quality Sport Images/Getty Images
The issue with that midfield is it is not progressive enough. Kanté isn’t great at carrying the ball forward and Jorginho does his best work when standing still. There’s no urgency from either, but that’s where Kovačić comes in.
The Croatia international could well be the finest progressive midfielder on the planet. He’s capable of picking the ball up from deep and drifting through the lines to connect defence and attack, and that’s exactly what Chelsea need.
Kai Havertz, Hakim Ziyech and whoever else is playing for Chelsea in attack need that extra support from the midfield duo. They’re usually just left to feed off crosses from the full-backs, which doesn’t get the best out of them.
The problem for Lampard is playing Kovačić runs the risk of weakening the defence. The 26-year-old isn’t the best defender around (nor has he ever claimed to be), so he’s not much help to Kanté. The pair started against West Brom and were 3-0 down after 45 minutes.
Kovacic brings everything Chelsea lack | DeFodi Images/Getty Images
The boss is well aware of the pros and cons of playing Kovačić, but truthfully, it’s all to do with the pros and cons of playing Kanté, whose role as Chelsea’s sole defensive midfielder has created countess problems for Lampard.
Lampard prefers to set his team up in a 4-3-3, with two progressive midfielders in the central trio. Post-lockdown, it was Kovačić, Mason Mount and Ross Barkley who shared those minutes, and Chelsea looked better for it.
The issue with that is that Kanté is deployed on his own at the base, and as we’ve already established, that’s not a sustainable way to live.
That’s why Lampard pursued a new pure defensive midfielder like Declan Rice during the summer. He knows Chelsea need someone with more positional discipline, but as of yet, he doesn’t have that someone, so he’s trying to survive with Kanté and Jorginho in a 4-2-3-1.
Lampard has looked for other solutions | STRINGER/Getty Images
The pair are good enough at football to put in a good shift, and Jorginho does at least have a good eye for a pass, but there’s no movement. There’s no urgency. Kovačić is needed.
Kovačić keeps Chelsea continuously moving forward, and as we saw in his debut season alongside Eden Hazard, he can be devastatingly impressive when bouncing off a creative forward. He’s a real weapon who needs unlocking.
Chelsea are missing Kovacic’s ability to advance the ball | Marc Atkins/Getty Images
Lampard is stuck between a rock and a hard place. If he plays Kovačić, Chelsea can be sloppy at the back and the boss will face plenty of criticism. If he doesn’t play Kovačić, Chelsea can be poor in attack and the boss will face the same level of frustration. He can’t win.
What’s clear is that Chelsea’s midfield needs somebody with Kovačić’s skill set. If the expensive forwards are to shine, they need the Croatian’s help.
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