Chelsea FC: Nemanja Matic Ban Highlights Weaknesses


Nemanja Matic, the rock and foundation of the Chelsea FC squad, will miss the most important game of the Blues season thus far, the Capital One Cup final, on Sunday, at Wembley, against Tottenham.

Matic and Cesc Fabregas have paired together to form the midfield pivot of Chelsea’s 4-2-3-1, with Matic’s defensive strengths allowing Fabregas to control the offense. Indeed, while Fabregas, Oscar and Willian have all slipped in and out of the side, Matic has remained, missing just one game the whole season (the 2-1 loss at Newcastle; many attributed the loss to Matic’s absence).

He has been paired not just with the more attacking Fabregas, but also, successfully, with John Obi Mikel — a player in his mold — and Ramires. All three pairings have worked brilliantly, and all three have been focused on Matic. The side depends on him sitting in front of the back line.

When Matic is on his game, he is able to do just that, covering John Terry and Gary Cahill’s problems with pacey strikers. Often, when Branislav Ivanovic is marauding up the wing, Matic will drop into the right back slot, covering for Ivanovic as well.

It is notable that in Chelsea’s two losses in the Premier League, this season, Matic was absent, either in body or in form. Against Newcastle, the Serbian was suspended for yellow card accumulation. Papiss Cisse tore apart the Blues back line on the counter with his speed. Then, a month later, Chelsea got hammered on the road against Spurs, the very side this final is against, 5-3.

Harry Kane scored a brace, having pulled Gary Cahill out of position, and then blowing by him, time and again. Normally, Matic would have stopped Kane from picking up speed, but the Serbian was off his game that day, and Chelsea paid a heavy price for it.

In light of how integral Matic is to Chelsea’s chances, the fact that he is going to miss the final, rightly or wrongly, has put much doubt in Blues fans minds, especially after January’s poor result. Although Spurs have consistently lost to Chelsea in the Premier League, never having won at Stamford Bridge, the recent form of Mauricio Pochettino’s men has heightened tensions.

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What should Chelsea do without Matic?

It seems like Chelsea should just replace him like for like, with John Obi Mikel. However, Mikel is not expected to make the team, because of a lingering knee issue.

Ramires is next in line to slot in beside Fabregas. However, this presents some problems. Fabregas is, obviously, a more attacking player, and someone of a more defensive ilk is needed beside him. But Ramires enjoys a good jog up the pitch, as David Luiz did, and this would leave acres of space for Kane to roam.

The answer to the problem, in my opinion, comes not just from finding a replacement from Matic, but also some other changes to the side.

Firstly, I believe that Mourinho should change to from the normal 4-2-3-1 formation, to a 4-3-3. This would set the team up more defensively, and give more cover to the center backs.

Secondly, and I know this won’t go down well, but Ivanovic should be dropped, just for this game. Although he has proved himself a scorer of “big goals,” the Serbian right back leaves open spaces in the defense the size of Rob Ryan. I argue that Cahill is so often to blame for giving up goals not because of his pace, but because he has to cover his area and Ivanovic’s, nearly half the field, and some four opposition players.

Nemanja Matic’s heat map against Tottenham last season. He clearly dominated the midfield, and dropped back as a fifth defender on occasion (via MatchZone).

Move Cesar Azpilicueta to right back, his natural position, and then slot Filipe Luis into the left back slot. Both are defensive improvements on Ivanovic, and this would help neutralize Kane and the rest of Tottenham’s pace. Then bring in Kurt Zouma, for Cahill; Zouma’s ability to deal with pacey players, namely Sergio Aguero and Raheem Sterling, as well as his big game ability, is already proven.

The three up front should be Eden Hazard, on the left, Diego Costa down the center, and Juan Cuadrado on the right. This would allow Chelsea to make use of the incredibly weak Spurs back line with pace and power.

Back to the middle. The three should be played as a defensive midfielder, with two attacking midfielders, similar to how Chelsea played in the early Mourinho years. Fabregas and Oscar will slot into the attacking roles well. But, Ramires won’t sit back like Matic would, so an unconventional and unproven choice is required: Nathan Ake.

Ake has played in a Champions League match and several domestic cup games, but doesn’t have extensive experience, and while this may seem to be the automatic disqualifier, you should hold on for a minute. Remember Ryan Bertrand, now the left back for Southampton?

He was given his Champions League debut by Roberto Di Matteo, in a game of no major importance: the 2012 final, in Munich, against Bayern. And he played great. Fantastic. He helped shut down Arjen Robben.

Ake could be similar. He normally plays as a center back for Chelsea’s youth teams, but came on in Fabergas’ place against Maribor. He would sit patiently, and cut out dangerous balls to Kane. It would be a great story, and would take attention away from the controversy surrounding the club.

Depth Problems:

Matic’s absence will once again highlight Chelsea’s major weakness as a squad: depth. The XI that the Blues consistently field is one of the best in Europe, and although they have a plethora of goalkeepers, and at least one or two replacements in every position, losing a member of that XI for crucial games is not just painful, but possibly fatal.

This is felt in defensive midfield especially. Although Mikel and Ramires are able backups, they aren’t people you would hope to win silverware with.

Mourinho has seen this, and chased Sami Khedira, Real Madrid’s midfielder, and a near carbon copy of Matic. If the Blues had Khedira now, there would be no worry.

Even more high profile, though, is the courting of Juventus starlet Paul Pogba. Pogba would probably be starting over Matic, or at least Oscar, and thus there would be an almost seamless transition without Matic.

This summer, Mourinho will almost certainly chase Pogba, Khedira or another holding midfielder. Chelsea have the XI to win the Champions League, and the Capital One Cup, but could use a deeper bench, one that can match Madrid, Bayern and Barcelona. A backup and competitor for Matic’s place would be a step in the right direction.

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