After Chelsea crashed out of the Capital One Cup at Sunderland back in December, JoseMourinho's admission that the club may need to take "one step back" in order for the club to progress long term was a turning point.
While he did not explicitly say it, this was the Portuguese's biggest hint that he did not believe it was in this Chelsea team's best interests to play the brand of attacking, expansive and ambitious football that Roman Abramovich wants. Instead, the Blues returned to action against Arsenal in the very next game in a more defensive-minded 4-3-3, with a clear aim to avoid defeat rather than set out to overwhelm their opponents with their flair-filled attack.
It signalled a return to the reserved, rather unexciting but distinctly effective counter-attacking style of play that many associate with Mourinho. At the Emirates they had just 39 per cent possession but managed nearly twice as many attempts on goal as their opponents. It may well have been that result coupled with the defeat in the north east a few days earlier that convinced Mourinho that another option was needed in central midfield, and ultimately triggered the re-signing of Nemanja Matic.
The 25-year-old Serbia international, used as a makeweight to bring David Luiz to Stamford Bridge back in January 2011, returns to London as the ball-winning central midfielder that Mourinho believes Luiz cannot be for the club.
The Brazilian has played the holding role in Chelsea's last two matches, both of which they won, and given his performances and the criticism he receives for defensive lapses at centre-back along with his undeniable technical ability, it is something of a surprise that Mourinho is so adamant he is not suited to playing there more often.
However, in his two appearances in central midfield this season, Luiz did not make a single tackle, so maybe his manager has a point.
Matic, meanwhile, will bring tackling ability to the heart of the Blues midfield. At over 6'4" he cuts an imposing figure but it isn't in the air that he excels. Winning only eight of the 20 aerial duels he contested in the Champions League group stages this season, that clearly isn't the reason for Mourinho pursuing him.
He did though, make a combined total of 26 tackles and interceptions, which is four more than any Chelsea player managed. After Ramires (22), Frank Lampard was the Blues' next best central midfielder in this regard, with just 15.The England international has adapted his game with his advancing years to play a deeper role, but he is primarily a 'ball-player' rather than a 'ball-winner', and isn't mobile enough for the holding role.
Ramires, meanwhile, has been tested as the deepest player but is less effective when made to sit deep, and arguably is not even disciplined enough to do so adequately. An all-action midfielder, he can play in the double pivot in a 4-2-3-1, but is more suited to having a holding player (Matic) behind him and a passer (Lampard) alongside.
Ramires has been directly involved in only three Premier League goals this season (one goal, two assists), and with another body in central midfield would be granted extra freedom which may benefit the team on the break, as well as significantly strengthening the side without the ball.
John Obi Mikel is another option, and has proven recently that he is capable of getting forward too, mostly with the Nigeria national team. Not only did he end a near seven-year goal drought for Chelsea this season, he then went on to score again only a couple of months later.
The crux of the matter is that with Matic's arrival, there is someone else to play the deepest role in a 4-3-3 and many more options now available to manager Mourinho. With the climax to the season approaching, fatigue setting in and the fixture pile-up building, Matic seems the perfect fit for a Chelsea side that were arguably one signing away from being genuine title challengers. With the other contenders not yet dipping into the transfer market, Chelsea are one step ahead.
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