Chelsea’s key player in winning the Premiership last year? Frank Lampard. Liverpool’s inspiration in winning the Champions League? Steven Gerrard. Arsenal’s driving force in their unbeaten season? Patrick Vieira. Manchester United’s iconic player since the retirement of Eric Cantona? Roy Keane. This is the age of the central midfielder, and that being so, Chelsea’s domination looks set to continue as the new Premiership season begins on Saturday.
While the champions can still field the trio that proved so effective last year – Claude Makelele, Frank Lampard and Tiago – bolstered by Lassana Diarra and, possibly, if the longest and most tedious transfer saga of the summer ever drags itself to a conclusion, Michael Essien – each of the other three sides with realistic title aspirations have questions to answer in the engine room.
It is Arsenal who have suffered the most obvious loss, with Vieira sold to Juventus for £13.7m. If there is any consolation to Arsenal fans over his departure, it is that manager Arsène Wenger has proved an astute salesman in the past – Nicolas Anelka, Marc Overmars and Emmanuel Petit netted a combined fee of more than £50m and have done very little since – but even he spoke of the squad having to “regroup” after the shock of the transfer.
It may be true that Gilberto Silva was the midfielder whose absences through injury caused Arsenal most difficulties last season, but, even with the Brazilian’s unfussiness in place at the back of the midfield, Arsenal’s flamboyance will be based on even flimsier foundations than it has been in the past. Nobody doubts the talent and potential of Cesc Fabregas and Mathieu Flamini, but neither has Vieira’s brute power. Wenger has taken a midfield already brilliant but brittle, and, by adding Belarus playmaker Alexander Hleb and selling Vieira, made it more brilliant and more brittle.
Wenger’s problem is that, as the Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson has discovered in trying to unearth the new Roy Keane, there just are not enough technically gifted holding midfielders to go round. Eric Djemba-Djemba and Kleberson both proved unequal to the task and have been sold, and while Darren Fletcher’s ball-winning qualities should not be underestimated, he is never going to wingames by force of will alone.
The financial realities of the Glazer takeover mean Michael Ballack – hardly a like-for-like replacement anyway – will only arrive from Bayern Munich when he is available on a free transfer next season, so Keane will rage on against the fading of the light, with United forced into such exigencies as suggesting that Alan Smith’s aggression could be transferred from forward line to midfield.
Liverpool, having held on to Steven Gerrard, look better equipped in central midfield than anybody apart from Chelsea, although their captain presents his own problems. He is widely recognised as England’s most complete midfielder since Bryan Robson, but there is a sense in which that makes him harder to deploy. His ball retention is not good enough to operate as the anchor – at least not in Rafael Benitez’s cautious philosophy – and so doubts endure as to his suitability as a partner for the elegant Xabi Alonso in the centre of a four-man midfield.
They were exposed against AC Milan in the Champions League final, and it was only when Dietmar Hamann was introduced at half-time that Gerrard had the platform from which to launch the forward surges that ultimately proved decisive. It is presumably with the option of a central trio in mind that Benitez offered Hamann an additional year’s contract, and signed Mohamed Sissoko, a young Malian regularly compared with Vieira, from Valencia.
Chelsea, of course, are already practised with three in the middle, Makelele holding, Lampard getting forward and Tiago filling in the gaps. Essien’s arrival could only strengthen them further. The system, both resolute and flexible, was all but unbeatable last season, and with additional personnel, there is little reason to believe it will not be so this.