DURBAN, SOUTH AFRICA - JUNE 28: Gregory Van Der Wiel of the Netherlands and Miroslav Stoch of Slovakia in action during the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa Round of Sixteen match between Netherlands and Slovakia at Durban Stadium on June 28, 2010 in Durban, South Africa. (Photo by Steve Haag/Getty Images)
Amidst all the whisperings of potential Chelsea moves last winter, one stuck out. Widely repeated, this rumour had the Blues going after young Ajax and Holland right back Gregory van der Wiel. Van der Wiel, whom Steve profiled in may, isn't one of football's flashiest names, and he certainly didn't have the sex appeal of the likes of Alexis Sanchez and Neymar. What he was (well, I suppose he still is) was a solid, reliable, two way right back who'd probably come relatively cheap. For a team like Chelsea, that would be a huge benefit.
And now summer has come, a good chunk of it is over, and we haven't hear anything about him. Nor have the Blues been associated with another available name at right back. Sammy Inkoom? Nope. Davide Santon? Double nope. After all of that fuss during the season, why aren't Chelsea pushing for help on the right side? Let's try to work it out, starting with a brief history lesson.
Throughout last season, Chelsea were plagued by a lack of width on the right side. Branislav Ivanovic is a fine defender - and he served brilliantly at right back during the 2009/10 campaign while the rest of the team was working well, but last year, whle the team slumped, he wasn't able to contribute significantly to the attack from open play. It's not that he was any worse, but without the support structure around him functioning properly his shortcomings on the attack were horribly exposed.
No attacking presence from the right back means that the right winger is exposed, and when Nicolas Anelka is having a bad game, he tends to drift centrally. This habit means that defences can concentrate their efforts on Chelsea's left, where Ashley Cole and Florent Malouda were somewhat neutered by all of the attention. This cascading reaction occurred during that horrible barren run in November and December of 2010, and complaints about an 'unbalanced' attack were being voiced even before things started to go all pear-shaped.
The imbalance isn't an innately bad thing. After all Ivanovic was the right back for a team that won the Premier League and FA Cup in 09/10 while setting records along the way. But whenever there's an imbalance, strengths and weaknesses emerge, and when a team is able to blunt the strengths and attack the weakness, Chelsea are in trouble.
The way to deal with this, one would think, would be to play an attacking fullback instead of the more defence-minded, no-nonsense Ivanovic. That answer could have been Jose Bosingwa. It was, after all, what he was brought in for in 2008, and before his injury at Villa Park 20 months ago he was a fine two-way player. Now he's back, but while his attacking presence is still more than adequate, his defence has deteriorated to the point of embarrassment. Another imbalance.
So, what's the solution (don't say Paulo Ferreira)? A new right back, one who can attack and defend competently? Sure, that'd work. Gregory van der Wiel would be more than welcome, surely.
But it's important to remember that there are other ways of dealing with this issue than simply buying Inkoom or van der Wiel. It's wonderful that we have one of the best left backs in footballing history shuttling up and down the left for us, but that often makes us forget that we don't have to have a right-sided clone of Ashley Cole plying the other flank in order to succeed.
Cole's presence, of course, allows the winger in front of him (usually Florent Malouda as of late) to cut inside and dominate play. Chelsea's front three enjoys moving around, with both wide players cutting in and the central forward popping up all over the place. This style is facilitated by overlapping fullbacks, and this is why the fans want to see one acquired.
But there are other ways of playing that don't call for so much from the defenders, and there's no reason than Andre Villas-Boas' Chelsea couldn't go down that route. You don't, for example, need your right back to be a touchline-hugging speed demon who can defend if you have a winger in front of him who stays very wide and spends a lot of time crossing. An old-school wide player, if you will.
Right now, though, we have neither a two-way right back or a right winger who prefers sticking to the flank rather than coming inside. So should we be concerned that Chelsea haven't been associated with a new right back in forever? No, not really. Should we be worried about the lack of a Antonio Valencia-ish right winger? Again, no. There is a specific problem and many possible solutions, not all of which I'll understand. But, I think, we should be worried that an obvious problem has so far gone unaddressed.
This is probably the most interesting question of the preseason. How exactly is Andre Villas-Boas going to deal with the fact that the team as it stands cannot do much of anything down the right wing while maintaining defensive integrity? A tactical tweak might work and a personnel change would probably be effective, but we'll just have to wait and see what Chelsea end up coming up with.